I’m not a mathematician. I got a GCE in the three disciplines and enjoyed the lessons, but my major love was English. I can be pedantic when people confuse pleonasm with tautology, but then, who would not? I watch technical programmes, hoping that something will seep through into my brain. One I was watching a while ago was a fair bit above basic level so it came as something of a surprise to be told by the scientist presenter that it was “Five times fewer”.

In essence the phrase means nothing, literally so. And don’t get me started on the improper use of literally. If we start with ten of whatever subject the phrase refers to, it gives us five times ten which is fifty, so the answer is minus 40, or rather nothing.

Just in case someone wants to start an argument, there are no degrees of nothing. Minus 40 is nothing in the same way infinity plus 50 is still infinity.

My assumption, based on context to a degree, is that the chap meant one fifth, or indeed 20%, of the original subject. But if so, why not use either of those two clear and unambiguous classifications?

It wasn’t long after that I heard “Two times less”. Let’s ignore, for the moment, that the person was referring to a number of items and instead reduce the phrase to its exact meaning. It is the same logical absurdity as above. I assumed the person meant half the total, but I might be wrong. What was needed was a precise and simple explanation of the total.

These are scientists. The programmes were aimed at the inquisitive. Further, one of them was quite advanced and I would assume that further education would have been the norm, either in school or under their own steam, for the majority of viewers. Just as well as what was said was gibberish.

One explanation that was raised when I discussed this with friends was that it was a method used to make it easier to understand. That can’t be right as it confused me and given that we had an argument over what was meant, the others as well. I sent a letter to the production company but I have yet to receive a reply.

I don’t want to appear like ‘A Lady of Letters’, the superb Alan Bennett play, made all the more remarkable by the superber Patricia Routledge in the titular lead, but some years ago I wrote a letter to a BBC television programme, Tomorrow’s World. On one episode a presenter suggested that two cars colliding head on at 70mph would cause the same damage, as well as the deliberately unmentioned implication, deaths, as one car hitting a concrete bridge support at 140mph.

I told my eldest lad, then eight or so, who was watching with me that they were wrong and it was equivalent to hitting said bridge at 70mph. I could tell he wasn’t convinced. After all, posh people were telling him otherwise.

I wrote to the programme saying that their mistake had caused my son to doubt his father. After a couple of weeks I received a well-presented letter on BBC headed paper. Inside the envelope was another, addressed to my son. I handed it to my lad and settled back to read mine.

It was an apology. It said that they were very irritated by the mistake, made much worse by the effect on my lad. His letter explained the physics of the various impacts and then said that just because someone on TV said something did not make it right.

A lesson for us all there.

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A Man of a couple of letters

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