Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Accuracy and Precision

Accuracy and Precision in Language
Note to readers: I am recovering from a strenuous hike up Old Rag Mountain (Great views! Sore legs!) so forgive me if there is a typo or two in here I did not find in my fatigued state!
We all know what the words accuracy and precision mean, but how do we translate them into action? Here are a few guidelines to follow that may help;
Numbers: numbers often convey a sense of precision. It is more accurate to say “35 percent” than “a third” (though sometimes the latter is Ok too). (It is possible to lie or misdirect with numbers, but that is a topic for another entry. A good book on this is “How to Lie with Statistics”).
Definitions and details help with precision. “Smith and Jones (200) studied depression” versus “Smith and Jones (200) studied the Beck Depression Inventory scores of 173 women aged 19 to 29, both before and after cognitive-behavior therapy.”
A problem I find in regard to accuracy in language is word meaning or using a word that does not quite get at the meaning the writer intends. Small versus miniscule, aggressive versus violent.
Word confusion: comprise and compromise are very similar in spelling, but mean different things.

Which is more precise?
“Most dog lovers like cats too” or
“About 57% of self-described dog lovers like cats too (Jones, 2000).”

“Welfare reform changed welfare as we knew it.”
“The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 reduced the welfare rolls by between 33 and 90 percent, varying by state” (citation).

“Positive rewards are more effective than punishment at changing behavior.”
“Positive reinforcement increases desired behaviors by 37 percent: punishment increases desired behaviors by 22 percent” (Brenner, 1995).

So, numbers help with precision (and also evidence-based writing).
Citations helps with precision.
Details can help with precision.
Definitions and descriptions can help with precision.
And using the correct, more specific word can help with precision.

Here are some real world examples of problems with precision in language:
A member of Congress “Tobacco kills with lethality.” Is there any other way to kill?
A student “I believe that child emotional abuse is more harmful than sexual abuse to me.” “I believe” implies “to me”, so drop the “to me”. Or was the student disclosing that she was abused? (I think not, but it could be read that way).
A student writes in a term paper “I just read that…” instead of “I recently read…” (did you read the referenced material immediately before you wrote it? Does that hold true a week later when the prof reads the paper?)
My friend wrote “My mother was a hard woman.” How hard? Like stone? How about “My mother was unsympathetic to my childhood needs” or “My mother rarely smiled or laughed” or “My mother appeared to suffer from chronic depression” whichever is more accurate.

I am sure I will have more to say on this topic in subsequent posts.

Keep Writing!

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