July 16, 2009

Was Brontosaurus A Herbivore?


decimate.JPG


I.

1a. George Washington is the father of our country, the Revolutionary War general who helped free the colonies from their British rule. In what country was George Washington born?

2a. What modern animal is most genetically similar to a triceratops?

3a. T or F: The majority of the available scientific evidence strongly suggests that nicotine increases the risk of cancer.

4a. Your best friend in the whole world, Tom, sends you a letter which begins with the first two lines of Richard III: "Now is the winter of our discontent..."  That's bad, right?

5a.  Galileo, the scientist famously remembered by his first name, invented the 3x telescope.  What, if anything, was going on in America at the same time?


II.


1b.  Could someone born in another country become President of the US?


2b.  Does a rhinoceros lay eggs or have live young?


3b. Do nicotine gum and patches have the surgeon general's warning?


4b. Does Tom like Shakespeare?


5b.  What was Galileo accused of?


III.

Why did the b questions help you answer the a questions?  Because they made you think from a different angle.  You were first trying to remember the answer, but then trying to deduce the answer.

These questions should have been the stuff of elementary school education, but somewhere between learning that Washington had wooden teeth and "brontosaurus ate plants" we missed lessons that could be applied.

What we were taught was facts.  We were also taught never to question the facts.  No one thinks a 7th grade textbook is wrong.  The results of a study may be questioned, but the Introduction section isn't.  What makes a statement in the Introduction true is that it is in the Introduction.  And go look how often studies reference the Introduction of another study...

Unfortunately, even these facts,  tested in exams and backed by certainty were wrong, but there was no public apology.  No one ever says, "wow, we were wrong."  They just move past it.  Some of these facts ruined lives.  For me, infuriatingly, some of these facts resulted in worse grades in high school.  Do I get to go back and reapply to a better college?

  • Brontosaurus ate plants (there's no such thing as a brontosaurus)
  • introns "do nothing" (not: "we don't know what they do")
  • giraffes evolved long necks because it helped them reach higher leaves (the giraffe did it?)
  • Everyone thought the world was flat in Columbus's time
  • etc
 

By focusing on facts, we learned a way of thinking which is not generalizable to knowledge or useful for its application. Worse, the isolation of these facts outside of context makes it difficult for us to detect them as wrong.

Education is at the convenience of the educators.



God Wouldn't Have Made The Same Thing Twice For No Reason

Most people know that birds are the closest relative to most dinosaurs; and they definitely know that dinosaurs are reptiles, but they pick rhino-- a mammal-- anyway.  A triceratops is closer to a snake than to a rhino; indeed, a rhino is closer to a unicorn than a triceratops and unicorns don't even exist.  Similarly: an eel isn't a snake or a worm, it's a fish.

They learned about evolution wrong(ly.) For most people 1) evolution is about morphology and not genetics; 2) they don't believe evolution is a random, sometimes redundant and repeating process, but rather a process of refinement, of moving towards something better.

Do you know why they think that?  Because they were taught that.


"Conventional Wisdom Is Wrong"


Everyone knows cigarettes are bad, and that they have nicotine.  So perhaps it's not surprising that 70% of smokers think that nicotine increases the risk of cancer-- because that's the one the evil tobacco companies spiked the cigarette with. 

In fact, out of the 60 carcinogens, tar, arsenic, lead and CO inhaled with each puff, nicotine is one of the few chemicals that doesn't cause lung cancer or heart disease. 

But, be honest, break the fourth wall: reading this blog, you quickly reasoned that the mere fact that the question was asked suggests it's a trick.  "Aha!" you may have figured.  "Nicotine patches!"  Which is fine; The Princeton Review actually formalizes this way of approaching the SAT test  (e.g. for the first third of questions the obvious answer is correct; last third of questions, the obvious answer is always wrong...)

Now, you have never once in your life said to someone "nicotine causes cancer."  But it is 100% certain that within the next 5 days, you will repeat this question to others, and teach them that nicotine doesn't cause cancer.  Knowledge is rarely offered freely; debunking of conventional wisdom is shouted from the rooftops.

I'll repeat: you've never told someone that nicotine causes cancer, but it is certain that you will now tell people that it doesn't.  Because it's cool.

