The experts speak

October 25, 2014

Science writer Carl Zimmer in the NYT yesterday, in the middle of “As Ebola Spreads, So Have Several Fallacies”:

Recently on “Fox News Sunday,” the political commentator George F. Will said, “There are now doctors who are saying, ‘We’re not so sure that it can’t be in some instances transmitted by airborne.’ ”

When another guest on the show started to explain that experts have said this is not true, Mr. Will interrupted to say, “Every expert that you’ve seen. Here we go again.”

A familiar rhetorical move, in which “experts” (or “authorities” or “scientists”) are disparaged as sources of information, on the grounds that they are just one source of information among many, and that all these sources are just matters of opinion, each as valid as any other (for instance, the opinions of political commentators).

Frequently, these disparagements are backed up by the claim that “experts”, “authorities”, and “scientists” are in fact biased sources of information, because these people have a personal stake in the matter: their reputations, positions, income, and so on hinge on what they do. (I recall the days of the wars over smoking, when representatives of the tobacco industry attacked the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association in just these terms, as “special interests”.)

I’m familiar with the disparagement of “experts” etc. (especially linguists and lexicographers) in discussions of usage, where it’s vexing that so many people assume that all opinions on usage are equally valid, and that the work of professionals should in fact be dismissed because it’s biased. In many contexts, not a lot hinges on the outcomes of these confrontations, though many of us have pointed out that the rejection of expert information about language can have grave consequences in some contexts, especially in education.

But when we’re dealing with matters of life and death (as in responses to Ebola), the stakes are immediately and urgently higher. I won’t try to assess George Will’s motives here, but he is disparaging statements of fact (as far as this is known) in favor of fallacious rumors, and that, I think, is just wicked. (Don’t get me started on Bobby Jindal.)

Mel Blanc

October 25, 2014

Today’s Zippy, a tribute to actor Mel Blanc:

Lots of linguistic interest (not to mention humor) in Blanc.

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Today’s outrageous pun

October 24, 2014

Today’s Bizarro:

(medical) marinara as a pun on (medical) marijuana: same prosody (double trochee), same first syllable, same final schwa. Then there’s Mrs. Rotini, the (literal) pasta woman, suitable for treating with marinara sauce.

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Familiarity

October 24, 2014

Yesterday’s One Big Happy, in which Ruthie goes (as usual) with the familiar over the novel:

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Stovepipe hat (an unfamiliar expression for Ruthie) is transformed in Ruthie’s ears into Stove Top Stuffing, a familiar expression in her world (context is crucial!), even though the two are pretty distant phonologically (very imperfect as a pun).

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The plural of Miss Subways

October 24, 2014

In the current (10/27/14) New Yorker, an entertaining “Where Are They Now Dept.” feature by Michael Schulman, “Underground Beauties”, beginning:

Long before Dr. Zizmor and Poetry in Motion, beauty on the subways came in the form of the Miss Subways competition, which ran from 1941 to 1976. The idea, hatched by the New York Subways Advertising Company, was to prettify the train cars while drawing eye traffic to the surrounding ads for chewing gum or cigarettes. Every few months, a new glamour shot would appear on posters underground, along with a few lines describing the winner’s hobbies (“modern dance, piano and ceramics”) and aspirations (“plugging for B.A. but would settle for M.R.S.”). Nearly two hundred women claimed the title.

Over the years, nearly two hundred women served as Miss Subways. So there were nearly two hundred Miss Subwayses? No that can’t be right: Subways is already plural. The obvious solution is a zero plural, with only one realization of plural inflection: nearly two hundred Miss Subways. And that’s the solution in the New Yorker piece.

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Cultural commentary

October 23, 2014

A recent op-ed column in the NYT from David Brooks, who fancies himself a critic of the sociocultural scene, on hysterical responses to Ebola: “The Quality of Fear: What the Ebola Crisis Reveals About Culture” on October 21st, beginning:

There’s been a lot of tut-tutting about the people who are overreacting to the Ebola virus. There was the lady who showed up at the airport in a homemade hazmat suit. There were the hundreds of parents in Mississippi who pulled their kids from school because the principal had traveled to Zambia, a country in southern Africa untouched by the Ebola outbreak in the western region of the continent. There was the school district in Ohio that closed a middle school and an elementary school because an employee might have flown on the same plane (not even the same flight) as an Ebola-infected health care worker.

The critics point out that these people are behaving hysterically, all out of proportion to the scientific risks, which, of course, is true. But the critics misunderstand what’s going on here. Fear isn’t only a function of risk; it’s a function of isolation. We live in a society almost perfectly suited for contagions of hysteria and overreaction.

Here we get the trope of Decline — things are getting worse, as hysteria and paranoia spread — combined with the claim of Recency — the decline has been steep recently — all of this, according to Brooks, explained by a social change: the fragmentation of American society as social, cultural, and political groups isolate themselves from one another.

Now, Decline and Recency are, in principle, testable matters. And since Brooks presents himself as a fan of work in social science (he occasionally publishes summaries of social-science research he finds significant, or at least thought-provoking), you’d expect him to provide evidence for Decline and Recency in social hysteria, but no: like so many cultural commenters he merely retails his subjective impressions as truths, and then conjures up an explanation for them.

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Miss Florence and the Paleo Diet

October 23, 2014

Today’s Zippy, in the Land of Diners:

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The diner is easily identified. Then there’s King Harald of Norway, the TV Dinner Diet, and the Paleo Diet.

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Green Eggs and Ham

October 22, 2014

From Facebook friends, this use of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham:

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The Muppets Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy inquire of the narrator of Green Eggs and Ham about their missing son, who is presumably green (like Kermit) and porcine (like Miss Piggy) and so, ewww, might be the source of that green ham on the platter.

Two things: one, about the source of this cartoon; two, about the children’s book and, especially, about the parsing of green eggs and ham.

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What was that word?

October 22, 2014

Two cartoons for today, both involving relationships between phonologically similar words: a Dilbert and a One Big Happy:

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(#2)

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Erson of Pinterest

October 21, 2014

Today’s Rhymes With Orange:

A Spoonerism for playful purposes, based on the expression (a) person of interest, and using the name of the software tool Pinterest.

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