Yet when we offer a prize to the submarine commander who sinks the greatest number of ships in the shortest possible time, we have a double superlative -- a maximum number and a minimum time -- which renders the problem completely meaningless and indeterminate, as becomes apparent upon reflection. Double superlatives of this sort, which are by no means uncommon in present-day statements, can lead to a mental confusion with disastrous results.
As pointed out years ago, the frequent statement, "in a democracy we believe in the greatest good for the greatest number," contains a double superlative and therefore is meaningless and indeterminate. (In Part Two we shall see that the distribution of goods and services are in fact governed by a single superlative.) Intimately connected with the "singleness of the superlative" is what might be called the singleness of the objective whose implications are often overlooked (i.e., the pursuit of one objective may preclude or frustrate the pursuit of the scoond objective). These two concepts apply to all studies in ecology.
(George K. Zipf, Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort, 1949)