Unfortunately, nicotine does increase the risk of cancer-- just not in the same way that other carcinogens do it.  (It facilitates the development of lung cancer, and possible breast cancer.)  The evidence for this is not substantial but it isn't inconsequential, either.  So telling people it doesn't cause cancer-- the information you were motivated to disseminate-- is absolutely, and dangerously, wrong.

Science is no different.  Is a 2000 calorie diet the same as a 2000 calorie diet?


Everyone Else Is So Wrong That You Can Never Be Right


Look at the "decimate" cartoon at the top.  You know deci means ten and you never applied it.  You follow the herd, the herd that used decimate in the comic book sense: "we will decimate our enemies!"

But because decimate has taken on the common usage 'kill a lot of", it's not actually wrong to use it that way; indeed, if you try to use it the other way, you will confuse people.  So the meaning that is actually conveyed will depend on your audience, not on you.  You don't get to decide what you meant. 

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

Line 1 sounds bad, but line 2 flips it:  things that were bad have been made good by the king.  So what does it mean in the letter you received, bad or good?  What matters is what Tom thinks it means.

That requires you to know Tom.  And requires Tom to assume you're going to think it means what he does, i.e. that he is not aware that it means different things to different people, even though it really only means one thing.

This is knowledge claimed by misuse, anyone who wants to be understood should simply steer clear of the word decimate and Richard III.  Take a minute and you'll come up with a thousand other words and concepts that have been murdered by misinterpretation. 

Expression affects thought.  When there are restrictions on expression, there are restrictions on thought. 


Compartmentalization of Information

Even if you didn't know that Washington was a 3rd generation American, you should have been able to reason that since all Presidents must be born in the U.S., Washington had to be born in the U.S. (1) You possessed all of the necessary information; but you could not apply it.  It's not your fault.

Galileo lived around the 1600s, and was found suspect of heresy by the Inquisition for supporting heliocentricism-- in 1632.  This made it a decade after the Jamestown Massacre and Plymouth Rock.  Consider, therefore, that the Pilgrims had guns and still believed the sun went around the earth. 

Consider that the Age of Exploration-- Magellan, Columbus, et al-- happened 100 years before Galileo-- with a wrong understanding of solar system and before the invention of the telescope. 

It's a game you can play all day: King Arthur (500AD) was twice as far from the time of Leonardo Da Vinci (1500AD) than to Jesus; Jesus was 500 years closer to us than to the building of the Pyramid of Giza.

Learning famous dates is of no value if they can't be used to contextualize events.  Which, of course, wasn't the point of learning them.

And by learning so many bits of disconnected factoids, you are fooled into thinking you know something.


The Solution To The Problem Of Useless Education:

Where did George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln go to college?



------------------

1. Actually, this isn't true.  Article II of the Constitution says the President must be natural born or a citizen at the time of the adoption of the Constitution.  But it's safe to assume if you had any trouble with this question, you didn't know about that caveat.


--------------

http://twitter.com/thelastpsych





Comments

Dude, trying to explain evo... (Below threshold)

July 16, 2009 7:41 PM | Posted by Fargo: | Reply

Dude, trying to explain evolution to people is such a challenge, and it certainly seems to be because of the way it's presented in school and culture at large. Everyone seems to want to twist it into a motivated process, which is a difficult mode of thought to get out of.

Not having looked at a text book in quite some time, it's unclear to me whether the blame is on the publications, the teachers, or both. Certainly parents are infrequently of help, since it isn't likely they have any better grasp on it, and probably lend their own vague answers to reinforce bad concepts.

In high school I remember trying to explain how color works to some guy. Explaining reflection vs absorption of the visual spectrum and so on. Not really all that high a level of concept, ya' know? Like, this is covered pretty well in grade school. By the end of our little chat he concluded I was wrong because otherwise everything would glow in the dark. My mind was blown.

Do you think it likely that such learning errors become a feedback loop, with error compounding error?

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Even if you didn't... (Below threshold)

July 16, 2009 8:03 PM | Posted by Matt P: | Reply

Even if you didn't know that Washington was a 3rd generation American, you should have been able to reason that since all Presidents must be born in the U.S., Washington had to be born in the U.S.

