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Commencement Addresses

The World of Imprecision (afternoon ceremony)

  • Date: 05/08/2010
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Have you noticed that precision is fundamental to our modern way of life?  We neatly coordinate our activities around units of measurement – time, weight, volume, speed and distance.  We make every effort to be precise, and it seems like every year measurements become more and more precise.

    We use this accuracy to create quality and standards, and even create bureaus of weights and measures at every level of government, including our own National Institute of Standards and Technology, and on up to the International Bureau in France.

    Yet, life was not always this rigidly precise.    Many years ago, schedules were tied to the cycles of nature – the location of the sun and the moon, and the passing of the seasons. 

    The Industrial Revolution changed all that.  The creation of new technologies engendered the need for precision; particularly with the technologies made more powerful in the disciplines we call STEMM: science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. 

    Today, everything we do is measured in terms of quantifiable entities, except for one important field of study: our language. 

    The way we think and the way we speak are dominated by vagueness.  Yet the confusion is not necessarily the fault of the messenger.  Even clear messages can be misinterpreted by those who are selective in what they hear and what they remember. 

    In is book, The Quest for Cosmic Justice, Thomas Sowell tells us that we can agree on the need for justice or equality, for example.  “But our agreement is only seeming because we mean such different things by the same word.” 1

    Our interaction contains fuzzy boundaries and is open to interpretation and uncertainty. 

    Few of us, for example, are finding the “great recession” to be all that great; a basketball player can be short and still stand over six-feet tall.

    What constitutes a tall woman or an obese man; a deep hole or a wide stream? 

    How warm is warm, and how fast is fast?   

    How do we explain to someone not familiar with our language that environmental-friendly, green cars come in an assortment of colors?

    However, we should not confuse vagueness with ambiguity.  While vagueness refers to an imprecision in our language, ambiguity refers to an imprecision in our state of mind. 2    

    Not all ambiguity is created equal.  Sometimes, we use it for the sake of humor.  There’s the line in the Marx Brothers movie Animal Crackers in which Captain Spaulding, played by Groucho Marx, recounts his adventures on an African safari: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas,” he said.  “How he got into my pajamas I don’t know.” 3

    Other times ambiguity is delivered as a faux pas resulting from a thought that is not properly thought out.  After a devastating flood hit parts of California, one of the politicians proclaimed to his constituents: “This is the worst disaster in California since I was elected.” 4

    Since the beginning of civilization, vagueness has been ingrained into our thinking.  Yet through it all, we generally seem to find a way to understand one another and have been able to cope with the imprecision. 

    In his book, Not Exactly, Kees van Deemter demonstrates how vagueness is central to our lives and that “…many aspects of our world are best understood in terms of degrees and probabilities, not crisp dichotomies.” 5

    He warns us, however, to be wary of “false clarity,” which dangerously stems from a motive that leaves us open to manipulation, particularly when words are redefined for professional, political or personal gain.  

    Former California governor Jerry Brown used to say that, in his business, “A little vagueness goes a long way…” 6

    “Similarly, we are…(accustomed) to hearing consumer products (and services, touted) as being ‘powerful’…‘healthy’...‘fast’…or (an) ‘excellent value,’ even though it would be very difficult to test such claims, because the words are essentially undefined.” 7

    We tend “…to paint reality in black and white,” van Deemter writes, “rather than richly varied (tones of) grey…We seem to like clarity so much that we see it where it does not exist…The biologist Richard Dawkins has a catch phrase for the slight of hand that allows us to think (this way)…calling it the tyranny of the discontinuous mind.” 8

    “Traditional theories of language and communication differ from theories in physics and engineering by relying on models of the world in which there is no natural place for degrees.  Symbolic logic looms large in these areas, and the logical theories employed in…communication tend to use two truth values only…If one decides to adopt a view of communication in which degrees take pride of place, and where there is more to the fidelity of a statement than truth or falsehood, we are in a better position to understand how vagueness works and why it plays such an important role in communication.” 9

    Van Deemter notes that vagueness “…can be used crisply in many ways,” and can be a virtue as words often are more clearly spoken when they are less precise. 10

    Let me offer a few examples:

    Two older buildings stand side by side.  One is to be demolished; the other to be restored.  The building to be demolished stands 50 feet; the one to be restored is 70 feet high.  With so much at stake, how best do we communicate our instructions to the demolition crew?  Do we tell them to demolish the building that is 50-feet tall and hope that they take the time to measure, or do we simply choose to be vague and tell them to take down the shorter one? 

    Or, maybe your doctor tells you that you’re running a temperature of 102 degrees.  Your initial response might be: “Is that high?” by which you are informing the doctor that his statement is not vague enough.

    And finally my favorite: when describing all the dramatic changes that have taken place on this campus over the past decade, I often use the word “WOW.”  As vague as that might seem, it seems to speak volumes indeed.

    Vagueness deserves our respect.  While frustrating at times, it promotes vibrancy in the democratic process and allows for a spirited debate among its citizens.  It is a gift more than a detriment, as long as we are in a position to make educated decisions.

    Certainly your University education has taught you to weed through life’s imprecision to better understand the truth; to not take things at face value…to explore…to question…to learn how things measure up; yet not overlook the necessity to be imprecise when that maybe what’s called for.

    As newly minted professionals, as educated people, I urge you to continue to learn and to rely on what you know to be true. 

    Most important: look for the value of truth.  After all, it is much wiser to live the truth than simply to profess it.  That is today’s lesson to you.

    * * *


    1. Sowell, Thomas, The Quest for Cosmic Justice, Free Press, October 11, 1999, p. 3
    2. Stark, Andrew, “The Trouble with Precision,” The Wall Street Journal, March 2, 2010
    3. Marx, Groucho, Screenplay Animal Crackers, by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, Universal Studios, 1930
    4. Infamous Quotes, www.littleknownfactsshow.com
    5. Van Deemter, Kees, Not Exactly: In Praise of Vagueness, Oxford University Press, 2010
    6. Van Deemter, Ibid & Brown, Jerry, Governor of California 1975-1982, Wikiquote.org, taken from Newsweek magazine article, May 31, 1976
    7. Van Deemter, Ibid, p.7
    8. Van Deemter, Ibid, p.5
    9. Van Deemter, Ibid, p.284
    10. Van Deemter, Ibid, p.264
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