Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Vaguely speaking, it's all written in the stars

Vaguely speaking, it's all written in the stars
By Ruth Wajnryb
June 4, 2005

Language mostly does what we want it to do. For instance, certain times in life require that we be perfectly precise.

Slip an X-ray out of its massive envelope. Take out the report and try to read it. Specific is what you'll find. So amazingly specific that if you don't speak medicalese, it makes little sense. And fair enough. It's specific information being shared, doctor to doctor. Imagine if it said: "Well, there's a bit of a lump on the bit that sticks out of the thingummyjiggy but it doesn't seem to be a nasty one."

Likewise, "cause of death" on a death certificate can't say: "One thing or another, but he had a good innings." And imagine a pregnancy test with a "maybe" reading.

Specific purposes therefore call for specific language choices. Conversely, there are times in life when what we want is the very antithesis of precise. That this happens frequently is borne out by the plethora of resources the language offers. Lots of words for vague: approximate, roughly, near-enough-is-good-enough, ballpark, off the top of my head, broad brushstroke, guesstimate, helicopter view. We also have a bunch of substitutables - such as "whatchamacallit" and "thingummybob" - that serve us during a memory lapse.

Some text types are deliberately vague. When my children were at primary school, their half-yearly reports were bush-beating to the point of meaninglessness. The only bits that were pinpointable were the number of days absent and the particular sports that were played, information we already knew.

Perhaps the text type that most thrives on imprecision is the horoscope. In fact, it is a particular blend of the specific and the vague and, as such, presents a significant communication challenge. It has to be specific enough for members of each star sign to feel attended to. At the same time, it has to be vague enough that a 16-year-old and a 60-year-old will be able to apply what is written to their own vastly different lives.

Look at this example for Aries during a week in April: "In the middle of the week, you have every reason to feel confident about a key piece of information that affects your goals but wait until April 12 to move on it." The date given is precise, but everything else could mean, well, anything.

And this, for Pisces, in the same week: "Keep everything as a rough plan, then finalise after April 12 [but] global chaos involving communication, computers, travel or transport is likely at this time so be cautious." You'd need a very good reason to leave home.

Meanwhile, Gemini is being told: "You come close [to getting lucky] - and then your love buddy takes a step back. A cosmic pause on the road to happiness - things will work out over the coming weeks." Clearly, Gemini should stay put, do nothing, and let her fate happen while she waits.

Sagittarius is told to "surround [her]self with a large posse of close friends and visit only the most exclusive bars ... Go for Mr Right-Now, not necessarily Mr Right."

Scorpio is told that a "wake-up call" is on its way and, when it comes, "listen to it. Intense feelings of love or hate could merge and confuse you." Call me a party-pooper but I'd want to know which is it going to be - love or hate?

Clearly, this level of vague perfectly suits the imagination of the horoscope reader. You fill in the blanks with your own specifics, but leave agency and blame to the stars. What could be more irresponsible?