Speeding-up by Slowing-Down

1 July 2011

Having retrieved a previous month's USPS mail, I was flipping through the July-August issue of American Scientist (v99 #4), and found a picture captioned thus:

Middle-aged and elderly people exercising during Respect for the Aged Day in Tokyo in 2005. Japan's population is aging particularly quickly. The ratio of people younger than 20 compared to those older than 65 is shifting, from 9.3 in 1950 to a predicted 0.59 in 2025. If scientists succeed at slowing aging, this trend may well accelerate.
(Underscores mine.) So the caption is claiming that the population is aging quickly and may age even more quickly if aging is slowed.

Now, what's really happening in that caption is that the verb age is being used in two related but very different senses. In aging particularly quickly, the sense is one of increase in average chronological age; in slowing aging, the sense is one of become decrepit. The underlying thought is entirely reasonable; the expression is inept, because it moves from one meaning to the other (and then implicitly back to the first) without signally that it is doing so except in the sense that the passage is otherwise absurd; best not to make the reader sort-out such things.

I don't know who wrote that caption. The author of the piece in which it is embedded actually notes

the word aging refers to different things
exactly to explain how confusions of these meanings results in practice in logically invalid arguments.

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