Part 1—Days of non-explanation: We heard some really bad "explanations" over the Thanksgiving break. For starters, consider what happened last Friday.
A young lady who's three years old was happily banging us on the head with a plastic giraffe. Challenged on her wayward conduct, she offered a shaky explanation:
She wasn't hitting Uncle Bob. Her toy giraffe was doing it!
Her 9-year-old sister quickly informed her that her "explanation" didn't make sense. But so what? Like a budding Candidate Trump, she doggedly stuck with her story!
The plastic giraffe was doing it? Now that was a bad explanation— although, we'll grant you, its author was only 3. What explains the bad explanation we'd already heard as we drove to her domicile?
It may have been the worst "explanation" in so-called human history! Last Wednesday, on NPR, Ari Shapiro was hosting All Things Considered. His interview with Professor Frank started off like this:
SHAPIRO (11/25/15): It was the discovery that changed the universe—or rather, our understanding of the universe. One hundred years ago today, Albert Einstein presented his theory of general relativity. So for the next few minutes, this is going to be a safe space for everyone who might think they have a vague understanding that maybe the theory of relativity is a really big deal, but maybe you don't really know exactly why or what that means."What exactly is the theory of general relativity?" the NPR host innocently asked. We'd have to say they were famous last words. The worst explanation of all time proceeded directly from there!
Consider this a physics amnesty. Astrophysicists and NPR blogger Adam Frank promises not to judge as I ask some really ignorant questions right now. Hey, Adam!
FRANK: Hey, how's it going, Ari?
SHAPIRO: Let's start with the basics on this 100th anniversary. What exactly is the theory of general relativity?
What does a non-explanation look like? If you're curious, we'll suggest you read the transcript of the Frank/Shapiro exchange, to which we'll return on Friday. For today, let's consider the larger meaning of the non-explanation NPR broadcast that day.
All across the country, people were traveling to holiday destinations. Upon arrival, they received inexpert explanations from people as young as 3.
Here's the problem:
Ari Shapiro is 37; Professor Frank is 53. Meanwhile, All Things Considered has been around since 1971. At least within our own liberal tribe, it's considered one of our brightest news programs.
In fairness, the segment in question concerned a matter of physics. It's the kind of segment certain news orgs broadcast to flatter consumers and to extend their own brand.
It doesn't matter if NPR listeners can't explain relativity. Still, what does it mean when our brightest news program can offer a segment like that?
In our view, the question is well worth considering.
Surely, we weren't the only ones who noticed the non-explanatory nature of Wednesday's segment. Surely, people in other cars must have wondered about what they heard.
That said, Shapiro showed no sign of knowing that he'd offered listeners a non-explanation—and Professor Frank didn't seem to realize either! Indeed, when their short segment was done, they closed things out like this:
SHAPIRO: That's Adam Frank, who teaches astrophysics at the University of Rochester. Thanks for the explainer!Riding along in the car, we were fairly sure that the explainer hadn't been great. Three nights later, we checked the transcript—and it turned out we were right! Indeed, we're not sure we've ever seen so perfect a non-explanation. It was handed to us by a professor who does know physics, on one of our brightest news programs.
FRANK: Oh, it was great. Thank you.
Did NPR listeners actually know that this "explainer" didn't make sense? And if we the people can't spot a problem like that, how many other non-explanations might we be willing to swallow, ingest and accept?
It's easy to spot the non-explanations when they come from the other tribe. Increasingly, we're struck by the profusion of non-explanations which come to us from authority figures within our own liberal/progressive tents.
Many of those bad explanations concern matters of gender and race. We pondered that fact as we reread Ta-Nehisi Coates' widely-praised new book during Thanksgiving break.
We're going to start a lengthy review of that fascinating book at the start of next week. In the meantime, let's review a few of the non-explanations which seem to surround us at this time. Some of them come from the other tribe. A fair number come from us.
On this morning's Morning Joe, the pundits were explaining why our discourse seems to have stopped making sense. In a highly unusual departure, much of what they said was correct.
That said, it seemed to us they could spot the shortcomings in everyone but themselves! Their guild has dished tremendous bunk in the past thirty years. They failed to mention this fact.
Why has everyone else stopped making sense? On that, their views were fairly strong. Tomorrow, let's review what the savants said. Also, let's visit Chuck Todd.
Tomorrow: The question not asked