November 18, 2008

Where Does A Tree Get Its Mass?

Whatever you just said, it's wrong.

A tree starts out as a seed.  Where does it get the mass? 

The common answer is: from the soil, which is wrong. 

The mass of the tree comes from the wood (cellulose), and cellulose (by weight) is carbon.  Carbon comes from the air (CO2).


The first question you want to ask, right now, is why this now obvious answer wasn't obvious to begin with.  More specifically, why you know the word "photosynthesis" but not how to apply it, at all.

Why were we taught photosynthesis?  First, most of us don't remember anything about it  anyway.  If we do, we have recollections of certain unconnected concepts:

  • sun gives "energy"
  • plants "take up" "sunlight"
  • they "breathe" CO2 and "release" O2
  • It's good to talk to plants

The quotes serve to suggest we don't even really know the meaning of the terms we learned.

None of those statements are informative, nor can the be applied to reality (e.g. answering the above question.)  It's not that you forgot; it's unlikely you could have answered that question even back when you were learning photosynthesis.

Yet-- and this is the point-- the word "photosynthesis" is in your head. You learned a made up word, an artificial carve out of what is really a fluid physical process.  You didn't learn any of the reality.

So, on the one hand, we actually didn't learn anything.  And, on the other hand-- the worse hand-- we actually think we know something.  Not just ignorant; but ignorant and deluded.


But "tree mass comes from the air" isn't actually right, either.  Some trees are more than 50% water by mass, so the mass of a tree would indeed come from the ground.  (No partial credit: if you said "from the ground" but were thinking "minerals" you were still wrong.)

Indeed, this question reveals that even with a general background in science, and two acceptable answers, most people still get it wrong.  So what, exactly, was the point of the general background in science, let alone photosynthesis?

In other words, you don't really appreciate that a) a tree has water mass; b) air has mass.

I state it here, and you "know" it, but that's not the same as it being a fundamental part of your worldview, the way "the sun is hot" or "the earth revolves around the sun" does, fundamentals that allow you to make guesses about reality.  That's what science should have given you; instead, it gave you a hodgepodge of disconnected linguistic propositions that neither describe reality nor predict reality.  

"Where do plants get their energy?"  "Photosynthesis."  Nothing happened there, except words.

Here's an example: if, prior to this post, I had asked why a helium balloon, despite weighing something, floats, you'd have to reason out an answer.  But just my saying, "air has mass" makes the question easier to answer.  You already know air has mass, you don't need me to tell you; but you don't feel it-- that's why my telling you here makes a difference.

I hardly need point out how a discussion about global warming is vastly altered if it is intuitively understood that trees get their carbon from the air.


But, actually, both of those answers are wrong: the question itself is meaningless.  It is too vague, allows for multiple different interpretations and answers, is simultaneously misleading and oversimplified.

The bigger problem-- and this applies not only to science but to any field furthered by a dialectic-- is that we demand precision in answers, and allow-- expect-- imprecision in the questions.

"Where does the dry mass of a tree come from?" would be a little better.  Etc.  But no one worries about this; indeed, many shrug their shoulders, "yeah, the question is vague, but we all know what it means."  Well, evidently not.

It barely requires exposition that psychiatry suffers greatly from this problem, the haziest and laziest of terms and definitions magically generating concrete and specific responses.  Internist asks me, "I have a patient who is bipolar, what should I do?"   If I say anything other than "Depakote" or equivalent, he thinks I'm being an ass.  But my answer is 100x less relevant than understanding what he means by either "bipolar," "patient," or "do."

Politics, I need not point out, is worse.  The most asinine questions are expected to generate meaningful responses.  "Should we bail out General Motors?"  Which one of those words actually means what you say it means?  Who is "we?"  What's a "bail out?"  "General Motors" the whole company, the pension division, the new plant they opened in Russia, what?   But if you ask for any clarification, you're being difficult.  You don't get it.


A final analogy may be here helpful.  You may also (not) remember from school "significant digits."    For example, 3 + 4.2 = 7.  Since "3" only has one significant digit (3.0 is a more precise number with 2 significant digits) the answer itself can have no more than one significant figure.  Importantly, it's not that "7" is an okay answer, but really 7.2 is more precise.  7.2 is wrong, because that 3 could have been 3.4, 2.6, etc. 

