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Think Before You Babble

Composed on the 24th of May in the year 2007, at 9:23 PM. It was Thursday.

I’ve overheard a handful of beautifully stupid things in my time, but, for some reason, two in particular came to mind during today’s lunch break.

The first is “Nothing’s two-dimensional. Except a shadow.” I overheard this in the decade-defunct Cafe Cyberway, the sole effort of civilized technology in Ellsworth, Maine. It should have known better, because even on its best days, it was attracting idiots like the speaker of the above sentence. Even in my fifteen year-old ignorance, I could only shake my head and wish I had been backed by my twenty-seven year-old asshole so I might have had the confidence to jump down this guy’s throat as he vainly tried to impress two bored-looking college girls. Everybody at his table bought it, proving once again that public education failed us all.

For the record, a shadow is an absence. It’s where the light ain’t. Saying it’s two-dimensional is like saying the spot on your car with chipped paint is two-dimensional. And that, by the way, would be more accurate, because a shadow is a three-dimensional area cast by the object between the light source and the surface. This might not be intuitive, but it seems just obvious enough to give someone pause before saying something fundamentally wrong and deeply stupid in the effort to show how smart they are.

The other really annoying quote that I can’t seem to shake came from a statistic, which was trying to be both a don’t-smoke ad and a don’t-litter ad, because truly environmentally conscious people tend to think they can cover all their obsessions in one or two slogans and a fact. There fact was “500,000 cigarette butts were picked off the east coast of the U.S. last year alone.”

Look at all those zeros. After a 5, no less, the meanest of the low brow numbers. What are all those cancer-ridden bastards thinking? Figuring that out would be a trick, since there are so many of them. Let’s do the zeros here. Being very kind, I’ll assume there are only 10,000,000 smokers close enough to the ocean or a contributing river to throw their butts someplace where they might end up on the east coast. Let’s be kinder and say, on average, these smokers are averaging 10 cigarettes a day. It could happen. So, at 10 a day, that’s 3650 a year. That comes to… 36,500,000,000. Thanks to my trusty calculator, I can now tell you that, according to this statistic, 0.0014 percent of these smokers’ butts are waiting on the coasts to be picked up by hippies.

Since that number falls far below the statistical relevance cutoff point, I can safely, again according to this statistic, safely report that no cigarette butt has ever meaningfully washed up on the east coast, and the Clean Beaches for Baby Seals volunteer team is simply stoned.

These two stories by themselves are just sad tales about the basic idiocy evinced by people trying to impress other people. I for one have said dumber things to impress dumber people. But taken together, and taking into account their sources, a college student and a non-profit, respectively they suggest a darker fact about the way we get our facts crooked.

My early education was depressingly liberal arts oriented, and at my first college, I was repeatedly struck by hangovers. During these hangovers, I would blandly nod at ludicrous statements in the hopes the speaker had cigarettes, and after a while, I noticed a trend: from a given set of interpretations, college students are most apt to believe and repeat whatever is least likely. They don’t think of it as “least likely”, of course, they think of it as “ground breaking illuminations” or some other combination of pretty modifiers and grammatically awkward nouns, but the fact is that when a college student first becomes a college student, they are bombarded by new knowledge about the world, and are discovering at every turn that things aren’t quite how they thought they were, and the fact is, most of them crack. The saddest victims become sociology majors, and spend their lives doing statistical relevance calculations and feeling clever until they discover that, all Japanese tourists do in fact have amazing cameras, at which point they burn their sociology degrees and shoot themselves. On the other side of the scale are the programming majors, who know but don’t care, and the business majors, who care but don’t know.1[1]

The issue is that after a handful of shocking facts are proven to the college student, everything becomes credible, and they turn off their filters. This is very sad, because the whole point of (a) college (mission statement) is to (say that the college) provide(s) the education people need to sharpen their information filters (while bleeding you of your parents’ cash). This, as far as I can tell, never happens. People either retreat into xenophobic shock, or start believing everything anyone tells them, as long as the facts imparted are directly contrary to what everyone else has told them in the last few months. This is why freshmen, among other things, don’t believe in hangovers, think “Pull ‘n’ Pray” is a reliable contraceptive measure, and tell people shadows are two-dimensional.

The other obvious example of this behavior can be seen in children under ten. The early college effect is not just an early college effect; it’s the same as a child, who, knowing Jack, being forced to rely on parents with hidden agendas, and peers who also know Jack, and may know that Jack sells candy behind the playground after dark.

Yet by some miracle, people get past this stage once they hit the real world, and start processing information in a vaguely rational fashion, beginning with that first step on the unending path of wisdom, which is asking, when presented with new information, “Are you sure about that?”

Or do they write articles claiming that half a million out of 36.5 billion cigarette butts constitutes an epidemic?

It’s too easy to poke fun at the political absurdity of the U.S. these days. But it is the adult example of the same process: at no point in our educational system are people actually taught how to effectively filter information, and they really do need to be told the following, almost insensible fact: Just because it sounds counter-intuitive, contrary, and not well thought out, doesn’t mean it’s true. Our education would do better to make us one part more cynical than ten parts more enlightened, because our current version of enlightenment is mostly brain teasers, factoids, and a lot of choose-your-ology picture books that are so desperate to excite young fertile minds the publishers spend more money on graphic designers than writers.

That frightens me more than anything else these days. Because it means we’re all still running on the wisdom of a six-year-old, and Jack’s still selling candy.

1 I was a film major, meaning I didn’t know or care until long after college.

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