Is There a 68:1 Ratio for Interpretation Neglect?

I coined the term “Interpretation Neglect” a fear years back so I could talk about how people tend to gloss over the possibility that they could be wrong in the way they’re understanding things. You can see how I define it in the meme below.

In the last few years, I’ve been particularly keyed in on the rhetorical use of the word “clear”as in, “Clearly, the writer meant to say…” or “It’s clear that the numbers are telling us to…”. What gets me is how often the word is used when what is said to be “clear” is not clear at all to me—and worse, when I believe or know it to be flat-out wrong!

I’ve tried my best to avoid using it this way, but I must admit that I still find myself saying and writing it, and I’m not sure I catch it every time!

So I got to poking around this morning on Google, which can be a poor-man’s statistics engine of a sort. I wanted to find out how often people are diligent to admit that they might be wrong. So I thought I’d take a simplified stab at it by searching Good for “it is clear” and “it is clear to me”.

It’s an unscientific method, but still useful. Let me explain the search and my rough-shod conclusions from it:

I searched Google for “it is clear” (in quotation marks) and got 395,000,000 returns. And I searched for “it is clear to me” and got 5,720,000 returns. So, based on some really rough math, based on some really rough assumptions, that’s about 68 times “it is clear” is used for every time “it is clear to me” is used. It’s a 68:1 ratio.

Let us pause to contemplate this.

What might it mean in this world that only 1 in 68 mentions of something being “clear” takes care to add “to me”?

Even if my math and assumptions are way off, and the true ratio is only half a much (34:1), what might it say about the world if we’re apt to engage Interpretation Neglect that often?

Now, I’ll freely admit that “it is clear” might often be simply the lazy person’s way of writing “it is clear to me”—meaning that they’ll freely admit the possibility of error, but were just being lazy about it this time. So if we give them the benefit of the doubt, we might shave away another half and bring our ratio down to 17:1. But that’s still a troubling number if it’s accurate.

But then there’s this: If someone’s not diligent enough to include the “to me” in their writing in the moment, are they being diligent enough to include in in their thinking? And if they’re not thinking about it, are they really considering the possibility of error when they’re drawing their conclusions?

I so often hear “it is clear” and the like from rhetoricists, where it sure seems to me that their main goal is not to educate, but to convince their listeners to agree to a pre-determined conclusion. And when the speaker or writer doesn’t make it obvious that they’ve done their own math, but have taken shortcuts instead, I get naturally suspicious about their conclusions.

It’s sadly ironic that the phrase “it is clear”—shortcut of speech and thinking that it may be—is so effective at influencing so many. Why are so many so willing to take the speaker’s word for it that a thing is “clear”? Why don’t they want to see that clarity demonstrated skillfully and thoroughly?

And I think I’ll let Mister Clemens get in a word edge-wise, so I can make my final point standing on the shoulders of this giant:

“In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.”

Mark Twain. Autobiography. 1907.

Mark Twain. Credit.

It’s so true that people snag memes and hearsay from others as fact, and they also snag it from themselves! They get unvetted ideas from their own sloppy mental work—shooting from the hip, as it were, while trying to understand what’s before them. And then they’ll take their own word for it, as if “clearly” what they think it about it is right!

Clearly, we want things to be clear, and clearly, we’re not always diligent enough to make sure they are before we declare them to be!

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