Or, more generally, an answer cannot be more precise than its data.  Or its question.

The first business of science education should not be to help us answer questions, but to help us ask questions.


This is such an important c... (Below threshold)

November 18, 2008 8:07 PM | Posted by Sohaib: | Reply

This is such an important concept for people to learn that an enormous number of even intelligent people don't get. The following two posts by Eliezer Yudkowsky make a similar point on the overcoming bias blog:

Fake Explanations:

Mysterious Answers:

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 12 (16 votes cast)
I knew the right answer, bu... (Below threshold)

November 18, 2008 9:19 PM | Posted by Fargo: | Reply

I knew the right answer, but only because I studied in a class on biotechnology for four years.

Yesterday I was at a client's, one who is intensely religious and intensely right wing, and he's going on about the economy. Finally he looks at me and says "You know what's causing all this recession, right?" to which I wanted to reply "No, actually I only have the vaguest fucking idea how something like this happens, and what little I can say I understand comes from a Tom Wolfe book I didn't enjoy." but instead nipped that to a simple no.

I half expected him to fly his true colors and say gays or Jews, but instead he blamed it on the upswing of oil prices. He seriously seemed to believe that this one thing could have caused this, all on its lonesome. Naturally it was preceded with one of those statements you learn to be an indicator of something stupid about to be said- "I don't claim to be the smartest man in the world, but it's pretty clear to me...".

Of course, this same guy once launched into how the earth isn't as old as we think it is, because it was "proven" that the speed of light isn't a constant, invalidating carbon dating.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 2 (28 votes cast)
Where does a tree get its m... (Below threshold)

November 18, 2008 9:26 PM | Posted by Flinthart: | Reply

Where does a tree get its mass? Current theory suggests that mass is a result of the (still undetected) Higgs Boson, interacting in some not-yet understood means with the fundamental fabric of the universe. Because we don't understand that interaction, we call 'mass' a basic property of matter.

And you, sir, are a pompous poseur: a statement I believe to be both precise and accurate.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: -5 (51 votes cast)
dugg. and i agree with the ... (Below threshold)

November 18, 2008 10:21 PM | Posted by the0ther: | Reply

dugg. and i agree with the first commenter. ob is a fantastic blog that talks about this type of thing quite frequently.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 5 (5 votes cast)
"And you, sir, are a pompou... (Below threshold)

November 19, 2008 12:27 AM | Posted by Diego: | Reply

"And you, sir, are a pompous poseur: a statement I believe to be both precise and accurate."

Mr Flinthart, could you please elaborate on your affirmation? Your previous explanation is just a valid answer to one of many ways of taking that question. I could tell you you're right, as I can tell you you're wrong, but that's not the point.

The point here is "Why is that the question", "what does it entail" and "what would be the right answer based on those facts" if there was any question at all. Those set the question in a context where it can be studied and thus a correct procedure can be followed.

Maybe asking you "Where does a tree get its mass" leads to nowhere in the current economic situation. "Why is there an economic recession" would be a question, if we knew exactly what a recesion entails and thus what we are asking. The problem is that in the midst of all these naming process, there are certain disconnected facts that carry significance that can't really hold upon themselves because they are general terms that may or may not even apply at all to what we want to solve, or at least in the way we wish they would, hence, the question about bipolarity, which, in itself isn't a simple diagnosis.

Sorry, english isn't my native language.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 10 (10 votes cast)
You guys are a lot more fun... (Below threshold)

November 19, 2008 7:01 AM | Posted by varangianguard: | Reply

You guys are a lot more fun than politicians. Depending upon what my meaning of "fun" is I suppose.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 9 (9 votes cast)
I did know that air has mas... (Below threshold)

November 19, 2008 10:03 AM | Posted by Chris Jones: | Reply

I did know that air has mass, but obviously not in a way to correctly answer the question, yet also not only in the facile "helium floats" way that you suggest.