Am I thick, or did you miss the tricky bit of your own trick question? The country in which Washington was born couldn't possibly have been America, as America-as-a-country didn't exist yet; that's why they needed the bit you mentioned in Article II.

Seems to me the answer would have to be either England or Virginia, depending on the status of the colonies.

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You know deci mean... (Below threshold)

July 16, 2009 8:44 PM | Posted by Matt P: | Reply

You know deci means ten and you never applied it. You follow the herd, the herd that used decimate in the comic book sense: "we will decimate our enemies!"

Not quite, at least for some of us. We knew deci meant tenth, but we applied it the other way around: the (comic book) decimator reduces the population to 1/10 its original size. Still wrong, but not as nuttily so. I blame Dewey and the metric system.

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I've run into this constant... (Below threshold)

July 16, 2009 9:07 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

I've run into this constantly with cached thoughts I acquired in my teenage years.

One notable example was my High School's Physics textbook which compared entropy to leaves falling off a tree in the fall, or library books getting placed on the wrong shelves over time (while technically true that disorganized information is more entropic than ordered information, that wasn't what the textbook was trying to convey). I had a stunning insight into this while reading something about black holes (or w/e), and reverse engineered what entropy actually was. Given my naivete at the time, I emailed my old High School - as if any of them really gave a damn.

The bit about evolution really bugs me. The actual theory is so simple, and so drastically important, and yet they continue to misteach it. Why? It's a hell of a lot easier to understand than trigonometry, and it's effects are more important for understanding day to day political life.

I try and immunize my nephew to this brainwashing by telling him obvious lies that he's too young to parse (grandpa built the table legs so that they're just the right length to reach the ground) mixed in with improbable truths (they knew the world was round 2500 years ago).

This is why I'll probably tell my children about Santa Claus - because when they finally realize that he doesn't exist, I'll point out to them that they had all the necessary evidence and reasoning ability to deduce this for years - but they instead relied on an argument from authority.

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This is one of the better a... (Below threshold)

July 17, 2009 2:54 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

This is one of the better articles you have written. Could you tell us about what inspired you to write this article? And, will you sometimes write like this in the future?

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Living in a different count... (Below threshold)

July 17, 2009 4:42 AM | Posted by fraise: | Reply

Living in a different country really brings this into stark evidence; you're confronted with "that's an obvious fact!" knowledge that can often be precisely the opposite of the "obvious fact" you learned. In general, however, I have noticed that European primary and secondary education puts more of an emphasis on critical thinking and not taking facts for granted. Indeed, after just a few months living over here, I realized that Americans come across as stupid not because we're actually stupid, but because of the same things you say in this blog post: we're taught, basically, that "what's presented is true". We're not actually stupid, we were just never taught to think critically. Here in France it's practically a national pasttime to call bullshit on anything presented as a fact.

I used to pull something similar to the Shakespeare quote on my website, with "Earth laughs in flowers." Easy to imagine what basic assumptions were for that one; I'd taken it out of context on purpose, as a lesson for readers in not taking things at face value. (It's important to me to put across how individuals and cultures are different, and how we can get trapped by our own assumptions.) It comes from Emerson's poem "Hamatreya".
http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/eng385/hamatrey.htm

"Earth laughs in flowers, to see her boastful boys
Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs;
Who steer the plough, but cannot steer their feet
Clear of the grave."

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We learn facts because they... (Below threshold)

July 17, 2009 8:48 AM | Posted by Joseph Bergevin: | Reply

We learn facts because they can be tested objectively. It's political.

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Best friends can have a lan... (Below threshold)

July 17, 2009 8:50 AM | Posted by xixi: | Reply

Best friends can have a language, that is, a communication system, of their own. Plus, if someone's your best friend in the world, you could very well be able to tell their thoughts or feelings from their behaviour and words, and on top of that, they probably know that you can intuit what's on their mind. So if said friend were to quote Shakespeare at the beginning of a letter, you might very well know what he's about to get at, and he wouldn't necessarily be narcissistic in expecting you to know, b/c that is how tightknit you guys are. Anyhow, point is, can anyone validly say what OTHER PEOPLE'S best friend relationships are like?

