Monday, November 30, 2009

reason bites back

Is reason making a comeback? Wishful thinking, I know, but I've seen a few hopeful and memorable glimmers of late. The first comes from my local supermarket. New Seasons Market here in Portland is an uppity and altogether terrific place to load up on fuel for humans. A few months ago, the stores began selling New Seasons brand milk. This development would be wholly uninteresting if not for the fact that New Seasons is an organic food lover's paradise. This particular milk, however, is not organic. And it's just $2/gallon. Across the top of the label it says: "From cows raised on Northwest pastures. rBST free." On the bottom of the label, in tiny print, is the following (italics original):

No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from cows treated with artificial hormones and those not treated with artificial hormones.

What interests me about this product and its label is less the actual issue of what should or shouldn't be in milk, or how milk should or shouldn't be produced. (I try to resist the modern temptation to declare oneself an expert on a topic after 8 minutes of googling.) No, what I find curious about this milk and the [apparently FDA required-] label is the reason-based decision to put this product out there in the first place, and the reason-heavy tenor of a label that is respectful of the consumer's intelligence. Before posting this blog, I was hoping to make a call to New Seasons corporate, to find out how the milk is selling compared to the $5/gallon organic milk varieties sold on the same shelves. But holidays, taking care of baby Spencer, and an imminent trip (to India!) got in the way. If anyone happens to know, or happens to know someone who can tell me, do be in touch.

There is also the Wired cover story (November) about the wacko anti-vaccine movement. I especially like the mug-shots lineup of the misinformation peddlers. Even more satisfying, perhaps, was a French court's decision to fine the Church of Scientology. I know. These people and their ilk are thriving, this case was only about financial fraud, and nothing is going to remedy the global epidemic of nutty naivete anytime soon. Still, I can't help but feel good that a court--any court--made even a modest attempt to call a spade a spade.

This last example, for now, is a little subtler, but a close look at the diction of a recent New York Times article reveals something interesting about how we, as a society, deal with ideas that fall loosely into the category of anti-intellectualism/denialism/pseudoscience. What struck me was this passage:

The anti-vaccine movement, largely comprising activists and a handful of doctors and researchers who connect a variety of health problems — particularly autism spectrum disorders — to vaccines, has failed to find large-scale traction in the United States, where more than 90 percent of children are vaccinated.

This is a classic example of the media shaping or steering an issue, as opposed to merely reporting it. Countless stories and books in recent years, including the November Wired piece, have addressed the alarming trend of vaccination refusal, and how more and more educated people are jumping on this bandwagon made of ignorance and recklessness. The problem is that when people see those kinds of stories, some of them can't help but wonder what all the fuss is about--What do Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy know that I don't know? And then they're off, on a Web-surfing foray into the morass, where they easily and quickly find more official-looking misinformation than they could ever have time consume. Voila: another taker in the age of the 8-minute expert. All of which is to say that the blend of diction and editing at the Times that led to the sentence above, and especially to the phrase about the movement's failure to gain traction, is thought provoking--and then some. Does it matter, though? Take a look at the nearly 300 comments to the Times piece, or the 643 comments to Amy Wallace's piece in Wired, for a glimpse of the views out there, ranging from the inspiring to the ghastly. (NPR actually aired a short piece about the hostile response directed at Wallace.)


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Miami Book Fair

It had been months since my last book reading, but I managed to dive back into the world of orthography without much difficultly last week at the Miami Book Fair. I read alongside two masters of the craft (writing, that is, not orthography), Roy Blount Jr. and Thomas Mallon. Mallon read hilariously mushy excerpts of letters from President Woodrow Wilson, written to his sweetheart while Wilson was in the White House. Blount just kind of riffed about words in that marvelous drawl that "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!" fans have come to worship. I can't say I agree with his theory that linguists are flat out wrong, and that certain onomatopoeic words provide clear evidence that there's a connection between the sound of a word and it's meaning, but he's a fun guy to listen to regardless.