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May 15, 2021

Unbased Comparatives - or "How to Make Your Point Even If You Really Don't Have One"

by Your Raving Roving Science Correspondent


By "unbased comparatives" I mean asserting that something is "better" or "worse" (or "higher" or "lower") without providing the basis for that comparison.

In a previous life I was responsible for reviewing a draft claim set (i.e., the legally operative part for enforcement of a patent) for a patent application drawn to a prodrug in which the independent claim turned on the phrase "to provide better solubility."

Better solubility? Better than what? Brick dust? Glucose? What? A patent litigator on seeing that would either dissolve in laughter or throw a rope over a joist in his garage, depending on which side he was on.

Now that was harmless enough, and readily fixed (although it did reflect badly on the person drafting that claim, who should have known better). But in other contexts, unbased comparatives are a mainstay of writing meretricious but effective propaganda.

For example, a video on a gritty industry in India gravely intoned that one in four workers in that industry died of cancer. This was by way of establishing the horrific conditions in which they worked. Now God knows the conditions were indeed horrific, but that statistic, without more (e.g., age at death, or comparison with other occupations in India), proved nothing, since a cursory search revealed that one in four Americans dies of cancer as well. But the statistic, provided without comparison, clearly invited the conclusion that this rate of cancer mortality was sky-high.

A similar phenomenon occurred recently in the Derek Chauvin case, in which some commentators averred that he was a bad cop because he had 12 complaints of use of excessive force. (All but two of which were dismissed.)

Now is that a lot, a little, or in between? To interpret that number, we'd need a LOT more information: over what period, in what neighborhoods, in connection with how many arrests?

Chauvin had been a cop for 19 years; if he spent all that time patrolling the ghetto, and had made a lot of felony arrests, that's probably not very many at all. (Mother Teresa would probably have a couple dozen such complaints in 19 years of doing that, since I bet criminal suspects oftentimes claim use of excessive force to gain some leverage in the criminal justice system.)

Now I don't know the relevant numbers in Chauvin's case, but to compare a veteran street cop with, say, a police academy graduate who'd been on the force for a week, during which time he was guarding a doughnut shop in an upscale neighborhood would clearly be inappropriate.

So in my opinion, we have no basis for adjudging whether or not Chauvin was a bad cop. But through use of unbased comparatives he was made to look like one - only one of the manifold ways in which he was teed up before ever setting foot in the court room.

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posted by Open Blogger at 07:30 PM

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