I think you make a really good point about how the education system doesn't teach critical thought, and the contextualization of information, enough. Reading the bit, 'you've never told someone that nicotine causes cancer, but it is certain that you will now tell people that it doesn't. Because it's cool.', I couldn't help but think, 'No I won't, in fact I'm quite sure you're going to contradict that fact in the next paragraph or so b/c that's what you've been doing this whole time, flipping direct or implied statements'. Most of the time you're two steps or more ahead of your audience in the way you write, but if you keep trying to 'trick' them, they'll catch on sooner or later, and start disbelieving anything you say. Maybe this was your intention? If so, you should know, it's highly annoying. People generally don't enjoy listening to writers who assume they know more about their audience than they really do. It can seem especially hypocritical coming from someone who's message is: don't assume anything!

Solution to the problem of useless education: don't go to college, be an independent learner (like Washington, Franklin, and Lincoln) (i guessed that answer, then looked up Washington and Franklin on wiki. Normally i woulda just guessed the answer, but with thelastpsychiatrist, could be a trick-trick question. well now at least, i know some uncontextualized factoids on American presidents)

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The Solution To The Prob... (Below threshold)

July 17, 2009 9:36 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

The Solution To The Problem Of Useless Education:

Where did George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln go to college?

This is the best summary of your point. In reading some of their work it strikes me every time, "Where did they learn to think like this? To write like this? To even question the conventional thinking of the time?"

The onus is on ourselves, as individuals, for our education.

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great post. i was doing som... (Below threshold)

July 17, 2009 10:48 AM | Posted by medsvstherapy: | Reply

great post. i was doing some smoking research, and it occurred to me to wonder whether nicotine itself, as consumed through typical means - cig, patch, dip - was carcinogenic. So I got on the internets and searched for a reference for recognized carcinogens. I failed to find nicotine on the list. Per your prediction, I did bring this up in conversation. Back in time, I also asked the family: "where does a tree get its mass?" I love this one. I bring it up again every now and then - no one has bothered to think it through, although the chemicobiology of this issue is in the news daily. Daily.

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I thought that they adopted... (Below threshold)

July 17, 2009 4:28 PM | Posted by drugs are fun.: | Reply

I thought that they adopted the requirement of being born in the Union to be president after they moved away from a confederation system. Made sense in my mind, more power given to the Executive branch means that you have to be careful about who can run for that office.

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This is great. It ... (Below threshold)

July 17, 2009 4:57 PM | Posted by Brenda Mayer: | Reply

This is great.

It is a travesty that not all schools teach critical thinking. I was fortunate to attend schools that did (Catholic). This will be a great piece to go over with my daughter and nephews.

I'm glad I wound up here.

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Atlas Shrugged suddenly has... (Below threshold)

July 17, 2009 8:47 PM | Posted by Andrew Ator: | Reply

Atlas Shrugged suddenly has a whole new meaning. I should probably read that book.

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The prose is atrocious.... (Below threshold)

July 18, 2009 1:33 PM | Posted, in reply to Andrew Ator's comment, by drugs are fun.: | Reply

The prose is atrocious.

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I think you'd like QI - a B... (Below threshold)

July 18, 2009 2:31 PM | Posted by Richard: | Reply

I think you'd like QI - a British panel game hosted by Stephen Fry. Episodes abound on youtube

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It gets even better. This w... (Below threshold)

July 18, 2009 4:44 PM | Posted, in reply to Matt P's comment, by Inquisitive Raven: | Reply

It gets even better. This would probably never have occurred to me if not for the flap over Obama's birth certificate, but you don't have to be born in the US to be a natural born citizen. You're a natural born citizen if you meet one of the following conditions:

The 14th Amendment defines citizenship this way: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside." But even this does not get specific enough. As usual, the Constitution provides the framework for the law, but it is the law that fills in the gaps.

