Weeding out misleading misnomers
When I was a student in MIT, I took a walk on Massachusetts Avenue, across the Harvard bridge. It’s a long bridge which separates Boston from Cambridge, Massachusetts. As I crossed into Boston and I walked about a mile further, I noticed the Christian Science Plaza. It was beautiful. A large ornate church next to reflection pool. A little pocket of spaciousness in crowded Boston. It looked splendid.
I didn’t like getting inside churches, and thought of myself as an atheist. I fit well in Boston - a sciency city hosting MIT, Harvard, BU, Tufts and other top universities. In my ignorance, I assumed that the Christian Science Plaza is some kind of tribute of sort to all these scientists who were also believing and professing Christians. How naive of me.
Only years later, after reading a random thread on the internets, I learned that Christian Science is something entirely different than what I thought it was. Apparently, it is a sect that preaches alternative medicine and quackery. It’s followers believe that if you’re sick, the best way to heal is not to go to the doctor, but to pray.
This is far… far from science, and at the same time far from mainstream Christianity, as I understood it. Yet, for a while Christian Science flew under my bullshit radar, masked by its name.
And Christian science is not the only low flying crap. There are others. Another example is the phrase “Conscious Capitalism”. On the surface, it seems like it’s fixing some of the problems of capitalism. Corporations are often accused, and rightly so, of externalizing the cost, by dumping their negative byproducts on groups of people who don’t have choice, or by destroying the ecosystems of the planet.
Conscious capitalism pretends that it’s a different way to do business, that helps the planet, and aligns incentives. And while to some degree this might be true, it’s a classic marketing technique. These businesses, touted at the forefront of conscious capitalism make their profits not by necessarily finding the better and cheaper and sustainable products and delivering them at a competitive price.
Most of conscious capitalism rely on virtue signaling - whether it is social status, or for intrinsic motivation. People want to feel good about where they spend their money - even if that means spending a lot more of the money. That’s the real business model.
What conscious capitalism really sells vanity, and luxury.
You might say I’m cynical, yet, if you see the bottom line, realize that conscious capitalism only works for selling high end items to affluent customers who want to feel better about their impact on the planet. The really funny, and rather ironic thing is that this kind of decision is often made at the subconscious level. A fully conscious consumer knows that most of the time a more expensive product is harder on the environment. And then they realize they don’t need to spend 12.99 for a small bag of dark chocolate almonds, and that the waste created by it more than negates the good created by getting their organic avocados cheap.
A fully conscious customer would be frank to themselves that they are buying the organic eggplant and the heirloom tomatoes because they taste better. Not because they are more sustainable. When you draw the bottom line, conscious capitalism is really a subliminal luxury.
Phrases like “conscious capitalism” and “christian science” - designed to mislead us, are much more common than we imagine. They can be extra vicious, because they are not a contradictory oxymorons. It is possible to be both a Christian and a scientist, and to approach science with religiousness and theology scientifically. And it is possible to be a conscious capitalist - see the blog of Mr Money Mustache (https://www.mrmoneymustache.com/)
Such phrases are double misnomers. They twist our brains away from the true meaning. We approximate meaning of a phrase by each word’s individual meaning. We are hard wired for associations. Logic is secondary, and we regularly ignore it. And when things are different than what their names imply - that’s doublespeak, and forces us on actively engaging our slower, logical machinery.
We have to exert mental discipline, and a lot of effort, only to avoid getting tricked.
Such doublespeaks are Orwelianisms - forcing us to keep two different interpretations in our heads. One for what things sound like, and another for what they really are. When we are dealing with double misnomers, the number of interpretations becomes four. The more misnomers we have, the number of versions we have to consider grows exponentially. Meanwhile, our brains have limited power. Like… super limited. Our working memory, our RAM, can only keep 5-7 things at the same time, so having even four misnomers can really mess us up.
For double speak to sneak in, we don’t need a double misnomer. Even a single misnomer is enough to force us into doublespeak, and doublethink.
Misleading misnomers are everywhere. All around us, they trick us in all kinds of ways. They are the basis of all misinformation - from deceptive persuasion, to fake news, to propaganda. By weeding them out of our lives, and staying vigilant, we learn to recognize the bigger threats and avoid them.