science

Science is a way to learn about the world.

If you want to do science, here’s what you do: Make an educated guess about how something works, then try really hard to prove that your guess is wrong. Maybe there’s a little more to it than that, but you get the idea.

Science is slow, but it works pretty well. It’s how we got rockets, sour gummy candy, the polio vaccine, smartphones, and the five-day weather forecast.

Some people throw around the word “science” or “scientific” when they’re selling something they want you to buy: a scientific formula, a scientific breakthrough, proven by science. They want you to think science supports their idea/product the same way it supports sending a remote-controlled laboratory to Mars. Almost always, it doesn’t.

You don’t have to be a scientist yourself to see through that stuff. A lot of the time, you only need to ask yourself: How hard has this person tried to prove himself wrong? How hard would a real scientist have to try?

artist

As long as there has been art, there have been people fighting about what counts as art. Is abstract expressionism art? Rap music? Video games? How about a urinal in a museum? Some people get really worked up about this stuff.

But one thing every single one of those people (except a few of the marketing executives) have agreed on is that wearing a silly hat and insulting women isn’t an art. Another is: It takes no artistic talent to assemble sandwiches for a giant corporation that pays you next to nothing and makes you wear a dumb uniform.

The guy in the funny hat calls himself an “artist” because he wants you to let him off the hook for being an asshole (he doesn’t hate women — he’s an artist), and the corporation calls its sandwich-assembling employees “artists” because they want you (and maybe also the employees themselves) to think assembling sandwiches for poverty wages is a stimulating way to spend an afternoon.

Where I come from, we have a term for people who co-opt perfectly good words to distract you from how terrible they are. We call these people bullshit artists.

what is the passive voice?

The passive voice is a way of talking about something without thinking too hard about how it happened.

No, no, no. Put down your grammar books. Set them on fire if you want. We won’t be diagramming sentences today. What you need to know about the passive voice is how it can affect the details you notice. I’ll show you what I mean. Here is a short story in the passive voice:

The vase was broken by the cow.

When you read that sentence, what do you see in your mind? The first thing you imagine is a broken vase, right? It’s only after you picture the vase that you see the cow. She’s an afterthought. The fact that she’s the one who broke the vase is not very important.

Here’s the same story about the cow and the vase, but this time it’s in the active voice:

The cow broke the vase.

See the difference? Now you picture the cow breaking the vase. You can’t separate the cow and the broken vase (the cause and the effect) the way you could in the passive version. In fact, in the passive one, you could get away with not mentioning the cow at all — the vase was broken, period — and then you’d never know who did it.

There are other ways to use the passive voice, but this one is the most insidious. It lets the person speaking separate what happened from how it happened, and sometimes leave out the “how” altogether. That’s what people are doing when they say “mistakes were made” — they want you to think no one is responsible.

Remember: Mistakes do not make themselves. Ask more questions.

spin cycle: i misspoke

Welcome back to Spin Cycle, where we publicly shame people who are bullshitting us in the news.

Today’s unlucky subject is U.S. congressman Todd Akin, who has several interesting (and false) ideas about rape and women’s bodies. When civilized society called bullshit on him, Akin said he “misspoke.”

Misspeaking is a slip of the tongue. It’s saying right when you meant left, mixing up one statistic with another, addressing someone by the wrong name. We’ve all done it. It’s embarrassing, but not a disaster. Someone corrects us* and we say, “Oh, sorry, I meant North Dakota.”

Politicians love saying they misspoke when they didn’t. Listen for it when they use racial slurs or other bad words and when they make any statement that sounds too honest. It’s easier to say you misspoke than to admit you’re an asshole or that you didn’t know what you were talking about.

So back to our friend congressman Akin. His problem isn’t that he misspoke — it’s that he revealed his actual beliefs to us on camera. He stated very clearly that women’s bodies have special birth-control powers that kick in only when they are “legitimately” raped, which is wrong in at least three different ways. You can’t be that many kinds of wrong by accident.

*Instead of improvising a follow-up question such as “What the hell did you just say?” or “Please tell me more about this intriguing feature of human physiology,” the guy interviewing the congressman moved right along to his next scripted question. Let us all learn from his mistake.

metaphor fight: water and rich people

Hold onto your critical faculties, everybody: It’s time for a metaphor fight!

