Fine Points

Is accuracy overrated?

Illustration by Greg Clarke

One of the unremarked characteristics of the dispute last fall over a "full, fair, and accurate" count of the presidential ballots cast in Florida is the extent to which the idea of accuracy itself has come to occupy the status of a primal good—joining prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude as the fifth cardinal virtue (maybe the only one left). Presidential politics aside, the frontiers of accuracy have recently registered advances in a variety of directions. The initial layout of the Great Pyramid at Giza, it turns out, can now be dated more accurately than ever before—to about 2478 B.C.—because it appears to have been precisely aligned in accordance with a particular astronomical configuration. The average normal temperature of the human body was not long ago recalibrated to 98.2°, replacing the traditional 98.6°, and last year researchers in the United States and Canada, making use of a computer-controlled Thermal Manikin Head in a wind tunnel, proposed long-overdue adjustments to the formula for the wind-chill factor. In 1999 the official height of Mount Everest was adjusted upward by seven feet (to 29,035 feet), and the summit was moved slightly to the northeast.

Issues of accuracy arise everywhere. At the service entrance of my office building a Muslim man folds himself into an attitude of prayer. Is he aware, I wonder, of the controversy over the correct qibla from North America—that is, the direction in which the devout should be oriented in order to be facing Mecca? (Some Muslims favor the southeast, but according to the magazine Islamic Horizons, spherical trigonometry suggests a northeasterly direction.) Is he aware of how the exactitudes of astronomical and atmospheric science have altered and even made irrelevant the traditional practice of "moonsighting" to detect the precise end of Ramadan?

During the past hundred years or so, according to the authors of The First Measured Century, a companion volume to a recent PBS documentary, Americans made themselves into "the most energetic measurers" in history: "Numerical thinking became the discourse of public life." Needless to say, all of us would agree that a substantial amount of accuracy, numerical and otherwise, is in the broader social interest. During NATOs's 1999 war against Yugoslavia, the inability to locate the address No. 2 Bulevar Umetnosti, in Belgrade, caused three precision-guided bombs to miss a Yugoslav military installation and slam into the Chinese embassy. A failure by scientists at NASA and the Lockheed Martin Corporation to convert certain calculations from the English measurement system into the metric system resulted in the loss of the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft. In 1996 an error in the transcription of an interview conducted by a writer for The New Yorker caused the commentator William Bennett to be quoted as saying of Patrick Buchanan's political views, "it's a real S & M kind of thing," whereas Bennett had actually said, "it's a real us-and-them kind of thing." At about the same time, a woman in Redding, California, noticed that she didn't have enough ketchup to put in her meat loaf—leading to the discovery of a slight underfilling of certain bottles (the inadvertent result of a new design) and the payment by the H. J. Heinz Company of $180,000 in civil penalties. Heinz last year also agreed to add some 10 million ounces of ketchup to its overall output, in tiny increments per bottle, in order to remedy past shortfalls.

But when does the quest for accuracy become overbearing? Almost everyone can now own instruments pinpointing his or her exact location on the planet with reference to the satellite-based Global Positioning System. Even cattle are linked to the GPS: so-called cow-whisperer devices, attached to collars, convey recorded instructions ("gee," "haw") and enable ranchers to move herds among remote pasturelands. The accuracy of IQ as a gauge of intelligence may be debated, but IQ has nonetheless been joined by Technology Quotient, Anger Quotient, Happiness Quotient, Sexual Quotient, Emotional Quotient, and a host of other indices. The pursuit of accuracy becomes more and more particular. A study reported in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that, other variables being constant, the metabolic expenditure of continual gum-chewing during all waking hours will in the course of a year bring about a five-kilogram reduction in body weight. Now that the accuracy of genetic evidence in proving guilt or innocence is beyond dispute, DNA-sampling kits may become a staple of personal hardware. A device called Defender-DNA is already being advertised:

Should the perpetrator come within reach, the slightest jab will activate the alarm, expose the pin under the retractable cover and cause [a] tiny collection probe to pierce the attacker's skin, gathering an identifying DNA sample.

To be sure, familiar figures of speech continue to expose a lack of accuracy to censure: "Close enough for government work." "Close doesn't count except in horseshoes and hand grenades." "Close, but no cigar." The online newsmonger Matt Drudge has been ridiculed by some media critics for stating that his reports are "80 percent accurate." And yet there are times when strict accuracy is actually undesirable. The extra leg in Picasso's Paul en Arlequin is an essential part of the painting's appeal. The poems of Shakespeare and Donne are filled with inept rhymes that brook no improvement. In typography the size of some letters must often be crafted slightly "wrong" in order to look "right." Translators resort to inaccuracy all the time: In Play It Again, Sam, Woody Allen tells Diane Keaton that he was thinking of Willie Mays while they were having sex; I saw the movie in France, where the subtitle rendered "Willie Mays" as "Pélé." Accuracy in music may be unusually subjective, but one critic I know believes that the singer Betty Carter had such perfect pitch that she could always be a quarter-tone sharp just for effect. Labored accuracy is no ideal: There's a story about Thelonious Monk's impatiently ordering a musician, "Don't be perfect!"

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In