Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Shifting Base

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Shifting Base

Article excerpt

A front-page article in today's morning paper boldly proclaims that "Sex twice a week appears to lower men's death risk" and then warns of the dangers of trusting statistics that might have a shifting base. (1)

The study in question involved 918 men in Caerphilly, Wales, between the ages of 45 and 49, selected for good health according to physical exams that included electrocardiograms and blood tests, grouped into three categories based on their frequency of sexual activity, and then watched, so to speak, for one decade, during which time 150 died, 45 from heart disease.

Mortality was highest among the group having sex less than once a month. Mortality was 25 percent lower for the intermediate group and 50 percent lower for the group having frequent sex.(1)

The main conclusion, says the article, seemed to hold even after adjusting the findings for various confounding factors. Nevertheless, it went on, the three groups may well have differed in physical activity, alcohol use, psychological problems, or in other ways, and these unmeasured factors may have contributed to good health, or perhaps good health drives sex rather than the other way around.

Obviously, if the three groups of men differed qualitatively on factors other than sexual activity, then we couldn't take the mortality rates based on the groups as related to sexual activity alone. To do that, we'd need assurance that the three bases, the men in the three groups, differed in no significant way from each other except degree of sexual activity.

The Mathsemantic Monitor sincerely wishes he could report that taking such care with possibly differing bases represented the usual practice. Unfortunately, it doesn't. Indeed, we often seem to lose the whole idea of bases, sometimes failing to state any base, or stating it not clearly enough, and at other times shifting from one base to another with total abandon. As cartoonist Bill Hoest has put it, "I want a dozen 'Think Metric' signs, each about 16-by-24 inches." (2)

You may have seen the recent reports that the "trans fat" in stick margarine has a worse effect on your heart than butter.

The researchers calculated that people could reduce their risk of heart disease by 53 percent if they replaced 2 percent of the calories they take in from trans fat with calories from unhydrogenated, unsaturated fats. This would require virtually eliminating trans fat from the typical diet. (3)

A careful reading raises the question, "How can a 2 percent replacement require a virtually 100 percent elimination?" Well, it can't. The first sentence confounds the base. The unstated base of the 2 percent has to consist of your total calories, even though it misleadingly reads as 2 percent of your trans-fat calories. The unstated base of the second sentence includes only your calories from trans fat. Therefore the 2 percent and the 100 percent seem to contradict. We can make the apparent contradiction disappear simply by stating the first base plainly enough, say by adding eight words to the ending of the first sentence, "...if they replaced virtually all of the 2 percent of their total calories that they now take in from trans fat with calories from unhydrogenated, unsaturated fats." This slight mathsemantic clarification would also make the second sentence redundant, thereby saving a net total of three words.

Sometimes comparisons shift bases too cleverly to reflect only a lack of mathsemantic clarity. How about one that manages to slip in three different bases in one paragraph? (emphasis added to show progressive change in base)

In 1910, only 5 percent of Americans attended college. After World War II, the G.I. Bill opened doors for the middle class. By 1950, 40 percent of all high school graduates went on to college. Today, more than 90 percent of all parents want their children to go to college, according to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. (4)

The progression from 5% to 40% to 90% stands out. …

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