Monday, April 30, 2007

Derision and Precision

I came across an interesting list of fallacies today, but I have a question about one: "Misplaced Precision"

The first example I have no quarrel with:
The museum guide says the dinosaur skeleton is 90,000,006 years old - because when he was hired six years ago he was told that it was 90 million years old.
That's pretty funny. Now consider the second example:
The time for the Olympic 30-kilometer relay race, which takes almost an hour and a half to run, is measured to one one-hundredth of a second.
Are these cases really similar? In the case of the dinosaur, we know that paleolithic dating is inherently imprecise, and when we hear a number like 90 million years, we know it has been rounded and has a big margin of error.

But in the case of the 30k, the problem is not imprecise timing systems. We have the technology to measure a race with that kind of precision. And some Olympic races are indeed won by fractions of a second. The hundredths may not matter for most races, but we have them if we need them.

So I ask, quite matter-of-factly,
Where is the falsehood, exactly?

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