Episode 11: Therefore aliens

Let’s face facts, shall we?  There’s a whole lotta stuff I don’t know.  Why is ice slippery?  Why do we drive on a parkway but park on a driveway?  How long should I wait after eating to go swimming?  But nothing vexes me more than why in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich the piece of bread with the jelly on it goes on top.

A variety of polls show that the jelly should go on top.  However, an exhaustive search (like the 1st page of Google) turned up only some vague ideas.  Something about heavier ingredients or taste sensations on the bottom but nothing was definitive.  Science is oddly silent on this item and yet they are the same people who figured out how bumble bees fly.  So why are there no in-depth studies on this or even an undergrad study project?  When presented with this type of problem, there is only one possible solution - Aliens.

It’s the only answer that makes any sense at all.  Aliens, who we all know built the pyramids, also left us the PB&J and they designed it so that the jelly goes on top.  The reason no scientists will study this is that to look into it would be to confirm once and for all that aliens exist.  And they just aren’t allowed to do that.  Big Jelly has total control and the aliens running it want to stay hidden.  See, this is the only explanation that works.

Hopefully you thought about that and went “Um what?”.  Yeah, I stepped in all sorts of logic problem buckets.  Let’s take a look at them.

I’ll start with basing a conclusion, aliens, on the fact that I don’t understand why jelly is mostly top bread based.  This is a personal incredulity fallacy (or argument from ignorance).  It basically means that a conclusion is based on the fact that there is a lack of evidence or not understanding the existing evidence.  As weird of a fallacy as this seems, it shows up far too often.  The universe isn’t expanding because I’m not getting bigger (not understanding that universal expansion happens in space over large scales, not locally).  Then the leap I made – aliens must exist because there is no evidence for why jelly goes on top.  This ignores lots of perfectly rational explanations such as: the data is bad and jelly isn’t more often on the top than the bottom, maybe it is based on ingredient flavor and position when eating, perhaps it’s just cultural phenomenon, etc.

Wow, what else did I do?  Well, I also jumped to a conclusion and in the process stumbled into a black and white fallacy.  In essence, I said either jelly physics has a reasonable explanation that I would understand or aliens did it.  I left no room for anything in the middle or even the chance that new information might show up in the future.  Since you can’t prove it wasn’t aliens, I also made this a non-falsifiable argument.  I’m right because it’s impossible for you to prove me wrong when in fact it should be up to me to prove aliens are real and controlling vital PB&J technology.  That’s 3 logical errors in row – I’m really on a roll!

PBJ of Prosperity.png

For good measure I threw in some conspiratorial thinking.  When there is a non-falsifiable claim it’s nice to also have a conspiracy on your side in case anyone just happens falsify it.  Then, you can just say “they were in on it” or “someone must have gotten to them”.  Assuming a conspiracy exists can happen when we don’t see that our logic was faulty and we just weren’t thinking clearly enough.  If we recognize that our logic was faulty, then we can make ourselves more open to seeing other possibilities and likely find there is no need for a conspiracy.

Its entirely possible I made other logical errors, but these are the primary ones and by examining them my claim is turned into nonsense.  Here’s the important point of critical thinking I want to make sure is regularly mentioned – I don’t have to feel bad or ashamed because I held an incorrect view or opinion.  Instead, I’m happy to recognize these issues and work towards a better understanding of the subject.  Too often we’re told making a mistake is bad and we should never admit to it.  That stops us from growing – learning through mistakes is a vital part of our education.

Episode 10: Pedantry is dumb, but still useful

People keep telling me I drink way too much coffee.  They say I really should drink less than 12 cups a day (just for the record, this is for illustrative purposes only!).  But I’m smart and informed and ready with a comeback.  I know that “less” is applicable when discussing mass or weight and what they really mean is “fewer” which applies to counting.  I can confidently respond “Aha, since you said less, then you are wrong and my coffee habits are fine!  Good day sir.”

Of course that makes me a jerk (again, for the record, I don’t actually do that, illustrating and all).  It also makes me a pedant or engaging in pedantry.  This is when a person is overly concerned with minor details and rules, and it shows up in language quite a bit.  That grocery store sign that says “12 items or less” should really be “12 items or fewer”.  We all understand what is meant and get on with our shopping though, we don’t need to know the difference.

I will argue that knowing there is a difference is, however, useful.   In a grocery store context less and fewer are easily interchanged.  If you are reading a scientific article the author might be using these terms with their exact meanings implied.  These terms can show up in dieting – less than 12 grams of sugar per day and fewer than 3 servings of ice cream.  By understanding the differences we can more easily see meaning and nuance.  If we run across them used incorrectly we don’t have to get bent out of shape.

Another fun but useful bit of pedantry is the meaning of terms venom and poison.  Venom is a Spiderman villain and Poison is an 80s rock group.  No, wait, that’s not it.  Venom and poison are actually the same thing but differ by their method of application.  If the substance is injected, then it is venom and that’s how we get venomous critters – they bite or sting to inject the venom.  Poisons, on the other hand, are something that we ingest (or inhale).  So, by these rules, if I extract the venom from a snake, drink it and it harms me, I poisoned myself (I don’t recommend doing this).  What if I extract the venom, put it into a syringe and inject it into myself, I guess then it’s still venom.  The important point is that there is some kind of toxin in my body that probably isn’t good and I should see a doctor.

Drat, I said toxin up there, didn’t I?  This is a tough one, especially these days.  It’s a word that normally has a pretty broad meaning but has now become a thing unto itself.  We all need to quit taking in toxins and we need to get the toxins out.  Here’s the confusing bit, toxins aren’t a thing.  Everything is toxic to us, it just depends on the amount.  Oxygen, yep, too much will kill you.  Water, yep, that one too.  Vitamin C – you’re gonna need a lot but it does get toxic at some point.  Other items are simpler to determine: hydrochloric acid is bad even though we all have some anyway in our stomachs, alcohol is good at the start but too much is bad, radioactive substance are generally not good, tide pods we know aren’t good at all.  When we hear mention of toxins in our bodies we should immediately ask what substance is it that we have too much of because toxin is more of a catch all term. 

Understanding the differences in words is not of itself a bad thing.  It’s ok if someone calls a snake out on the hiking trail as poisonous, we don’t really need to correct that.  If we’re talking with a physician, herpetologist or poison control center then we may want to try and use these terms with their more exact meanings.  Knowing when to look for and use the more detailed meanings of words is the useful bit of knowledge to keep in mind.  The real kicker here will come when someone tells me I didn’t define pedantry accurately enough.