Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Innumeracy and Politeness

This morning ISC chat had a discussion of various typists' real-world financial difficulties. My heart goes out to each of them - and, though ISC chat is hardly a confidential communications channel, I will not identify any of the speakers. Clearly, the economy is under some strain, and people we know and care for are hurting.

I was amused, however, at one claim, made out of the blue: "149 million [U.S.] homes foreclosed on." (As my purpose is not to embarrass any particular individual, I attach no name, but I assure the gentle reader that this is a quote.) What should the proper response be to such a statement? On its face, the number is absurd: the entire U.S. housing stock is less than the number offered. No reasonable person could think otherwise, yet this statement was made in a declaratory manner, as though the rest of the group could not disagree with it.

A gentleman did point out that the number was quite clearly high. Now, perhaps polite discourse would suggest letting such a lapse pass unremarked upon. On the other hand, as the very topic of the discussion was the state of the economy, exaggerating conditions seemed impolite as well. Nonetheless, the gentleman's comment was not well-received. The original speaker defended the statement by saying that the figure came from - or was misrecalled from - the U.S. President's speech the night before. Having declined to listen to the speech, I cannot say with certainty, but would venture a guess that his staff would not let him make such a statement. The speaker's fallback position was that she was not good with numbers, so making up an absurd figure was understandable.

Hurt feelings all around - the speaker felt childed by the gentleman, and the gentleman was chided for being ungentlemanly, and a duchess chided him (or the group) about delving into political discourse.

Let me add one other factoid to the mix: the original speaker declared how she puts up with being called "Miss X," but would prefer to be called by an abbreviated version of her first name. Fine, polite discourse suggests that we address people in the manner each prefers. However, it seems to me somewhat inconsistent to treat ISC chat as a happy group talk among friends - friends with whom one is on a first-name basis, mind you - and then take offense when one of your friends points out a glaring factual error. Madam, if orders of magnitude are troublesome, perhaps one should avoid mentioning numbers. And Your Grace, if gently correcting the factual error constitutes "political" talk, then perhaps the entire group should avoid reference to real world economic phenomena.

Then again, when the Speaker of the House says that "500 million American jobs are lost" each month, one might think innumeracy is a broader problem.


Edward Pearse, Duke of Argylle said...

I wonder if the original statement should have been "$149 million (US) homes foreclosed on" that was talking about the value of the housing having been foreclosed rather than the actual number.

To be honest I usually try (though not always successfully) political talk in chat as more often than not it leads to people defending a particular point of view based on their own political bias and then someone loses an eye.

But not having heard the discussion in question I can only guess as to how I would have comments, or not.

Rhianon Jameson said...

Indeed, the wiser course of action would have been a tactful silence.

Everyone has to learn, I suppose.