The meaninglessness of "up to"

If you look (or listen) to many marketing materials, they seem to promise so much. And yet when you think about what they actually mean, they seem to instead promise very little.

Consider the stereotypical example:

Improve your output by up to 100%

At first glance it seems that this amazing product will double our productivity! Incredible stuff - who wouldn't want something that good?

But. Up to. Hrm, what that actually means that it will not improve our output by more than 100%. It doesn't say anything at all about whereabouts in that region below 100% it actually exists.

I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that it will generally improve output - using "improve" tends to suggest that it won't decrease output.

But that still leaves us scratching our heads and wondering where in the region of 0% to 100% this product will actually fit.

What we really need are some statistical measures - like a mean and a variance, and, ideally, the underlying probability distribution so that we can make a far more educated decision about just how good this product is.

Of course, that might be a little bit scary. So that's unlikely to happen.

But surely we can do better than a statement that is effectively meaningless? Can't we?

[Image credit: Christopher Sessums]