I began cycling competitively this year (triathlons, actually), and it is impossible to develop even a superficial understanding of the importance of aerodynamics without first grasping the basic fact that air is "in your way". When riding, I still imagine myself knocking millions of "bits" of air out of my way, like tiny bowling pins.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 5 (7 votes cast)
I'm not surprised that Yudk... (Below threshold)

November 19, 2008 1:15 PM | Posted, in reply to Sohaib's comment, by FunkStyles: | Reply

I'm not surprised that Yudkowsky has some good things to say on the subject. Considering the amount of time that he's put into breaking down the idea of intelligence, he'd damn well better have some good insight, eh?

Honestly, I think everyone should at least try to work through Levels of Organization in General Intelligence. It's pretty powerful stuff.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 2 (4 votes cast)
Is it weird that, when I fi... (Below threshold)

November 19, 2008 4:12 PM | Posted by Fnord: | Reply

Is it weird that, when I first read the title, I thought you were asking which Catholic priests minister to trees?

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 9 (9 votes cast)
Nicely asked and illustrate... (Below threshold)

November 19, 2008 7:46 PM | Posted by h2odragon: | Reply

Nicely asked and illustrated. You might then go on to ask, in the face of imprecise questions, "why has this been posed to me in this way?" and perhaps speculate as to the motives of the questioner...

I'd love to bail out GM, if it means I get a free Corvette that my kids' grandchildren have to pay for. What are childrens for if not to ensure our own comfort and enjoyment?

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (4 votes cast)
I'm happy to see another po... (Below threshold)

November 20, 2008 2:59 AM | Posted by David: | Reply

I'm happy to see another post along these lines of "what the #@!%#?" It's taken me well over a day to conclude I don't even have enough of a POV to pose a question, well asked or not.

For some unfathomable reason, I look forward to your next post. Seriously.


Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 3 (3 votes cast)
I may have been reading too... (Below threshold)

November 20, 2008 2:05 PM | Posted by spriteless: | Reply

I may have been reading too long when I saw that question and though: Last is asking a trick question again.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 2 (2 votes cast)
The real question is where ... (Below threshold)

November 20, 2008 2:52 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

The real question is where did my cock get its mass? Answer? A gift from the heavens above. The chicks dig it.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: -6 (16 votes cast)
As Will Rogers is supposed ... (Below threshold)

November 22, 2008 12:37 PM | Posted by Aaron Davies: | Reply

As Will Rogers is supposed to have said "It's not what people don't know that hurts them. It's what they do know that just ain't so." I suggest this as a motto for your blog, in the event that you get tired of people asking you what the German means. It's particularly appropriate in that I can't find evidence he actually said it…

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 2 (2 votes cast)
Feb 19 09 Reuters news stor... (Below threshold)

February 19, 2009 8:48 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Feb 19 09 Reuters news story: with all of this available carbon, trees are getting bigger:
this link may work for a while

Otherwise google "Forests absorb 20 percent of fossil fuel emissions: study. Michael Kahn."

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 2 (2 votes cast)
The problem seems like lang... (Below threshold)

March 16, 2009 8:24 AM | Posted by hegemonicon: | Reply

The problem seems like language isn't designed for this kind of precision. We have thousands of words that are meant to define things specifically, but they REALLY just relate a particular word to something you've experienced. Since everyone's experiences differ slightly, the meaning of words will differ slightly between people.

For some words the difference will be infintesimal or non-existant. Everyone has basically the same experience of the sun, so the word 'sun' is more or less the same for everyone. Its directly related to an experience. So is 'fire truck'. But things like 'life', 'mass' are more abstract, and can't be directly related to something in the world. You have to assemble several different ideas together to get their meaning. As words get more abstract you have to relate them to more and more experiences to get their meaning, and so their use will differ more and more between people.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 4 (8 votes cast)
I think your suggestion tha... (Below threshold)

June 23, 2010 5:16 AM | Posted by jake fontenot: | Reply

I think your suggestion that "'from the air' is wrong" is obtuse and asinine. I've never hear anyone answer "water from the ground. Trees are made of water". Sure if they did, a follow up of "well...beyond water weight" is in order, and the imprecision of the question is exposed...but you're missing the point. I think the vast majority of people are well aware that both plants and animals contain water, and that water has weight. People 'get' the question. Precision is not an issue. It's an utterly simple and basic question that almost always generates a moment of unexpected reflection whenever it's first heard. It's elegant, if you ask me.

