Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Sheer cloudy vagueness

One of my favorite authors and personal heroes is George Orwell. Like pretty much all of my personal heroes, I admire him because he was willing to speak the truth even when people really didn't want to hear it.

I have the good fortune to teach his two most famous works, Animal Farm, and 1984, and they're not just among my favorites because I love the books, but I enjoy all of the lessons on propaganda and language that I get to tie into the literature.

One thing that Orwell was a proponent of was clear language, and that's true for me as well. I think that I get the most frustrated with people with opposing views from mine when they engage in vague language and meaningless words. I'll get frustrated, and they'll often think it's because I just can't respect their opinion, but the truth is that I'm annoyed by the cloudy mist of meaningless words that people often use.

As far as I'm concerned, I think that the following words and phrases should either be completely avoided or, at the very least, clarified when making a point:

1. Natural - So many people are a proponent of what's "natural", but I don't think that we can really get a good handle on what that means and why it's necessarily good. If "natural" simply means that it's not human-made, then it's pretty impossible to avoid unnatural things unless you go out naked into the middle of the untamed wilderness and subsist on what you can catch with your bare hands. (A spear isn't "natural", now is it?) Anything you put in your body has been altered from its original state in some way or the other. Shoot, my dog's not "natural". If her ancestors were free from human influence, she'd be a wolf.

Advocating for what's "natural", even if you can nail down that it's possible, begs a couple of questions. First of all, why is it better? Nature is on a mission to kill us at every turn with various diseases, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. Do you know why you shouldn't just pick any random thing you see growing in nature and eat it? Because it might kill you. And if you wind up doing it, you'll likely have to do something unnatural to save yourself.

Also, why are we making ourselves a special exception to what is natural? Sure, we make an impact on the environment and other animals, but other species do that as well. Beavers build dams. There are several animals that practice a form of agriculture as well. Will they no longer be natural if they become able to do it on a scale as large as us?

When it comes to what's "natural", it's best to specify exactly what you mean. Also, it's silly to assume that what's natural is automatically what's good. Is it sometimes better? Sure. But we need to determine that based on the evidence of its potential benefits versus its potential harm.

2. Energy - Obviously this word has a specific meaning. When you're talking about putting gas in your car to make it run, you're talking about the use of energy. When we harness solar power, we're harnessing energy from the sun. When you're exhausted after a long day of work, you have used up all of your energy. In each of these cases, the word is specific and the results are measurable.

However, people will use this word to describe things that are neither specific nor measurable. People sometimes speak of God as being an "energy" that creates all of life. However, there is no way to measure this energy nor test for its results. Also, practitioners of alternative medicines will talk about various energies, but again, there isn't some way of determining how much of it there is nor whether it's actually there or not. In other words, they're using a natural word to describe a supernatural phenomena.

Unless you can measure it, it's not energy. It might be something legit, but in the words of Enigo Montoya: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

3. Chemicals - I've ranted on this before, so I'll keep it brief. Whenever I think of people using this word as an automatic negative, I think of the character Begbie from Trainspotting, who abuses alcohol but won't use heroin because of "all the chemicals" that's in it.

Everything is chemicals! Everything! Water is a chemical!

Think that people aren't ridiculously paranoid about chemicals? Ever hear of the dihydrogen monoxide hoax? In case you haven't figured it out, dihydrogen monoxide is simply water. When presented with basic facts about it, while using the chemical name instead of the common name, people were ready to ban it. That's right, ban water.

We need to stop using "chemicals" like it's a dirty word. The real issue is exactly what chemical we're talking about and how much of it you're being exposed to. Certainly some are more harmful than others, but even water (yes, that again) is potentially dangerous when you're taking in too much. When it comes to chemicals, some of them are harmful with just a small dose. Some of them are harmless in small doses but really dangerous in larger doses.

Of course, that requires much more thought and nuance than just panicking over "chemicals" but when has unreasoned hysteria ever helped anything?

4. "It makes sense." - The problem with this phrase is that it's just too subjective. Quantum physics don't make any "sense" to me, but there are real world applications of it, so who cares if it makes sense to me or not? Astrology "makes sense" to some people, but it has been debunked so many times that you gotta wonder why we're even talking about it anymore.

5. "Common sense" - Just like the above, common sense doesn't necessarily reveal the truth to us. Common sense would have us believe that the world is flat, but we know that's not true. Sure, we rely on common sense a lot, and in most day-to-day applications, it's pretty reliable. However, it's not a substitute for what can be substantiated with evidence.

6. "Spiritual" - I never describe myself as this, although I will hear other people describe themselves this way and I'll find myself on the same page as them. In that case, spiritual simply means having a sense of awe and wonder at the world. Yeah, I've got that by the truckload. Others mean something completely different by it. It's a word that's used by too many people to mean too many different things, so it requires some clarification.

That's probably enough for now. What are some vague and/or meaningless words and phrases that bother you?

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