Saturday, June 16, 2007

When to expect what

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.

Absolute incidence:
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.

Defined incidence:
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.


  1. Great discussion--and I'm sure Moore's ambiguity was intentional (or is more often than not!). Effective propoganda has no use for clarity when vague suggestion will do.

  2. Moore admits that he is a muckraker. And he admits that his films are often not fair. And he stands by his misdirections. He has faith in the reaction more than in the truth of his claims.

    I'll bet you're right about Moore purposefully using "more often than not" as a vast overstatement. It does work a lot better than it happens too often or it happens a lot.

    The audience can still feel pretty safe even knowing that it happens a lot. But once they think Oh man...that's probably going to happen to me or someone I love?! they're more likely to think I've gotta do something!

    This reminds me of a recent conversation with a friend regarding evangelism.

  3. I do hope your friend wasn't supporting evangelism by means of misdirection and ambiguity. Truth should be the primary concern in persuasion, whether it's political, religious, or otherwise.

    This is why guys like Michael Moore, as well as his equivalents on the other side of the aisle, are so irritating to me. If someone really believes in his message, he ought have no need for distortions. But maybe Moore believes in himself more than his message.

  4. Not supporting. And I wouldn't say by misdirection. It was more of a question about evangelism that promises more than is guaranteed. And it was a question along the lines of might that be okay in sharing faith?

    I think Moore knows what will sell. And he believes his success will translate to the popularity of his causes. If they love me they'll do what I say.

    Does he have as much a messiah complex as David Koresh?

  5. It sounds like we will have some interesting conversations on Friday... after your wife beats us all at Settlers.


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