Today’s metaphor fight is about what happens when you cut taxes for rich people. In one corner, we have “trickle-down economics.” In the other, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Let’s start with the rising tide. In this metaphor, water represents rich people’s money and each boat represents somebody’s standard of living. If there’s more water (money) around, everyone’s boat (standard of living) is higher. It doesn’t matter if the rich boats rise thirty-five feet while the poor ones get maybe three or four inches at high tide — the point is, nobody’s boat would have risen at all without those tax cuts.

“Trickle-down economics” paints a very different picture. In this metaphor, rich people will have so much extra tax money jammed into their pockets that some of it is bound to fall out and land where a poor person can grab it. (Notice: There are very few things in nature that trickle that you would actually want to stand under and collect. Even if you picture coins or something, the implication here is that a bunch of greasy fingers [or worse] were all over them before they clinked sadly through the street grates into your outstretched hands.)

These metaphors aren’t fighting just for the hell of it. They are fighting over you. Each one wants you to think about money in society in a way that supports the belief system of the person who made it up.

Is money a force of nature, like the ocean? Is it a scarce resource, hoarded by the greedy few? Or are both of these ideas wrong?

mainstream

Mainstream means popular, sort of. It means normal, expected, commonplace.

If you’re outside the mainstream, you can see it more clearly. You can even swim against it if you don’t like where it’s going.

It’s a great metaphor, but it’s also a trick. Just using the word mainstream implies that you aren’t in the stream, that YOUR art or music or political opinions are special and different. Mainstream things are for people who drift helplessly with the current. Not you.

Maybe you are more thoughtful and refined than the average person. Someone has to be. But don’t flatter yourself with this story about the stream, and don’t let anyone else flatter you with it, either. People who make a big show of saying their ideas run counter to the mainstream are people who lack confidence in their ideas.

unexplained

Everything we need to know about the unexplained is right there in the word “unexplained.” Not explained. Nobody has explained it yet.

Fortunately(?), people who use the word “unexplained” are often very keen to explain unexplained things to us. Hear a strange noise in the dark? Ghost. See an odd light in the sky? Aliens. Think of a friend right before they texted you? Psychic.

Explanations like “coincidence,” “honest mistake,” “illusion,” and “elaborate practical joke” are less popular with this crowd.

insubordination

Insubordination means — oh, shit, that has a lot of syllables in it! Did somebody bust you for insubordination? You must have done something terrible. Or at least your accuser would like you to think so.

Practically speaking, insubordination probably means you didn’t follow orders or somebody caught you planning a mutiny.

But the word insubordinate means you failed to be subordinate — to be, that is, inferior to the person whose orders you didn’t follow. That’s all. It doesn’t mean you put other people in danger or cost your company three hundred million dollars — it means you thought too highly of yourself. You didn’t know your place.

Is a word like this good for anyone other than the people in charge? Is it even good for them?  Should questioning authority ever be a crime?

intervention: eastern, ethnic, urban

Are you a white person? Have you ever used the expression “eastern philosophy” or “eastern religions?” How about “urban music” or “urban culture?” Have you ever referred to another person as “ethnic” or “ethnic-looking?” If so, this post is for you.

Welcome. Have a seat. Can we get you a glass of water?

Look, we understand where you’re coming from. You’ve been trained to avoid saying anything too specific about races and cultures you don’t belong to. You are terrified someone will think you’re racist, which you’re not. You’re not. Of course you’re not. Please sit down.

We invited you here today because we are worried about the things you’re saying. We want to help you stop saying them. Will you hear us out? We’ll take them one at a time.

Eastern
Let’s use “eastern religions” to clear this one up. While some religions in East Asia are related, many others have nothing to do with each other. Hinduism, Buddhism and Shinto are not similar at all. Or at least they are far less similar than, say, Christianity and Islam. There are a lot of countries between California and Europe — and one of them is Australia — and when you talk about “eastern” things as a group, you are giving the impression that you think everyone in Asia thinks the same way and believes the same stuff. If you have something insightful to say about a particular religion or school of philosophy, go ahead and name the religion/school of philosophy! Everyone listening will thank you.

Urban
Just say “black” when you mean black. It’s okay. Black people exist.

Ethnic
Ooooh, boy. This is maybe the worst thing you say. When you say someone is or looks “ethnic,” you are saying they don’t look white to you. That is all you’re saying. You are not providing meaningful information about the person. Imagine if I told you my new neighbor or coworker or lawyer or whatever was a non-red-haired person. That’s silly, right? “Ethnic” is just like that. It suggests that “white” is the only racial category that matters to you. You don’t really feel that way, do you? No! I’m not saying I think you do! I’m saying other people will think you do if you keep talking like that.

Thank you for listening. These things are never easy.