Also, your statement "Carbon comes from the air (CO2)" is both inaccurate and ridiculous.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (4 votes cast)
The carbon that comes from ... (Below threshold)

July 1, 2010 4:31 PM | Posted by DJ: | Reply

The carbon that comes from the air (CO2) contributes to plant energy for most of its life and only gives it mass for the period of time when it is adding mass (obviously). You could say the primary purpose of photosynthesis is energy production, and it is the energy principle that people learn in high school. Those of us with higher degrees in bio definitely understand that CO2 can be used as a carbon source, but we also know that a very important part of photosynthesis is the production of energy for anabolism.

Please stop being so condescending.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 3 (5 votes cast)
@hegemoniconI gene... (Below threshold)

July 1, 2010 4:34 PM | Posted, in reply to hegemonicon's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply


I generally agree with that premise, but not here. Mass is both a defined concept in science and a deeply universal and intuitive experience that most of us (even across cultures) agree on.

I do not usually believe in universal concepts, but mass is one I think defies cultural boundaries.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 2 (2 votes cast)
even with whatever backgrou... (Below threshold)

July 1, 2010 4:46 PM | Posted by Newt: | Reply

even with whatever background you have in science, and two acceptable answers, you still get it grossly and arrogantly wrong.

Cellulose isn't made entirely or even mostly of carbon. It's a carbohydrate. What else is in cellulose? Where do you think that comes from?

It can be a meaningless question and your showy droning can still be wrong.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: -1 (3 votes cast)
The goal here is unconditio... (Below threshold)

July 1, 2010 5:08 PM | Posted by Sam Pearson: | Reply

The goal here is unconditioned experience, which is experiencing reality without attachment to anything nor aversion to anything.

To hold science up on the presupposition of consciousness, and THEN to make claims, hypotheses, theories, and measurements BASED on that very presupposition with ZERO proof of consciousness is precisely the same as holding a presupposition of an omnipotent deity and then making claims, hypotheses, theories, and measurements based on that.

If you say "I am conscious because I am conscious," or "I think therefore, I am," your statements are completely devoid of semantic content. They, being absolutely devoid of semantics, have zero inferential power. Neither do they prove anything nor do they disprove anything. You may as well have said "This vreek here has tremelz bopahkun!" What can we possibly infer from that, that isn't itself semantically null?

True science is the investigation of all its foundations and assumptions, all the way down. If no semantic foundation for science exists, the entire house of cards collapses. And yet we continue to assume certain truths based on zero evidence.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 1 (3 votes cast)
If CO2 contributes to plant... (Below threshold)

July 1, 2010 5:20 PM | Posted, in reply to DJ's comment, by Jeremy Leader: | Reply

If CO2 contributes to plant energy, and the plants transpire O2 as a waste product, where does the corresponding carbon go? I don't believe plants transmute the mass of entire carbon atoms into energy.

It's possible that it goes somewhere other than into the mass of the plant, but it's been several decades since my last formal biology class and I can't imagine where else the carbon would go. My best guess is that it if it doesn't contribute to the mass of the tree, it goes into the mass of parts that are eventually shed (leaves, needles, etc.).

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 1 (1 votes cast)
3 + 4.2 = 7.2</stro... (Below threshold)

July 1, 2010 5:23 PM | Posted by DJ: | Reply

3 + 4.2 = 7.2, period.

Significant digits are only relevant at all when you're dealing with measurements, not abstract numbers.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: -5 (11 votes cast)
My point is not</st... (Below threshold)

July 1, 2010 5:26 PM | Posted, in reply to Jeremy Leader's comment, by DJ: | Reply

My point is not that CO2 doesn't go to mass. My point is that the education he's referring to, where most people learned photosynthesis, does not teach what he claims it does. Instead, it only teaches students about the energy side of things. The bigger, more solid pictures comes later. Not everyone has to take high school biology, and we are not all imbeciles who don't understand what we say. I don't know many people who use the word photosynthesis without grasping what it does.

(Maybe that's how it is in psychiatry, I don't know...)

