When Less Is More . . . More Correct

August 12, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Fewer than one in four people who are pregnant are vaccinated,” said Noelle King on NPR this morning. Fewer? Really? Why not less?

I suppose that Ms. King or whoever wrote the script was thinking of the individual people. Grammarly.com, an online source, offers the same prescription.

To decide whether to use fewer or less with a percentage, you will have to look at the bigger picture and ask yourself, “What is this a percentage of? Is it countable?”

Fewer than eight percent of the world’s people have blue eyes.

Although counting the world’s people would be an unenviable task, it is possible to count individual people. Therefore, eight percent of the world’s people is countable and we use the word fewer.

Even if you think you should use fewer when talking about separate, countable things, the NPR lede makes no sense. The only number “fewer” than one in four is zero in four. That would mean that no pregnant people are vaccinated.

Dollars are countable, but we don’t talk about “people whose income is fewer than seventy thousand dollars a year.” The same goes for many other things. We don’t say, “I weigh eight pounds fewer than I did in March,” or “Stop for gas. We have fewer than two gallons left in the tank.”  

All of these statements — vaccinations, incomes, gas tanks — are not not about individual people or things; they are about a level or rate. And when you are talking about levels, it makes more sense to use less.

In the NYT last month, the print edition had a story about Covid rates in counties where “fewer than 40 percent” of residents had been vaccinated. The online version corrected this to “under 40 percent.” I guess the copy editor didn’t have the confidence to change it to less.


I seem to be hearing this kind of fewer more and more. (I wish I had some actual data to show the trend, but I don’t,) Those contests from my childhood where you were asked to write something in “twenty-five words or less” would now be “twenty-five words or fewer.”

What’s wrong with less? My guess is that fewer sounds like what educated people say. Fewer is more sophisticated; less sounds so ordinary. It’s like using fortuitous rather than fortunate. The words sound alike, and in many instance, both could apply — things that are fortunate may also happen unexpectedly by chance. So why not use the one that sounds like something a person with a large vocabulary would say? Of course, I’m fighting a losing battle here.  I expect that in a few years, if it hasn’t happened already, dictionaries will tell us that the meaning of fortuitous has now expanded to cover both. But to my ear, it’s like being served the salad course at dinner and asking someone to “pass the dressage.”


Quitters and Righteous Anger

July 29, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

On an episode of Survivor many seasons ago, one of the cast told the others in his tribe that when it came to choosing the person to be removed in that round, it would make their decision much easier and his life less unpleasant if they just made him the one. It was fairly early in the game, but he had already endured enough and had no desire for the increasing hardships that lay ahead.

At the tribal council, the final ritual of each episode where the big reveal is the identity of that week’s outcast, the host Jeff Probst kept his self-control, but you could tell that he was really  pissed off at the dropout.

What reminded me of angry Jeff were some of the reactions to Simone Biles’s decision not to compete at the Olympics. She was concerned for her mental health. She had not performed well in the early rounds, and she felt that the extraordinary pressure she faced would do her further psychological damage. Physical damage too, since gymnastics at that level is a high-risk sport. A lapse in concentration can result in a broken neck.

Many people sympathized with her emotional plight. But some on the political right erupted with anger. “Quitter,” “selfish psychopath,” “very selfish ... immature ... a shame to the country,” “selfish, childish, national embarrassment.” Jason Whitlock at The Blaze wrote about “felonious act of quitting.”

To Charles Sykes writing at Politico (here) these attacks are all about the culture of “toughness,” the  pre-occupation with strength and weakness that pervades the MAGA-verse. In a post early in the pandemic on the people who were saying masks are for pussies,* I used the term counterphobic to describe this reaction. These anti-maskers turn the fear of Covid into its opposite, a blend of denial and bravura.

But as the Survivor incident shows, even when that problem is not framed as strength vs. weakness, the quitter poses a problem to the group. I’m drawing here on Philip Slater’s 1963 American Sociological Revie article “On Social Regression.” Slater argues that any social group requires energy from its members, but individuals may sometimes feel that these demands are burdensome and want to withdraw that energy back to themselves. Slater uses the Freudian language of libido — sexual energy — but the idea is the same if we use “emotional energy.” Even in everyday speech, people will say that they don’t have the “energy” for another relationship, or that their job is demanding too much of their “energy.” Or when we get sick, we may feel that we should withdraw our “energy” from work and relationships. Groups allow that kind of temporary withdrawal. . . as long as it’s temporary. Then by rejoining the group the individual confirms that the whole enterprise is worthwhile.

The quitter offers a different and threatening idea of the group. The threat is not that her withdrawal reduces the group’s numbers by one. The group still has all its other members. But the quitter is pointing out something that others do not want to see — that the group may not be worth the sacrifices that individuals must make. That thought is dangerous because it offers a tempting alternative. If others gave in in to that temptation, the group would dissolve. That’s why the reaction to the quitter is so strong. She must be condemned, and her withdrawal must be explained as a matter of personal perfidy or pathology (“a selfish psychopath”) rather than as a reaction to demands the group has placed upon her.

These reactions to the quitter are not inevitable. Briles’s teammates as well as many fans across the political spectrum were supportive and sympathetic. They understood her situation. And Briles did not really quit the team. She merely chose not to perform in the Olympics. So the anger and vilification from her critics stands as an even clearer illustration of Slater’s ideas about reactions to withdrawal.

-----------------
* As I was writing this my news feed popped up with a Daily Beast story with this headline: Trump: Jan. 6 Cops Who Spoke to Congress Are ‘Pussies’

I’m So Excited

July 27, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

The French, says Julie Barlow (here), don’t show excitement. They don’t even have a word for it, or if they do, it’s not our word. Je suis excité implies arousal that is physical, not emotional. In France, it’s difficult to say you’re excited.