Currently, Title 8 of the U.S. Code fills in those gaps. Section 1401 defines the following as people who are "citizens of the United States at birth:"

* Anyone born inside the United States *
* Any Indian or Eskimo born in the United States, provided being a citizen of the U.S. does not impair the person's status as a citizen of the tribe
* Any one born outside the United States, both of whose parents are citizens of the U.S., as long as one parent has lived in the U.S.
* Any one born outside the United States, if one parent is a citizen and lived in the U.S. for at least one year and the other parent is a U.S. national
* Any one born in a U.S. possession, if one parent is a citizen and lived in the U.S. for at least one year
* Any one found in the U.S. under the age of five, whose parentage cannot be determined, as long as proof of non-citizenship is not provided by age 21
* Any one born outside the United States, if one parent is an alien and as long as the other parent is a citizen of the U.S. who lived in the U.S. for at least five years (with military and diplomatic service included in this time)
* A final, historical condition: a person born before 5/24/1934 of an alien father and a U.S. citizen mother who has lived in the U.S.

* There is an exception in the law — the person must be "subject to the jurisdiction" of the United States. This would exempt the child of a diplomat, for example, from this provision.

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Here's a couple: Hom... (Below threshold)

July 19, 2009 12:53 PM | Posted by David Johnson: | Reply

Here's a couple:
Homosexuality is a disease. There's a disorder called manic-depressive (hat tip to the brontosaurus), autism is caused by emotionally frigid parents, especially the mother. I could go on and on, but why belabor the fact psychology and psychiatry are fad/zeitgeist based, rather than "fact" based.

The only difference between these examples and the post is these were held to be true by the most prestigious professional institutions in the world- in addition to high schools.

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People really think dinos a... (Below threshold)

July 20, 2009 10:30 PM | Posted by Aaron Davies: | Reply

People really think dinos and rhinos are related? That's pathetic and I fear for western civilization. (I'd have gone with crocodile, personally, but that's more a matter of whether your grandson or your nephew is more closely related to you.)

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This is all rather optimist... (Below threshold)

July 21, 2009 10:38 PM | Posted by Celia: | Reply

This is all rather optimistic. I work in a science museum, specifically in an exhibit about dinosaurs where the main point is that birds evolved from them. Maybe, at best, one person in 20 comes in knowing that, and that's probably too high.

Honestly, if they already know that a) they lived millions of years ago, not thousands, and Noah's flood had nothing to do with their extinction, and b) never lived at the same time as humans (The Flintstones isn't a documentary) I feel like we're doing well.

So yeah, science education? What science education? I've heard parents tell their children that rhinos are related to triceratops, and even better, that giraffes are related to sauropods.

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Is it important or even des... (Below threshold)

July 22, 2009 3:49 PM | Posted by crumbskull: | Reply

Is it important or even desirable to have an entire populace of well educated and inquisitive system challengers?

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A minor nitpick in what is ... (Below threshold)

July 23, 2009 12:05 PM | Posted by purpletempest: | Reply

A minor nitpick in what is otherwise a great essay:

"Galileo lived around the 1600s, and was found suspect of heresy by the Inquisition for supporting heliocentricism-- in 1632. This made it a decade after the Jamestown Massacre and Plymouth Rock. Consider, therefore, that the Pilgrims had guns and still believed the sun went around the earth. "

The Inquisition was led by the Catholic Church. The Pilgrims were Protestants. Not only were they from a country that said "fuck you" to the Catholic church more than a century before, they also were rebelling against the Church of England itself and its traditions that resembled that of the Catholics.

Furthermore, Copernicus and his heliocentric view was published also over a century before Galileo confirmed it with his telescope. So heliocentrism was already well known at least to some. Any educated men among the Pilgrims likely knew of it.

Timing alone is not reason enough to think that Pilgrims held to the beliefs propagated by the Catholic Church. Maybe they did, and maybe they didn't, but I would tend to think that they didn't because anti-papacy sentiment was so strong among Protestants of that time they would disagree with just about anything the Pope said.

Also, they were probably too busy trying to survive to care about which body orbited which.

Thank you for your insightful blog. I quote it often in casual discussion. (I'm a geek with geek friends and we talk about stuff like this.)

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George Washington was an En... (Below threshold)

July 29, 2009 11:34 AM | Posted by La BellaDonna: | Reply

George Washington was an English subject. He was a third-generation colonist, born in the English colony of Virginia, with all the rights to which a English subject was entitled. So ... the country of which George Washington was a born citizen was England.* The colony in which he was born became America, and Washington became an American. If he was an American to start with, he wouldn't have become one upon the separation of the colonies from Great Britain*. Technically, the answer to 1(b) is "At one time; this has already happened by virtue of Washington being the first President. However, currently, it would have to be someone who is a natural-born citizen."

