Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Numbers Are Not Metaphors

Am I the only one who can't handle when people don't understand that a number represents an exact quantity?  It's not a metaphor.  It's not simile.  We have plenty of words to convey symbolic meaning.  Numbers aren't designed for that purpose.

I have encountered many instances of this, but my recent visit to the dentist was one of the most egregious.

I had to have a root canal.  Having a root canal is basically the worst thing ever.  It puts one in a position to have very little tolerance for word crimes.

The root canal was on one of my back teeth, so I had to have my mouth open wide enough that the dentist could put his entire fist in my mouth as well as his entire tool box.  Even though my tooth was completely numb, the drilling they were doing was hitting the nerves in my palate so all of my other teeth were feeling like they had been drilled as well.  (I know this paragraph contains no reference to word crimes.  It's just setting the stage for the low level of joy I was feeling when the word crime was committed.)

When the root canal was finally complete, the dentist had to give me a little confession.  He said that the drill bit broke off inside my tooth while he was rooting my canal.  (I know "rooting my canal" is not a thing.  I just wasn't sure what verb would apply to a dentist performing a root canal.)  He said that there is no way to dig out the drill bit without destroying the tooth.  But he said the bit was silver, and silver has been used by many dentists to fill teeth, so there's no reason to believe it should ever cause a problem.  But he wanted to let me know in the interest of full disclosure.

He said he didn't say any reason to worry about it, but he did say that if there's ever a problem with it, since it can't be removed, the solution to the problem would have to be to remove the tooth.

While the dentist was a little blunt about the possibility of losing my tooth, he had me feeling pretty good about it not ever being a problem.  As dentists do, he got up to go work with another patient and I was left alone with the hygienist.  The hygienist apparently wanted to comfort me, so she brought up the issue of complications caused by a drill bit hidden inside a tooth.

Here were her words of comfort:
As far as complications are concerned, it's kind of 50/50.

I'm thinking to myself, "The dentist just said there was no reason for concern.  Now  you're telling me that I flip a coin and if it comes up heads I lose my tooth?"  Of course, I said nothing out loud.  She continued with her comforting disdain for numbers and their meaning.

But I've seen this happen lots of times, and 9 times out of ten there are no problems at all.
Okay, in about 2 seconds I went from a 50% chance of losing my tooth to a 10% chance.  The odds are vastly improved, but it's still not as comforting as the doctor saying, "There's no reason to believe there should be a problem."

I was already in an unstable state after experiencing the root canal.  Her words of comfort had really frightened me.  But then I looked in her eyes and realized she was genuinely trying to comfort me.  She didn't actually realize that the words she was saying had meaning.  I had to translate the numbers she was saying into the symbolic meaning she was trying to portray.

This is how I translated it:
While it is possible for it to go either way, in nearly all cases there are no problems at all.
You should all be proud of me.  I totally just translated it in my head and I didn't even rebuke her for her word crime.  Don't you feel like I'm so grown up?

I may be grown up, but that doesn't mean the rest of you should continue doing this.  Let's all try to remember that words have meaning.  And numbers are words that have very specific meaning.


  1. Ahhh....I feel your pain! Literally and figuratively. The drill broke in my tooth on my last root canal. So far so good, it's been a year.

  2. Root canals are the worst. And then you had to deal with someone making a mockery of numbers. Life is rough bro, life is rough.

  3. This story is terrifying. I once went home with a bit of string under my gums after a doctor's appointment and it was so painful. Also, your right, numbers have specific meaning; however, they can still be great literary metaphors when used correctly.

  4. Todd has told me many times that my "problem" is that I understand that words have meaning, and I think that other people understand that too. I listen to them and believe what they are telling me, when in fact, they have no clue what they are telling me...

    I'm sorry you had to have a root canal - they do suck a lot, but I think they're worth it if they save your tooth.


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