Errors & Omissions: The cleverness of those hard-working beetles cannot be overestimated

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The Independent Online

The story goes that the biologist J B S Haldane was once asked by a clergyman what qualities a scientist might attribute to the Creator. Haldane replied: "An inordinate fondness for beetles."

There are indeed a huge number of types of beetles, as the writer of the following blurb, which appeared in last Saturday's magazine, was aware: "Beetles are quite fascinating members of the insect world. There are more than 350,000 different types of beetle, more than any other species on the planet."

Haldane, however, would not have been pleased to see beetles called a species. Each of the "350,000 different types" is a species. The beetles are an order – the order Coleoptera within the class Insecta. Neither, I imagine, would Haldane have been happy with this, from the same feature, describing how beetles eat dead vegetation. "The important job of tidying up the natural world cannot be underestimated."

All right, it's just a bit of whimsy, but it is too silly to be amusing. We are all Darwinians here. Nobody outside Disney studio nature films of the 1950s imagines that beetles eat dead leaves because they, or we, or the divine Creator thinks it is an important job to "tidy up" the world.

Just one more thing: The confusion between "underestimate" and "overestimate". Think for a second. Something which "cannot be underestimated" would be infinitesimally small. The "job of tidying up the natural world" is meant to be very big. In that case it would be difficult to overestimate. Can anybody explain why people so often get this wrong?

Jargon: Last Saturday, one columnist noted the increasing number of people who consider themselves middle class. Once "middle class" had been an insult. No longer: "Now that the middle class has expanded so exponentially, the term is quite neutral again."

Jack Hale has written from Gateshead to draw my attention to that passage. People often use "exponentially" in that messy way, to mean "fast" or "steeply" or "a lot". It is a bad habit. And "so exponentially" is nonsense. A change is either exponential or it is not. In exponential growth (or decline) the rate rises (or falls) in proportion to the magnitude. A classic illustration is the story of the sultan who rewards a courtier by giving him one grain of wheat on the first square of a chessboard, two on the second, four on the third, eight on the fourth and so on. To the sultan's surprise, there is not enough wheat in all his dominions to fill the last square.

But exponential does not necessarily mean either big or fast. For instance, compound interest produces exponential growth in the size of a pot of money, but if the interest rate is only 1 per cent a year, the pot will take a lifetime of 70 years to double. In the grains-on-the-chessboard story, the interest rate is 100 per cent per square, so the growth is more dramatic – but both are equally exponential.

Martian editing: Tuesday's Wikileaks coverage quoted Hillary Clinton: "I am confident that the partnerships the [Barack] Obama administration has worked so hard to build will withstand this challenge."

I know that was the first mention of the word Obama in the story, and I know that the book says you put in the first name at first mention, but surely we earthlings all know what the Obama administration is.

Journalese: "Many believe jewels can be good luck talismans or cursed stones," declared a feature article about the Duchess of Windsor's jewellery on Tuesday. Come on then, how many – and how do you know? The word "many", as used in newspapers, always means that the writer is just making it all up. So do its partners in crime "much" and "few". Writers use them because they sound more authoritative than the honest version, which would be something along the lines of "Quite a few, I should think, wouldn't you?".

Cliché of the week: "The cliché of choice among studio marketeers is now 'the four-quadrant movie'," opined an article about film audiences last Saturday. Funny, I thought "of choice" was the cliché of choice these days.