Not so in the US. Barlow quotes a bilingual American in France who says that the French can in fact express excitement. It’s just that most of the time they prefer not to.

The American public, he says, has been trained “to have a fake, almost cartoonish view on life, in which superficial excitement and false happiness are the norm.” By comparison, he notes, in France, “excitement is typically shown only when it is truly meant.”
      
Excitement is indeed the norm to the point that it looks like excitement inflation. Where people once might have been “glad” do or say something, they are now excited.  Three years ago, my university e-mail brought this message from IT   
The Web Services team, in collaboration with groups across the University, is very excited to announce the latest round of completed projects in support of our ongoing comprehensive redesign of the montclair.edu website.
The trend may be more noticeable to us older folks whose language still belongs to the era before excitement inflation. I doubt that anyone else who saw this e-mail wondered about the excitement sweeping through IT. Or maybe they just didn’t notice.

Each year, at our first college meeting, department chairs who have been lucky enough to get a line or two introduce their new faculty. When I did this in my last year as chair, introducing Tim Gorman, I began something like this:
I don’t know if you’ve been on a search committee and read applications lately, but one of the things that struck me this time was that most of the applicants say they’re excited. “I’m excited to be applying to Montclair State.” “I’m very excited to be applying for the position . . . “ A lot of them began like that.

And all I could think was that either these people lead very dull lives [this got some quiet  laughter] or else they know something about this place that I, in my four decades here, have yet to discover. [more laughter, which is really all that I cared about]

So when I read Tim’s letter and it began, “I’m applying for the position” or something like that, I thought, now here is a man with reasonable sense of proportion.
  
I don’t have any systematic data on this inflation of the excitement, but the laughter of the faculty at that meeting tells me that I was onto something.

Common Sense, Data, Vax-Hesitancy, and Maybe Politics

July 22, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Would a message from Trump persuade the vaccine-hesitant? People who think so are calling on President Biden to reach out to Trump. I first heard this idea from a journalist on the left, Martin Schram., who imagined it this way:

Biden really announces that from now on he’ll be calling all three the “Trump Vaccines.” . . .Imagine Biden asking his predecessor to deep-six politics and campaign coast-to-coast to help convince Trump’s true-believers to safeguard themselves and their loved ones by being vaccinated by a lifesaving Trump Vaccine. It would be Trump’s one and only chance to salvage his legacy. It would be Biden’s best chance to save Americans from dying.

The idea has also gained supporters on the right. At a press conference this week, Fox’s Steve Doocy floated the same idea:
Would President Biden ever call former President Trump and say, “I need your help. Let’s cut a PSA and tell people to go do it.”?
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, was not enthusiastic, but she put it this way:
Well, first, I would say that what we’ve seen in our data is that the most trusted voices are local officials, doctors, medical experts, civic leaders, clergy. . .
A few minutes later, another reporter pushed the same idea.




Here’s the transcript of the second clip:

Q: In my follow up, even if the administration doesn’t partner with the former President, would it consider highlighting or acknowledging, in a greater way, his role in creating the vaccines to assure the rural voters who still support President Trump and are hesitant to get the vaccine?

MS. PSAKI: Well, I think you’re — do you have data to suggest that that’s the issue that’s preventing people from getting vaccinated?

Q: Well, we’re seeing that the communities — the communities that have the lowest vaccination rates did seem to vote for President Trump.

MS. PSAKI: Okay. But what I’m asking you is if information related to whether or not the former President got credit is leading people not to get vaccinated, or is it information like microchips in vaccines and it causing fertility issues, causing health issues. Because you’re drawing a few conclusions there that I haven’t seen in data, but maybe you have that information to provide.

Q No, but I think it’s just — it’s a — I think it’s an issue — I mean, I think it’s a common sense that these are people who supported him. These are people who are hesitant to get vaccinated. I don’t think it takes a lot to draw the conclusion.[Emphasis added]

My first reaction was that this was another case of “common sense” vs. data. As I said in a post twelve years ago (here), when someone says, “It’s only common sense . . .” it means that they have no systematic evidence. (“We don’t need studies to tell us . . . .” means the same thing, or worse, that the evidence goes against what they’re saying.)

Against the conservative reporter’s common-sense conclusion, Psaki cites the evidence from actual research: vax-hestiant people are most likely to be persuaded by people they are socially close to; and that they are hesitant not because Trump isn’t being credited but because they’ve heard all these lies about the vaccines. And she asks the reporter if he has any evidence to support his idea, which of course he doesn’t. *

Psaki added that “our objective is to ensure all Americans will get vaccinated... We’d love that. Democrats, Republicans, independents — it’s not a political issue to us.”

On second thought, it seems that the Administrations Trump-hesitancy is more than just a matter of evidence and public health. True, the PSAs our other former presidents made might not be changing anyone’s mind. But Trump is different. The connection between him and his followers is different. If Trumpism is a cult of personality, then the cult members would listen to the personality.

So I’m a bit skeptical about Psaki’s claim that it’s not political. But what would be the political effects if Biden were to make a flattering request to Trump. Would his supporters see it as caving in and pleading abjectly to the Worst Person in the World, or would they see Biden as masterfully manipulating Trump’s narcissism for the public good.

 If we have little relevant data on the public health impact of such a request, we have even less on the reactions it would get from people at different places on the political spectrum, As for the effects on public health — i.e., vaccination rates — it’s like the chicken soup in the old joke: it wouldn’t hurt.

--------------

* Why is it always the conservatives who are on the “common-sense, we-don’t-need-studies” side? It might be that in the liberal world, evidence and science are more persuasive while for conservatives, values and common sense outweigh factual evidence. Or it could be, as someone has said, the facts have a liberal bias, so values and common sense are what conservatives are left with.