Thursday, February 07, 2008

When Magic 8-Balls go bad

This was a pretty clueless bit of prose even before the Romney announcement today:

North Carolina will matter after all.

The stressfully tight race for the Democratic -- and, to a lesser extent, Republican -- presidential nomination makes it almost a mathematical certainty that neither nominee will be selected by the time North Carolina holds its primary on May 6, a whimsical improbability a month ago.

1) Write thee not about what "will" happen unless thy travels have taken thee forward, yea to the event in question, and back again, and thou hast thy notes with thee and left them not in the Tardis or anything.
2) "Stressfully" is what happens when a writer reaches into the Adverb Bag at random and punches in the result. Whom is this race "stressfully" tight for? (Yes, that's that damn "can you demonstrate a relationship between your prose and the empirical world?" question again.) Do you wake up stressed by it? Do Democrats? Republicans? The candidates, to any degree they wouldn't if it were in some meaningful way "looser"?* "Stressfully" is the sort of adverb that gives honest, hardworking modifiers a bad name.
3) Trouble is, political decisions are political, not mathematical.
4) Only if you have no idea what "probability" means and what it does. First and foremost, we don't have any probability-based data to indicate whether the nominating contests would be settled by May. We have some self-report data (nationally and in some states) about what people said they would do, and we have some exit poll data (also self-reported, though it covers what people said they did) to compare that to, but neither of those addresses "will the race be settled by May?" The only "whimsical" thing would be looking at the survey data, with all its limitations, and inferring that both parties would necessarily have selected a candidate by the date of the North Carolina primary.

It's bad writing, sure. But editors were put upon this earth to ask writers what they mean by bad writing, and if the writers can't provide something to support their woolly assertions, execute an adverb an hour until they give in.

* Try it at home! Insert the random adverb of your choice into the sentence and see if it isn't just as good!


Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Sigh. Wednesday I walked past the Giant Wall O' TVs at work and heard one CNN Headline person say, faux-playfully, to another: "We were supposed to have a nominee now. What happened?" and she said to him, "Well, what happened is that nothing we thought would happen did." (or words to that effect, I didn't write them down).

I wish the news guys and gals would stick to tell us what happened - maybe with a good educated idea of what it means - and stop telling us what's going to happen. Especially when they get authoritative about the future.

5:43 AM, February 08, 2008  

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