TUESDAY, AUGUST 31, 2021
But also, the Theaetetus: We're willing to call it a new "pet peeve." We'd also describe it as a source of instruction, of anthropological insight.
We refer to one of the ways the New York Times and the Washington Post are reporting the runaway fires now burning in the west. This very morning, this is the way the New York Times is describing the Caldor fire:
VIGDOR AND FULLER (8/31/21): A wildfire that had burned through remote areas in the Sierra Nevada for two weeks crested a ridge on Monday and began descending toward the major population centers along Lake Tahoe.
As the Caldor fire intensified amid dry and windy conditions, thousands of people along the lake’s southern and western shores were ordered to evacuate. Crews of firefighters sped to put out spot fires only miles from South Lake Tahoe, Calif.
Public safety officials warned that the Caldor fire, the latest to grip California during a particularly unforgiving summer for fire crews in the West, showed no signs of relenting. It had scorched more than 186,000 acres and was 15 percent contained on Monday.
As of Monday, the Caldor fire had scorched "more than 186,000 acres!" But is that really a lot of acres, or is it maybe a little?
Just a guess! Very few readers could translate that account of the fire's extent into a more recognizable unit of measure. That said, the Times includes that account of acreage in its second headline:
Evacuations Ordered Near Lake Tahoe as the Caldor Fire Chokes Region
The fire had spread to more than 186,000 acres and was 15 percent contained, according to Cal Fire.
Readers can likely discuss the meaning of "15 percent." Can they intelligently discuss the meaning—the size, the sweep, the extent—of "186,000 acres?"
We're going to guess that very few can. But the Washington Post adopts the same "acres only" approach in its reporting of the Caldor fire this morning.
Yesterday, in an earlier online version of this morning's report, the Post threw in an apparent language error, offering this account:
LEONARD (8/30/21): But on Sunday, the flames moved aggressively under extremely low humidity and gusts. Since midnight, the fire has consumed nearly 170,000 acres and is 13 percent contained.
"Since midnight?" We assumed the writer meant to say something like "as of midnight," or "as of Monday morning." In this morning's print editions, the language has been cleaned up.
Friend, do you know how large an area 170,000 acres is? We're going to guess that you don't.
Can you translate that to a more familiar unit of measure? We're going to guess that you can't.
The Post and the Times don't seem to be concerned about that. Only the Associated Press reported the extent of the fire by including a unit of measure—square miles—which would probably be more familiar to most American readers.
For the record, 170,000 acres is equal to roughly 266 square miles; that could be an area of 13 miles by 20 miles, with six more square miles thrown in. We know that because we journeyed to this acres-to-square miles conversion site, where we gained the kind of knowledge we could understand and use.
As of this morning, the Caldor fire had consumed something like 280 square miles of California acreage. We're amazed, and yet not amazed, to think that our brightest newspapers deprive their readers of such basic information.
In our view, it's instructive to see the way the Post and the Times have handled this basic point. It's instructive in the anthropological sense. It's a window onto the nature of the species.
As a species, we just aren't enormously sharp. This is especially true at heavily partisan times like these, when we humans are strongly inclined to divide into tribes and start creating Mandated Tribal Dogmas—mandated proofs of a person's membership in the embattled tribe.
At present, this tendency is on full public display in what's left of the national discourse:
Rather plainly, there's nothing so dumb that many members of the red tribe won't end up believing it. Then too, there's the way our own blue tribe tends to deal, at the present time, with matters of gender and race.
But also, the Theaetetus!
Our own blue tribe's peculiar behaviors have surfaced a bit of late. In truth, there's nothing so dumb that we won't affirm it, just so long as it supports mandated beliefs concerning those areas of heightened concern.
Then too, the Theaetetus!
We've come to see that there's little point in discussing such incidents. It's the nature of Runaway Tribal Belief that its dogmas can't be amended or addressed by traditional means.
It's also true that we the people are basically on our own when it comes to such rolling behaviors. In last weekend's C-Span event, Steven Pinker mentioned some groups which are forming to address this growing problem within the academy, or at least so he said.
For a few brief shining moments, Pinker had us believing in Camelot all over again. But where has the cavalry been until now?
Consider the Theaetetus! Also, consider the traditional, generally reasonable formula according to which knowledge can be thought of as justified true belief.
Rachel Nichols seems to have had a certain belief concerning a certain decision by her bosses at ESPN. Plainly, her belief may have been true. (We have no way of knowing.)
As an insider at ESPN, she may even have had good reasons for her apparent belief! But when the mob runs in the street, such analysis goes on vacation.
Where the heck are the logicians, the brightest lights of our culture? We're badly in need of intelligent help but, to borrow from Jackson Browne, they're "nowhere to be found."
Last weekend, Jonathan Rauch's new book led us back to the Theaetetus. In the next few days, we'll try to force ourselves to discuss Nichols' recent cancellation at ESPN, as opposed to the way her cancellation has been reported in the New York Times.
We'll definitely show you what we found when Rauch led us back to the Theaetetus! Pinker and Rauch to the side, our scholars walked off their posts long ago, as the later Wittgenstein is sometimes said to have found.
Tomorrow: Rauch describes the Theaetetus
A skeleton key to this report: Our tribe's treatment of acres can still be discussed.
Not so with our mandated treatment of matters of gender and race