Other Dimensions: The Language of Measurement
June 2, 2010
Readers of this column will understand that I do not profess to be a great user of the English language-or any other, for that matter. I have a friendly editor that keeps me on the straight and narrow. In conversation some of our mistakes can pass without notice, such as using “to” instead of “too,” but when you commit to print, they are all there for everyone to see.
I mention this because I find it interesting just how bad some sales flyers or catalogs can be. This is especially so considering they’re supposed to be the product of wordsmiths of one kind or another.
In my part of the world, the government recently reached a decision about changing the curriculum regarding sex education, which they were going to begin teaching in grade school. It seems that someone at headquarters decided this was needed and there was a roar from the usual suspects. Maybe it’s just my warped mind, but I couldn’t help wondering why they didn’t focus on teaching students how to read and write and do simple math. When university grads can’t string a few words together to express a thought, something’s gone off the rails somewhere. Even the universities are forcing new students to take remedial courses to make up for the shortcomings of the system.
Like too much in life, a lot of this is due to politics where the examples used to teach a subject override what is to be taught and take on greater importance. Environmental issues are an example, with Mr. Gore’s film worshipped as a font of truths. They have students believing that there is no debate on the subject with the statement that the science involved is “settled.”
I was always taught that science was proven, not settled. If we made measurements in our world with this kind of logic, we wouldn’t be making them for very long. Using this system of thinking, as long as a few people agreed on the size of something, that’s what it is.
Measurements are tools for communication-the more precise the measurements are, the more useful they become-but when folks can’t even describe what they’re measuring, the value of the measurement is lost. Unfortunately, it would seem that simple things we learned in grade school are off the radar, surpassed by the predicted collapse of the world as we know it.
My favorite so far is the use of the word “wide” to describe a diameter. It’s also used to describe the length of something which, while not enlightening, is not always unreasonable. So we have a typical round broomstick as being one inch or 25 millimeters in width. I have yet to see it, but am confident that someone somewhere has indicated they are offering a standard broomstick that is four feet wide.
Terms such as thickness or height also are frequently used in such a way that, without a picture, you have no idea what the shape of the thing is they are talking about.
The exactness of metrology takes another hit when the measurements involved take on a different meaning because of the way they are expressed. Folks forget that the greater the number of decimal places, the higher the order of precision implied. So when we see a reading of 0.32338 inch, we assume someone was messing around with millionths of an inch, even if it’s really the average of a few readings from a micrometer.
Expressing a “reading” without a measurement uncertainty value means the user of that information is really in the dark with respect to its practical value.
Sadly, while our educators may be dropping some basics in their programs, our media are even worse when it comes to reporting measurements. It’s bad enough that they quote unreasonable numbers, but when they don’t look into the source of them it gets worse.
The news media do the same thing with statistics from one group or another trying to get the public’s attention about a cause, cure or curse. I am certain that statisticians become irate when their numbers are misinterpreted by the mathematically challenged or the perennially fearful.
The best measurements in the world are without value if the numbers or descriptions of them are indecipherable.