Simplistic

rogersgeorge on November 29th, 2016

Simplistic is an important word to understand, both its definition, and recognizing it when it happens.

Lots of times people say “simplistic” when they mean “simple,” but they want to sound more high-falootin, so they use the longer word. I call this behavior pretentiousism. “Simplistic” means oversimplified. Too simple. Important details left out. (That means you shouldn’t to say “over simplistic,” either.)

You need to recognize oversimplification because simplistic content creates pitfalls that can lead to misunderstanding, even error. Whenever you write to explain something, be alert about leaving out necessary details. At least mention that those details exist. If you’re writing to influence, not merely inform, being simplistic is a powerful tool. It enables you to leave out details that contradict your point.

Here’s a good example of  being simplistic from an enjoyable comic about life in academia, PHD Comics:

Remember, please, that I’m writing about the language, not about the politics.

Let’s look at the first number. We generally understand rounding, so that’s okay. But that 1% actually tipping the scales is not so simple. The votes would have to be distributed pretty specifically to succeed in turning the tide. If 1% more people had voted Democrat in California or Delaware, those votes would have made no difference. It’s extremely unlikely that that 1% would have been effectively distributed in real life. The 1% is a mere statistic, not something that could realistically have happened. I should add that the persuasiveness of the number becomes a lot weaker if you say something like “1% properly distributed among key states would just barely have tipped…” I suspect Jorge Cham would expect his thoughtful readers to figure out this detail on their own. See why you need to be able to recognize oversimplification when it happens?

The second number. (I’ll ignore that the description should have “who” instead of “that.”) And remember, I’m describing the language, not the politics.

  • The first simplistic thing is “didn’t bother.” I can imagine a lot of reasons why people didn’t vote besides not bothering to. Disgust with both major candidates, physical handicap, schedule conflicts, illness, and so on. Does this 44.4% apply only to the folks who didn’t bother, or does it include everyone who didn’t vote?
  • Realize also that about half of them would have voted some other way than Democratic, too. Not pointing out this diversity of opinion doesn’t acknowledge that important detail.
  • The number has three significant digits! It doesn’t match the other number. Using more digits isn’t exactly oversimplification; what it does is increase the emotional impact of the number, especially next to the one-digit number. Darrell Huff’s classic How to Lie with Statistics calls this sort of thing statisticulation, and this is such a good example, I have to point it out.

Do you see that being simplistic can be a powerful tool of persuasion? Always be alert for left-out details.

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Beware Statistics

rogersgeorge on August 23rd, 2016

You know the old saying about three kinds of lies, Lies, Dirty Rotten Lies, and Statistics. (Okay, the second one uses a four-letter word). Statistics are tricky (or dangerous) because you can truthfully describe something and still mislead. In high school I read a book, How to Lie with Statistics  by Darrell Huff. It’s a pretty good intro to the topic. I ran into an article the other day that can illustrate the trickiness of statistics two ways. First the passage in question:

The researchers found that compared to participants who watched TV less than 2.5 hours each day, deaths from a pulmonary embolism increased by 70 percent among those who watched TV from 2.5 to 4.9 hours; by 40 percent for each additional 2 hours of daily TV watching; and 2.5 times among those who watched TV 5 or more hours.

Sounds dangerous, doesn’t it? A 70% increase! Here’s the misleading part: What’s the percentage of getting the embolism in the first place? It turns out to be roughly one in a thousand. So a 70% increase of that is still less than two in a thousand. Not so bad now, eh? The trickiness is that

even a large increase of a small amount is still a small amount.

We’re not finished. Let’s look at absolute numbers instead of percentages. The population of the US is about 319 million. That makes that one in a thousand to be roughly 319,000. Add 70% to that and it’s more than half a million! How would you like to pay the medical bills for half a million people? The principle here is that

if the numbers are large enough, even a small percentage is still pretty big.

For an engaging book that goes into these and other principles for understanding statistics, I suggest How not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg.

So what does all this have to do with expository writing?

When you write, make sure you don’t mislead your readers.

A Math Lesson

rogersgeorge on July 5th, 2016

(ahem) Normally I write about English and writing, but I saw a comic strip with such an important math lesson, that I have to share it. Getting back to writing, many times a good illustration (read graph) makes a written point clear, and clarity is one of the five golden principles of good expository writing. I read a book once titled How to Lie with Statistics. It’s a good book; you should read it. On the Fastrack is a comic about some people in an office; this gal is the bean counter, and she got talked into giving a lecture at a school to encourage girls to get into math. This comic makes one of the points in that book.

On the Fastrack - 06/24/2016

When you include an illustration in your writing, be sure it tells the truth!