I got hung up on the "triceratops" question; I thought that birds developed from the velociraptor/therapod branch, and triceratops was a sauropod, but I figured that even a therapod was closer to a sauropod than a mammal was.

And Columbus knew the world was round. It was fairly general knowledge in the 14th century that the world was round. Heck, the Romans knew the world was round.

I wish Latin was still taught on a regular basis, at least in high school. It doesn't take an awful lot of Latin to know what "decimate" means (even without knowing about the Roman Legion and the way it punished mutinous soldiers), and some really basic Latin makes it possible to work out a whole lot of words one may have never encountered before. Even a couple of years of Latin will make it possible to limp through the Romance languages, at least in print.

*It's possible to go back and forth on this one: England/Great Britain, England/Great Britain. Virginia was indisputably an "English" colony rather than a "British" colony; Virgina wasn't being settled by the Welsh, initially.

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I think Doyle had Sherlock ... (Below threshold)

July 30, 2009 6:22 AM | Posted by Aaron Davies: | Reply

I think Doyle had Sherlock Holmes say at one point that not only did he not know whether the Earth revolved around the Sun or vice versa, he didn't care, and if someone told him, he would do his best to forget immediately, as he didn't want to clutter up his mind with information irrelevant to his life and work.

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Re:decimateNo, we ... (Below threshold)

August 3, 2009 12:24 AM | Posted, in reply to Matt P's comment, by brno: | Reply

Re:decimate

No, we have actually used the term correctly, we have just removed the tenth of the enemy population - the upper tenth :))

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"but I would tend to think ... (Below threshold)

December 17, 2010 12:30 PM | Posted, in reply to purpletempest's comment, by Gene Callahan: | Reply

"but I would tend to think that they didn't because anti-papacy sentiment was so strong among Protestants of that time they would disagree with just about anything the Pope said..."

Incredible. History by guess work!

Are you aware that Luther was violently anti-Copernicus?

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Yes, and "December" isn't t... (Below threshold)

October 22, 2011 2:38 PM | Posted by d*: | Reply

Yes, and "December" isn't the 10th month of the year. A wave hello isn't to prove you're unarmed (and, btw, being "unarmed" doesn't mean you don't have arms). "Apathy" no longer means a state of mind free from disturbance. Etymology doesn't fix the meaning of word or deed. But your language is a little strong on the point. I'm not sure that "misuse" and "murdered by misinterpretation" really aptly describe the subtle changes that occur to language over thousands of years. Especially for a language like English, that appropriated vocabulary from so many sources (Latin, Greek, French, Norse, etc.).

You can see how meaning is cultural, contextual, nuanced, and living by looking at phrases too. If I say, "she gets around," we all know I'm calling her a slut. But, to a non-native speaker, they could know the "meaning" behind ALL of those words, individually, but they still wouldn't understand what I actually said. Language evolves, too... The changes over time aren't necessarily misuse or misunderstanding, but new uses or contexts or connotations that slowly, or sometimes radically, shift the meaning of the words...

To link it to your dinosaur point, "Brontosaurus" IS an acceptable synonym from "Apatosaurus." But I remember arguing with my third grade teacher, having to try to convince her that the Plesiosaur wasn't a dinsosaur. I ended up insolently answering a question "wrong" on the test because she didn't believe me...

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Alone, you are my favourite... (Below threshold)

September 26, 2012 4:54 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Alone, you are my favourite contrarian on this planet.

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Very close. Watson actually... (Below threshold)

March 21, 2013 2:14 AM | Posted, in reply to Aaron Davies's comment, by Atarii: | Reply

Very close. Watson actually TOLD him about the earth revolving around the sun, whereupon Sherlock Holmes spoke as you spake: He said he would do the best to forget, so as not to clutter his mind with useless information.

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What did you learn about bl... (Below threshold)

June 14, 2013 8:09 AM | Posted, in reply to Anonymous's comment, by Sid: | Reply

What did you learn about black holes, that enabled you to reverse-engineer a conceptualization of entropy? Just curious :D

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