Even with numbers, words mean things

2 min read
people working
First Published: 
Mar 2010

Key Learnings contained in this article:

We’ve all seen our share of silly headlines. Indulge me – my favourite one from just this week: ‘California state senator says he’s gay after DUI arrest’ (msnbc.com). Who knew that arrest for drunk driving changed one’s sexual orientation?

A surprising one from the BMJ: ‘Restricting sales of barbecue charcoal helps in suicide prevention, study says’. I had to read the article to figure out why barbecue charcoal would in any way increase the risk of suicide. As it turns out, suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning induced by charcoal burning in a sealed room was a ‘popular’ form of suicide in the late 1990s in Asia and is now beginning to occur outside Asia. Maybe the editor wanted an ambiguous headline, to prompt me to read the article?

We can laugh about these editorial blunders (except perhaps the senator), but they become a more serious matter when health or money is at stake.

I am forever trying to impress upon the millennial generation that words mean things, and in a world of abbreviated, impersonal, asynchronous communication, clarity is sine qua non. And although mathematics and scientific proofs in general often are described as elegant or beautiful, because of their inherent logic and order, they can be also be used to mislead. Careless miscommunication is one thing; misleading the audience is another story.

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Mary Gabb
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