Ambiguous measurement in the media

A couple of weeks ago I was listening to the 7am news bulletin on National Radio and heard the phrase “five times deeper than”. It was part of a report about a new earthquake detector installed in West Auckland. The phrase caught my attention because it’s ambiguous. Strictly speaking, “five times deeper than” should mean “six times as deep as”, but I think most people would probably assume it means “five times as deep as”. Judging by the report, which states the depth was 250 metres, it seems likely that the actually did mean “five times as deep as”, which would have put the original figure at a nice, round 50 metres instead of a confusing 41.666666666666666666666666…. metres.

It’s unusual to hear this kind of ambiguous grammar on National Radio (at least the parts that I listen to), and to be fair they were supposedly quoting a GNS Scientist. Inaccurate, misleading and ambiguous grammar is rife in other New Zealand media, however, particularly around maths and logic. There’s an aversion to good maths and logic in New Zealand journalism, and I find that frustrating because it’s opening up information to be mis-interpreted when there’s no need for that to happen.

At least when it’s not selling viewers attention to advertisers, the media is supposed to be clearly communicating information. For instance, exactly what does “10 times smaller than 30 metres” mean? Strictly speaking, the only thing that the phrase could mean is -270 metres, but this result often won’t make sense. (eg. If your ladder is 10 times shorter than my 30 metre ladder, it makes no sense to conclude that your ladder is -270 metres long.) What’s probably meant is 1/10th of 30 metres, or 3 metres, and this is what most people will interpret it as, I guess. It’s still wrong – what should have been stated in the first place was that your ladder was 1/10th the length of my ladder.

On a related topic, Stacey and I have been watching the BBC Planet Earth documentary on DVD lately, narrated by David Attenborough, unless you get one of the later Americanised versions in which I’ve heard his commentary was replaced by Sigourney Weaver. This is the first nature series I’ve watched with Attenborough as a narrator during a time when I’ve been old enough to appreciate it. The BBC and Attenborough both have good reputations for educational programming, but I have to admit that I’ve been left wanting.

The series itself is impressive considering the amount of effort to which producers and camera crews went to get the footage and produce the show, but I have to admit I’ve found David Attenborough’s commentary really annoying to listen to. His enthusiasm’s obvious, but he’s very imprecise in nearly everything he says. To be fair, this is a series about extremes. The whole point is to show the coldest versus the hottest next to the largest versus the tiniest of the Earth’s extremes, and show how species have adapted to living in such varied conditions. David Attenborough’s commentary frequently uses superlatives, but it’s also needlessly imprecise, at least in my own opinion. This includes seemingly arbitrary switches between metric and imperial, superlatives every second word with no base measurement of comparison.

For an example, here’s a representative extract of the introduction to one of the episodes we watched recently: Seasonal forests.

This is the Taiga forest. There are as many trees here as in all the world’s rainforests combined. The Taiga circles the globe and contains a third of all the trees on Earth. It produces so much oxygen that it refreshes the atmosphere of the entire planet.

There are a couple of issues that I have with this passage already. The claim that the Tiaga contains as many trees as all the rainforests combined gives no definition of what constitutes a “tree”, especially since a tree in the Tiaga is unlikely to be at all similar to a typical rainforest “tree”. I’m not trying to suggest that the commentary should start giving pedantic definitions, but if it just gave a couple of numbers to make it possible to weigh the difference, it’d be more meaningful. Furthermore, the claim that the Tiaga “produces so much oxygen that it refreshes the atmosphere of the entire planet” is meaningless because there’s no context. A time-frame would be very useful here, because I could easily argue that given enough time, my back yard would probably produce enough oxygen to refresh the atmosphere of the entire planet.

Okay, so it’s not quite as awful as some of the earlier Disney Nature documentaries which were largely fiction yet presented under the guise of being factual, but I wonder if it’s getting that way. I have trouble seeing what’s so difficult about giving proper units of measure and bases of comparison. Planet Earth is good, but with some minor changes it could be so much better.

Anyway, that’s just my own impressions. The series seems to have a lot of support from all over the place, and this is just my own small gripe.

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