The One Big Idea Trap

In May, the academic journal Gender, Place & Culture published a study of sexual misconduct in Portland dog parks. The authors argued that dog parks are rape-condoning spaces, and the actions of their canine visitors offer valuable insight for how men can be trained out of their own abusive behavior. The paper was titled “Human reactions to rape culture and queer performativity at urban dog parks in Portland, Oregon” – catchy, right? –  and the “data” in the study was based on a year spent watching dogs hump each other.

If you’re thinking “you’ve got to be kidding me,” I have good news and bad news.

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How Language Shapes Your World

To see how language shapes experience, take a visit to wine country.

A vineyard doesn’t take shape naturally. Fields of grapes are organized rank-and-file, an infantry of vines standing at attention in tidy rows and columns. Identical wooden frames steer the vines’ winding growth off its natural path into a tight, upright posture. In hilltop tasting rooms, leather-tanned locals with bleach-blonde hair pour reds and whites as much into glasses as into categories. Fruit-forward or dry, bold or buttery.  

If you’re like me, you can’t tell the difference after your first sip. Tastes like… wine. Then someone explains what you’re tasting – what you should be tasting. “The Syrah,” your guide explains, “is dry and heavy, with a cherry finish.” You drink again.

Of course – I get it now. With a frame to rest on, the flavor of the second sip snaps around the words into its own orderly, defined posture. Dry. Cherry. The words give more than a description; knowing the words makes the wine taste different.

We often think of language as a tool for describing our experiences and communicating with one another. Research suggests, however, that language can reach beyond description to influence what we see, think and remember. Our thoughts and experiences grow around the structure that language provides.

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Odds Are, You’re Reading The Odds Wrong

The Weather Channel forecasts a 30% chance of rain tomorrow – and it absolutely pours. Was the Weather Channel’s prediction wrong?

To quote the prophet Andre 3000, “you can plan a pretty picnic – but you can’t predict the weather.” Of course they got it wrong, weathermen are morons!

Based on his career batting average of .305, a fan predicts that there is a ~70% chance Mike Trout will fail to get a hit in an at-bat. Of course, Trout goes 9-for-13 the next weekend. Was the fan’s prediction wrong?

Let me explain something to you, poindexter. Baseball isn’t a math problem. Hitters have hot stretches every once in a while, but that .305 batting average is about right.

Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight model predicts there is, approximately, a 30% chance that Donald Trump will win the Presidency. Well… you know how it went down. Was Silver’s prediction wrong?

THE POLLS! BURN THE POLLS! YOU CAN’T TRUST THE NUMBERS!

Congratulations, hypothetical strawman – you suck at probability! Unfortunately, our italicized imaginary friend is not alone. Too many of us fail to understand that any good prediction is tied to a probability, and that any one outcome doesn’t necessarily make a prediction right or wrong. 

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