Friday night on David Letterman Michael Moore made his case for greater access to quality health care using the usual appeals to emotion. To set up his point that change is vital he told the story of a woman who took her feverish child to a hospital. When the hospital contacted the woman's HMO they were told that the child had to be treated at another hospital across town. In the time that it took to get to the other hospital the child, whose fever was as high as 104, went into a seizure and died.
Commenting on this tragic story Moore, probably trying to propel the relevance of the story claimed "That happens more often than not."
This is a ridiculous claim if we don't put a reasonable limit on the bank of relevant incidences. Let's create two categories of incidental limitation on the phrase: absolute and defined.
More often than not there's a game of poker going on.
This claim is applicable at all times. The only limitation might be a epochal. It may not have been the case in the past and it may not be in the future that a poker game somewhere is more commonly the state of things than a poker game nowhere; but as things are -- at any point in time the odds are favorable that someone's playing.
Some other statements that fit the type
- More often than not:
- my house is too cold.
- the pond is frozen over.
- the earth is spinning on its axis.
When I was living in North Dakota I heard many weather jokes claiming jocular absolute incidental relevance as in More often than not there's snow on the ground.
More often than not I burn the toast.
It's not true that at any given time I'm likely to be burning a piece of toast. The implied defined incidental relevance is at those times that I am making toast. So when I make toast I burn it more than half the time.
When Moore told the story, Letterman responded with horror and disgusted disbelief. I can't remember if he asked How often does this happen? but let's assume that he at least indicated he wanted an answer. Moore's response, "That happens more often than not" needs to define the relevant incidences. His use of "that" is ambiguous. Is it more often than not the case that a woman is taking her acutely feverish child to a hospital, being denied treatment and directed to another hospital hence suffering a tragic loss as a result of delayed treatment? Or is it more often than not the case that when a patient seeks treatment at a hospital treatment is either denied or delayed? (We'll leave the patient outcome as an uncounted variable.)
Moore very likely was working with such an implication. And those are vital to practical communication. We don't have time to address and deny every possible reading except the intended one. Reasonable problem solving skills allow us to hear a possibly ridiculous claim and still understand the rational intent. At least half the time.