Life, death, whatever

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David Brooks, "It’s Not the Economy, Stupid: How to conduct economic policy in an age of social collapse", NYT 11/29/2018:

People, especially in the middle- and working-class slices of society, are less likely to volunteer in their community, less likely to go to church, less likely to know their neighbors, less likely to be married than they were at any time over the past several decades. In short, they have fewer resources to help them ride the creative destruction that is ever-present in a market economy.

And they are dying. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy in the United States declined for the third straight year. This is an absolutely stunning trend. In affluent, well-connected societies, life expectancies rise almost as a matter of course. The last time the American mortality rate fell for three straight years was 1915-1918, during World War I and the flu pandemic, which took 675,000 American lives.

Wikipedia on mortality rate:

Mortality rate, or death rate, is a measure of the number of deaths (in general, or due to a specific cause) in a particular population, scaled to the size of that population, per unit of time. Mortality rate is typically expressed in units of deaths per 1,000 individuals per year; thus, a mortality rate of 9.5 (out of 1,000) in a population of 1,000 would mean 9.5 deaths per year in that entire population, or 0.95% out of the total.

And on life expectancy:

Life expectancy is a statistical measure of the average time an organism is expected to live, based on the year of its birth, its current age and other demographic factors including gender.

Obviously if life expectancy is falling then mortality rate is rising, not falling. This is not exactly misnegation. But it's the same kind of confusion about the direction of scalar predicates that plays a role in many misnegation examples, without the excuse of involvement in a semantically-complex web of negation and modality.

Other evidence that David Brooks' (hypothetical) interns are prone to sleeping at the switch:

"David Brooks, Cognitive Neuroscientist", 6/12/2006
"David Brooks, Neuroendocrinologist", 9/17/2006
"David Brooks, Social Psychologist", 8/13/2008
"An inquiry concerning the principles of morals", 4/7/2009
"The butterfly and the elephant", 11/28/2009
"'Your passport has just been stamped for entry into the Land of Bullshit'", 3/3/2013
"David 'Semi True' Brooks", 3/20/2013
"Ngram morality", 5/22/2013
"Brooks on biological sexism", 8/13/2017

[h/t Paul Kay]

The obligatory screenshot:


  1. Victor Mair said,

    December 1, 2018 @ 10:16 am

    I love that long collection of posts on Brooksianisms stretching all the way back to 2006. Gave me a huge chuckle this morning!

  2. Paul Kay said,

    December 1, 2018 @ 5:50 pm

    It seems to me there may be more than simple scale-reversal in play here. Although not overt, there does seem to be a kind of contextually induced negation: whereas longevity normally increases over time in affluent societies, now (and here) longevity is saliently NOT increasing. Does anyone know of other cases of mistaken scalar contraries in contrastive or surprise contexts?

  3. Alyssa said,

    December 1, 2018 @ 6:45 pm

    You're right about the misnegation, but just to be pedantic – mortality rate and life expectancy aren't opposites. It *is* possible for both to fall at the same time, in fact it wouldn't shock me if that were happening right now, since it sounds like the decrease in life expectancy is mostly driven by a spike in people dying at young ages, rather than an increase in total deaths. (If something changes to make 20 year olds 1% more likely to die and 80 year olds 5% less likely, both life expectancy and mortality rate will fall).

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 1, 2018 @ 7:00 pm

    Cast a cold eye
    On life expectancy, on mortality rate.
    Intern, pass by!

  5. David Littleboy said,

    December 5, 2018 @ 1:26 am

    I think it's more of a careless slip of the tongue than anything else.

    If you replace "mortality rate" with life expectancy (the thing that actually fell) in the problematic sentence, you get what he thought he was saying. Sorry, but I don't think there's anything deeper than carelessness going on here.

    Much more problematic, IMHO, though, is that Brooks prefers to blame the overdose victims themselves than the doctors who prescribed the opioids that got them hooked. But that's beyond the purvey of this venue…

  6. Rodger C said,

    December 6, 2018 @ 7:55 am

    Brooks prefers to blame the overdose victims themselves than the doctors who prescribed the opioids that got them hooked.

    And behind that, the total stagnation or even regression of the economy in my part of the country for several decades under both parties.

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