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 2 (4 votes cast)
:-)Why do things f... (Below threshold)

July 1, 2010 6:09 PM | Posted by Alok: | Reply


Why do things fall? They fall due to gravity! ;-) It's the same story everywhere. Some of us who are termed the smarter ones, I believe are the ones who were/are able to see through these things and figure what was really going on. I only even asked this question (tree mass) only after reaching adulthood.

Back during childhood days we were told (a hundred times so we could memorize) that plant cells have a rigid cell wall while animal cells don't (for all readers thinking of exceptions to this, just let go). I did not at that age connect this with plants not being mobile while animals run around. So animals have flexible bodies and bones/joints for rigidity. (Is this correct by the way? Why cannot plants be mobile while still having rigid cell walls?) See, I do not know, and I blame the quality of education.

Here is another question I ask that I do not have the answer to. Why did nature not create animals that do photosynthesis (OK, I myself know of some exceptions this time from the microbial world). I think the answer lies really in numbers. Photosynthesis does not generate enough energy for the functions that animals do (being mobile and carrying a brain on them while still not having as much surface area as plants). Can someone please point me to calculations showing this, if correct!?

The thought I then have is, what is the solution? How explain to people unfamiliar or to kids so as to maximize what they absorb. I always get the blame of overloading kids with complexity whenever I try to explain them something (while I am internally swearing to myself that what I am explaining cannot be any simpler).

Feynman talks about this issue at length in "Surely you're joking", but I do not remember him supplying an answer really.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 6 (6 votes cast)
what an obnoxious post. wh... (Below threshold)

July 1, 2010 7:05 PM | Posted by roadnottaken: | Reply

what an obnoxious post. why assume that nobody knows the answer to this question? I'm sure some people didn't know the answer, but others (myself, a biologist) do and the tone of the whole article is just arrogant and insipid.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: -4 (12 votes cast)
I half expected h... (Below threshold)

July 1, 2010 9:54 PM | Posted, in reply to Fargo's comment, by wcoenen: | Reply

I half expected him to fly his true colors and say gays or Jews, but instead he blamed it on the upswing of oil prices. He seriously seemed to believe that this one thing could have caused this, all on its lonesome.

I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss this hypothesis. It seems reasonable to assume that economic growth relies on cheap energy. Even lacking a good model, we only need to examine history to see that jumps in oil prices seem to go together with recessions.

In fact, just before the subprime mortgage crisis hit some people were wondering why the jump in oil prices wasn't causing a recession that time around. Turns out they spoke too soon.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 1 (5 votes cast)
1) I doubt most people thin... (Below threshold)

July 2, 2010 12:29 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

1) I doubt most people think that the mass of a tree comes from the soil. It's generally well recognized by anyone with a television or a computer that organisms are predominantly made up of water. Anyone who has seen a commercial for hand lotion knows the "human body is 70% water", thx lubriderm brand lotion. Generally a field with plants doesn't become devoid of soil. People probably do not htink plants are built from soil much, although perhaps partially they are.

You really need to substantiate your thought that people think plants are made up of soil. I don't believe that is so.

I DO think people intuitively know the soil is where plants come from, and so they may answer by saying "the soil" is the vehicle for plant mass...but they don't literally mean the plant is physically made up of soil components. Much in the way you ask "where does a human baby get it's mass" some people might say "from its mother" but they don't literally really think the baby is being built out of the mother's blood and flesh and bones... they simply mean to say that the mother is the place where the baby obtains its nutrients and is built and so the baby gets its mass from its mother in a sense.

Much in this way, the soil is like the womb... the roots grow into it and carry nutrients into the plant. The soil itself is not where the plant gets its mass but it is essential for the plant to obtain necessary building blocks for chemical reactions to build structural components.

2) "Air" and by this I think you mean gases, EVERYONE knows air has mass. On an intuitive human level, we tend to think of air as nothingness... but if you sat a person down and got them to think in a robot-logical way and asked them a 6th grade science question: does gas have mass... they would say "yes, of course".

You are using a TRICK OF WORDS when you ask about "air". "Air" in our human brain is a picture of nothingness. The human caveman mind only recognizes things we can see, use, that can hurt us or help us. The caveman mind does not think air exists.
But the gradeschool educated brain knows that air is another word for gases, and gases have mass.

