March 1, 2007


Fuzzy math time.

It’s the eve of your 17th birthday. Tomorrow you’ll be 17. When someone asks you how old you are, is it truthful to say you’re 18?

Yesterday, I heard someone (a city councilor) talking about the homicides in Fall River. There have been 3 already this year, and the last one happened on the night of Feb 27th. This fellow was saying (and I paraphrase) “Well, the usual homicide rate is one per month. February is almost over, so basically we’ve had 3 homicides in 3 months.” Er, what?

1 month (January) plus .964 months (not having actually made it through February) equals 1.964 months by my calculations, or less than 2 months. Rounding up, you get 2 months. You can’t round up further.

1+.96 ≠ 3

No matter how you slice it, Fall River has gotten 3 homicides in about 2 months, on target for 18/year, not 12/year. You can argue that 2 months is too small a sample. You can try to argue it’s an anomaly. But as soon as you try to tell me that by the end of February, 3 months have passed (and that’s what you’re saying if you say it’s 3 months) then how can I believe anything else you say after that?

The age example at the beginning of this post is actually less outrageous. Proportionally, saying it’s 3 when it’s 2 is more like saying you’re 18 when you’re almost 12!

That’s councilor lawyer logic, not mathematics.

My father told me a story of a lawyer he knew who was flying with his son in January. I guess there were special rates for kids under 12. His son was already 12, having turned 12 in April of the previous year, and so was not eligible for the discount.

The airline representative asked him “How old is your son.”

The lawyer replied “He’ll be 12 on February 20th.”

They assumed the kid was 11 and gave him the discount. The lawyer was intentionally misleading, but technically truthful.

On a completely unrelated subject, can you make it through this video on YouTube : The Final Countdown? I actually couldn’t.

And, just for reference and to clear the palate, this is Europe performing their famous song.

I just thought you needed a laugh.

Posted by James at March 1, 2007 8:29 AM
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That cover was awful.
I can't believe someone tainted that song.
Treason, I say! To the gallows!

Posted by: Derek at March 1, 2007 9:17 AM

The city councillor obviously went to Durfee. My mom probably failed him.

I do understand what he was trying to say (even though it was wrong). He meant to say that it's almost March and in March we'll have 3 homicides in the 3rd month. Of course that ignores the fact that we still have the whole month of March to go. So if March goes by with no homicides we'll be on target (yay only 12 murders). If one a month is truely the number than you would expect that some months to have 1, some to have 2 and some to have none. It's possible that some will even have 3 or 4. That's just normal variablity. Of course the problem is that any number of homicides other than 0 should be unacceptable arguing anything else is just ridiculous. "well we've only had 1 homicide so far this year, isn't that great!"

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at March 1, 2007 10:02 AM


Not much for me to say here, except to your point on logic, if the councilor is Brad Kilby he is both a councilor AND a lawyer!

Oh and I actually told someone just the other day I was 35 when actually my birthday wasn't until the next day and I was still a youthful 34! :)

Posted by: Lefty at March 1, 2007 10:44 AM

Yes, Lefty, but rounding up a day isn't really a sin. You were basically 35. If you'd said you were 36, it would be a different matter.

There isn't any confusion about what the city councilor meant (unless I've created it) -- it's just that it's wrong. You can't round 1.964 to 3 and expect to be taken seriously. He'd have had a better case halfway through March of calling it 3 months.

Maybe it's a loaves and fishes situation? Pass around 2 months and suddenly you have 3!

Posted by: James at March 1, 2007 12:57 PM

I'll bet your mom wished you'd come a day early! Late-term pregnancy is no fun.

I think the guy probably meant what Bob described, at least that's how I interpreted his meaning. I think that's because I filled in the other arguments -- it's a small sample of months, and variation will occur -- in the end it'll probably come out "even."

It's very lazy speech, though, at best. We frequently say things like that -- things for which there is so much assumption that what we say is downright wrong, but people seem to understand what we say because they have the same assumptions -- I think? Isn't that how language works? It is greatly dependent on having a shared knowledge base and shared assumptions with the person with whom you're communicating.

Obviously we have to fill in a lot of information every day, or we'd never be able to communicate. We'd be mired down in details.

What's frustrating is when people are very good at that kind of speech, and never actually say what they strongly imply. I was reading an interview with C.Rice yesterday (from before the Iraq invasion, one of my students wrote an essay on how honest and peace-loving C.Rice was, and I just couldn't swallow it without sending her back a primary source that refuted her claims), and I was amazed at how Condi danced around the idea of Iraq being involved in the attacks of 9/11. Her words were not strictly lies, but they were the equivalent of Clinton's strict interpretation of the word "sex" which allowed him not to lie about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. He was relying on his audience having a different interpretation of the word.

Posted by: Maggie at March 1, 2007 1:14 PM

You're being way too kind to this guy.

What he's saying was not ambiguous. He made a clear statement and a bad argument. If you want to be charitable, you can say that he meant if you're in March, that's 3 months. But even that's not true.

Posted by: James at March 1, 2007 3:23 PM


Wow was that ever bad. Yes, I sat through the whole thing. It was like a bunch of the "why are you here" types from American Idol decided to form a band.

Ya regarding the point of the article, the guy clearly is reaching for something, but it's too much of a stretch, I think Bob is right and he meant that since Feb is almost over that will be 3 in 3. But why not just say 3 in 2? That sounds even worse (i.e. more sensational).

Posted by: Chuck S. at March 1, 2007 3:31 PM

Why not 3 in 2?

I imagine the motivation was to stem criticism that things are getting worse in Fall River. I understand the motivation, but use a good argument.

To his credit, the fellow did say that the current rate was not acceptable; in other words, he wasn't claiming that the current rate of one per month (or 1.5 per month depending on whether you can do math) was in any way a good thing.

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