Last night I would have slept better if I'd forgone reading an essay about hepatitus experiments at Willowbrook in the 1950s. The researchers who infected the subjects by giving them contaminated fecal matter argued their experiments were justified because hepatitus was "inevitable" for inmates at the institution. The essay makes a point about how meaning is attached to scientific language that I want to keep for later: "Numbers and Words: The lack of attention may partly result from how people use language to describe quantitative ideas. Although the Willowbrook researchers gave seemingly clear and precise numbers in their widely published tables, the debates were carried on using such terms as 'most,' 'inevitably,' and 'virtually every.' We cannot say precisely what the primary actors interpreted those words to mean or what their audience (critics or supporters) heard. There appear to be no studies from the period that evaluated what people meant by a particular verbal specification of the frequency of an event. But studies from the more recent past have asked both physicians and nonphysicians about the meaning of such terms as 'always,' 'likely,' and 'certain.' There are no general shared beliefs about the meanings of commonly used verbal expressions of probability. For example, only 80.3 percent of people think that 'certain' means 100 of 100 people. If people who read about Willowbrook heard 'inevitable' as meaning a likelihood less than 100 percent, the some of the assertions about disease inevitability make more sense. The malleable meanings of the terms may have blunted any desire to interrogate the numerical expressions with the same intensity as the verbal."

(Btw, Geraldo Rivera entered the national spotlight in 1973 after reporting on the miserable conditions of Willowbrook.)

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