3)This statement:
"Where do plants get their energy?" "Photosynthesis." Nothing happened there, except words.

I really don't see the problem with that. The sun provides energy which allows for chemical reactions in the plant out of raw materials (carbon oxygen hydrogen) building structural components (carbohydrates) and the mass of "a plant" results. This is generally what people mean when they say "photosynthesis", unless people are in the habit of saying things without knowing what they mean. If you look up the definition "photosynthesis", it will pretty much say what i just said:

Here's's definition of photosynthesis:

   /ˌfoʊtəˈsɪnθəsɪs/ Show Spelled[foh-tuh-sin-thuh-sis] Show IPA
–noun Biology, Biochemistry .
(esp. in plants) the synthesis of complex organic materials, esp. carbohydrates, from carbon dioxide, water, and inorganic salts, using sunlight as the source of energy and with the aid of chlorophyll and associated pigments.

When people say "photosynthesis", that is what they mean.
There is nothing wrong with that answer.
I see nothing wrong with answering that way. Perhaps for a scientist researching plant metabolism that would be insufficient, since you actually should know the exact steps and details... but for a person on the street, that's the general idea and all you need to know. Unless you are a hobbiest interested in plant metabolism, who cares about more than that, amirite?

4) technically 7.2 is a more precise answer because it is the answer based on the maximum data available, but technically either 7 or 7.2 is acceptable. I fail to see the problem here.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: -2 (4 votes cast)
Same anon as above.Y... (Below threshold)

July 2, 2010 12:36 AM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Same anon as above.
Your favorite argumentative one.

I'll just say this.

You, TLP, are absolutely PREOCCUPIED with the idea that insignificant details amount to big monumental differences when they accumulate, or when they are at the right time.

You and your blog is obsessed with this concept, along with narcissism.

I think it says a lot about you as a person. It's vaguely like paranoia, but more accurately like being high strung and miserly in nature.

Learn to relax and stop your reflexive negative thinking about the world. Really it's okay to calm down and let things be.

Sometimes I hope this blog is just an exercise for you, it must be real unpleasant to go about life like this. ...

Your profession probably does not help, as it will only reinforce your delusional idea that you have a special insight that other people lack.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: -7 (9 votes cast)
Q: Where does a tree get it... (Below threshold)

July 2, 2010 12:54 AM | Posted by kenj0418: | Reply

Q: Where does a tree get its mass?
A: From the Twigs Boson of course.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 12 (12 votes cast)
man, i think you are a sick... (Below threshold)

July 2, 2010 2:09 PM | Posted by An M: | Reply

man, i think you are a sick person, deprived of any happiness in life. this has been the worst article i´ve read maybe in my life. i usually stop reading when too much nonsense is said. this article had hope, you stabbed it to death.

just Keep It Simple, answer whatever you can, as vaguely as you're asked or better if you can. ask for clarfications ir you need them. that's it, that is what an intelligent person does.

it's just unbelievable you didn't learn at school what 'photosynthesis' is.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: -7 (9 votes cast)
You answered the question, ... (Below threshold)

September 22, 2010 4:34 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

You answered the question, then moved on to spew random shit onto everyones faces.
No matter the extent or vague qualities of a question, it is a question none the less.
Thank you for the answer, but no thanks on the arrogant and pretentious lecture.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: -3 (5 votes cast)
I largely support the autho... (Below threshold)

November 16, 2010 7:16 PM | Posted by Just a faggot: | Reply

I largely support the author here. This is one of the main reasons why I shun any form of "debate" or "intelligent conversation" with humans - it's just a mess of meaningless words to which they expect precise answers. I came here after someone just asked me thisevening:

"Where does a tree grow from?"

The context told me that he was thinking of that old trick question, hoping for the chance to blurt out a correction of "NO, THE AIR, LOLOLOL!" but I had to ask him to rephrase the question. He repeated it unaltered, and seem irritated. I said I couldn't answer it, so he asked me more directly, "Where does the mass of a tree come from?"


There were also questions like "Do you understand physics?", "Do you know how magnetism works?" and something about foe-toe-synth-eh-sis.
I find it best to just say "Not to my satisfaction, no." and then when they stumble through some ridiculous explanation, just respond with "Sounds complicated."

