27 April 2008

The English language is not equipped for metric spaces

From Lydia Millet's novel Oh Pure And Radiant Heart, in which Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard, three of the chief minds behind the Manhattan Project, find themselves in contemporary America (p. 290):

Scientists at the Atomic Energy Commission took advantage of the testing in the Marshall Islands to study the effects of radiation on people.
In 1956, at an AEC meeting, one official admitted that Rongelap was the most contaminated place on earth. He said of the Marshall Islanders, reportedly without irony, "While it is true that these people do not live, I would say, the way Westerners do — civilized people — it is nevertheless true that they are more like us than mice.
To my ear, something about this last sentence is ambiguous -- and I suspect that a mathematician is more likely to spot this ambiguity than an average person. Let's assume that degrees of civilizedness fall on a scale from 0 to 1, with mice at 0 and Westerners at 1. Say that we have a magical civilizedness-measuring meter, and the Marshall Islanders fall at 1/3. Is the scientist's statement true?

If the scientist is saying that the distance in some abstract civilizedness-space (here caricatured by the unit interval) from Westerners to Marshall Islanders is less than the distance from Westerners to mice, then yes. The last clause could be rephrased as "it is nevertheless true that they are more like us than mice are like us." But if the scientist is saying that the distance from Westerners to Marshall Islanders is less than the distance from Marshall Islanders to mice, then it's not true if the islanders fall at 1/3; to force this interpretation, the original sentence could be rephrased as "it is nevertheless true that they are more like us than they are like mice." (I make no claim that these are the most elegant possible rephrasings, just that they clear up the ambiguity.)

Of course, in this particular case, I would claim the scientist intended the second interpretation; regardless of what one thinks about how civilized various groups of humans are, it is obvious that all such groups are more civilized than mice. (I apologize to fans of the Hitchhiker's Guide series.) So there is no need to even make the statement under the first interpretation! There is not much point in telling people something they already know.

Also, this shouldn't need saying, but the value 1/3 above is entirely hypothetical, and I do not mean to make any statements about the civilizedness of actual groups of life forms.


lf said...

I would claim the first interpretation, as a rhetorical understatement (in response to someone questioning the value of doing research on the islanders): "Yes, these people live under different conditions, so the results may not be directly transferrable, but since we can't nuke *civilized* people, our only other option would be doing experiments on mice."

Isabel Lugo said...


I didn't think of that interpretation , but it seems reasonable. Which just underscores the point that the original statement was ambiguous.

Also, apparently nobody feels sorry for the mice that might live on the islands.

misha said...

Well, most of what people say is ambiguous or even makes no sense at all if taken out of context. Incidentally, that's the major difficulty in learning to communicate in a foreign language when moving to a foreign country, and it's a major difficulty in automatic translation or teaching computers some rudiments of "comprehension." It's also a major difficulty in learning a new piece of mathematics, a formal presentation makes no sense out of a proper context. I'd dare to say that most of the meaning of any utterance lies in a context. An isolated short quotation or a short sound byte can be almost always twisted, misinterpreted, ripped apart, ridiculed or aggrandized any way you want to; it's one of the things that makes our finely chopped-and -minced political debates so absurd.

Anonymous said...

Misha: I would like to add, however, that this ambiguity in language is what makes literature so rich. For instance, take Shakespeare!

Anonymous said...

Its good to remember that African Americas were used as experimental subjects for Syphilis experiments between 1932-1972.

They were probably considered not as civilized as white Americans but better than mice.