2.1.2 Mostly Dead is Slightly Alive

Here’s my last example of the Impression vs Meaning principle, under the subject “What did they really say?” Call it Statistical Inversion, or Miracle Max’s Maxim.

Consider this paraphrase of a news headline from spring 2016:

“With the primaries well underway, Donald Trump has taken a commanding lead, with 35% of the vote.”

When this remark was published, there had been I believe about six Republican primary elections, with 44 remaining. The 35% referred to Mr Trump’s popular vote thus far among the field of Republican party candidates, which was very large at that time.

Now look at this rewritten version, of my own devising:

“With the primaries barely begun, Donald Trump is the most voted-against candidate in recent history, with fully 65% of voters in his own party casting ballots against him.”

Both headlines could reasonably be said to more or less represent the news of the day. One is a “Glass 35% full” spin, the other is a “Glass 65% empty” spin. This is an incredibly common, frighteningly effective method of biasing a message. Listen carefully to the very next news cast you hear. See if you can spot a headline where the inflection and the data are at odds. Here is an example:

“Almost fifteen percent of all Americans have absolutely no health insurance at all, a staggering 30 million citizens.”

The emphasis makes this sound alarming, like the situation has never been so bad. Try this:

“Over 85% of all Americans now have some form of health insurance coverage, the highest percentage of citizens since 1977.”

No emphasis needed, as the statement speaks for itself. So here is a tip: whenever you hear a percentage mentioned in a news report, perk up your ears: did you hear them say something colossal and awful is happening? Well, what did they really say? Invert the statistic and see how bad the situation seems then. A report of “Nearly a quarter bad” is also “Over three quarters good.” Or to quote Miracle Max’s Maxim:

“It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.”

Valerie and Miracle Max
“Do you think it will work?” “It’ll take a miracle.”

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