It happens all the time.
Someone recently asked me, "Do you know much about bikes?"
Now, I know what most humans would say there is that they know "a bit", or "not much", and so on, then they'd get to hear what the real question is, but I just become paralysed by it and can't answer, stammering and finally saying something like "Uh, well..., I... ...what do actually you want to ask?"

Another classic is "Do you believe in God?" and "Are you religious?"


But if you don't answer fast and straight, you're in trouble. Most humans have little time to waste on awkward, pedantic trouble makers who want to know what questions mean and how their answer will be interpreted.

Many use words in a very certain way - mostly just for the pleasing noise or the crude emotional reaction it can evoke from the listener. I guess that some just see "the world" in a very much more simple way than others, and will just become frustrated if you try to break questions down and find out what, if anything, they really mean. It is going beyond the limits of their perception and will waste your time and piss them off.

Entering into discussions with most people is like being invited to a chimp's tea party - you might be able to play along for a bit but you'll arouse suspicions when you appear reluctant to play with turds and eventually be chased out of the cage after using a grunt or squeal that fell out of fashion months ago.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 3 (5 votes cast)
I just want to know where a... (Below threshold)

July 24, 2011 6:44 PM | Posted by Dan: | Reply

I just want to know where a tree gets ALL of it's physical mass, and how it is received by that tree. An answer is only correct if it gives you the information you were looking for. You can know how something works, or you can understand how something works. It's up to you if the answer was good enough!

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 1 (1 votes cast)
Interestingly, I did get th... (Below threshold)

December 25, 2012 8:36 AM | Posted by irrelevant: | Reply

Interestingly, I did get the answer right, immediately, but only because my intuitive understanding of living organisms at some point shifted to see them as energy balance problems. So the knowledge is integrated for me, but at the cost of my natural answer to "What is a cow?" having become "A cow is a ball of calories."

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 4 (4 votes cast)
This is the kind of informa... (Below threshold)

March 20, 2013 12:14 AM | Posted by Atarii: | Reply

This is the kind of information a parent should be teaching his child.
All of the information an adult learns should be retained for posterity and given to the next generation to create more intelligent, inquisitive, critical people.

How to throw a baseball.
How to fish.
How to clean a kill.
How to drive. Look everywhere, everyone is probably actively attempting to murder you on the road.
How to give an answer, how to ask a question. Respect. Kindness. Love. Generosity. When to be serious and when to joke.
There are thousands of things to teach our children, but one thing I hear often is, "Just be kind and patient and the rest will just sort itself out."

No, it will not. You MUST teach, continually, every day.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 3 (3 votes cast)
While the answer is great a... (Below threshold)

July 21, 2013 1:06 PM | Posted by MGrey: | Reply

While the answer is great and the information is spot on, the whole premise ruins it.

"Where Does A Tree Get Its Mass?"
The question is not vague nor does the answer have to be equally "vague" in order to be valid.
~50% from water, ~50% from photosynthesis that creates hydrocarbons from the CO2 in the air, and a minute amount of minerals from soil.

There. Was that so painful?
Oh wait forgot this:
* Numbers may vary by plant

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 0 (4 votes cast)
great answer!... (Below threshold)

July 21, 2013 1:08 PM | Posted by M Rodz: | Reply

great answer!

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 2 (2 votes cast)
Well, carbon dating is "inv... (Below threshold)

September 24, 2013 4:01 AM | Posted, in reply to Fargo's comment, by Atarii: | Reply

Well, carbon dating is "invalidated" for dates nearing 50,000 years because, put simply, its half-life indicates that it would be essentially gone in that time; moreover, it is also fairly useless against any dates that cannot be historically corroborated, since carbon dating must be calibrated because the carbon in the atmosphere is not constant.

The earth is not necessarily young simply because carbon-14 dating cannot show things to be very old; that is, proving that carbon dating does not work on things older than several thousand years does not also prove that the earth is young.

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: 1 (1 votes cast)
Higgs boson have been detec... (Below threshold)

June 9, 2014 12:36 AM | Posted, in reply to Flinthart's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

Higgs boson have been detected right now...

Vote up Vote down Report this comment Score: -2 (2 votes cast)