Thursday, 15 May 2008

Maths FTW (OMG LOL WTFBBQ!!!11!1)

I was reading through the links spat up by my Google homepage today, and happened across this article about word usage in IM conversations. Interesting enough, but not earth shattering by any means. However, a sentence at the end caught my eye:


Ignoring the fact that they don't make clear whether it's just those three terms that make up 2.4 percent, or the whole slang dictionary, the line that really bothers me is that the researchers apparently describe 2.4 as an "infinitesimally small" proportion. Now, there are plenty of terms they could have used instead, 'tiny', 'minute', or even just 'small' on its own. But they chose to use a term that means 'vanishingly small', 'approaching zero', or, indeed, 'too small to be measured accurately'. Which, given they're describing a measurement, is patently untrue.

Clearly it could be a misquote, or a misunderstanding, but for a statistical researcher to use a mathematical term like that is really quite misleading. It would be like saying that the proportion of black people in the UK was infinitesimally small, which would not only be incorrect, but also insulting, since the word has connotations of insignificance too. In either case, don't use the term infinitesimal unless you actually mean 'basically zero'.

It reminded me of another case of mathematical language abuse I noticed while watching the film '21'. A character, ostensibly an extremely bright mathematician, is explaining the Monty Hall Problem, and has to describe the probability of picking a single correct choice out of three alternatives. How does he describe this probability? 33.3%. And the opposite probability? 66.7%. No. Just no.

No university maths student would describe probabilities like that, let alone one at MIT, and the lecturer would instantly correct him. No maths student would even use percentages, since you have to talk about recurrences. He should have said 1 in 3 (and 2 in 3), which is not only the simplest and most accurate description of the probability, but also the one that comes naturally from the statement of the problem, and it makes me annoyed that at some point the scene has been rewritten by someone who didn't understand what they were doing.

So there we are. If you're going to use a mathematical term, please get a mathematician to look at it. And if you can't find one, then pick another word. There's plenty out there that won't make us rant.

4 comments:

Andy J. Wotherspoon said...

That was fun.

I was thinking that, and you may have hinted at this, that the srciprt writer/whoever had at first written 1/3 et. but someone pointed out that most americans just don't get fractions and thus it needed to be change for simplicity. This is the world of film you're talking about, where history, maths, science and everything that is holy is thrown out of the window to be replaced by special effects and boobs.

Andy J. Wotherspoon said...

also, just reading the monty hall problem, I'd be fine, because for me it's a win win situation. I can't drive, so a car would be relatively useless, except to maybe sell, but a goat would be awesome to own, so i don't mind which door I choose :D

immedia reaction said...

As an aside... I always used to assume that FTW stood for "fuck the world". On the same basis that WTF stood for "what the fuck"...

And I guess getting pissed off about numbers is your equivalent of my getting pissed off when people inexcusably mangle language.

Andy J. Wotherspoon said...

Yeah I thought FTW stood for Fot the Wook, as is a really badly spelt WTF, I only recently found out I was wrong.