Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Pluto is not a planet, and other respectable murders

Jerry Stratton, May 9, 2018

The Treachery of Pluto

Apparently, the scientific consensus on Pluto being a planet or not is not quite settled. But for the most part, outside of the astronomical community it is settled: it’s a joke.1 But there is a serious side to this issue. Pluto isn’t the only place where a committee, or even just a small group of people claiming authority, have redefined a word or phrase to mean the opposite of that word’s common usage and then use that new meaning to claim everyone else is wrong. We laugh at it when it’s about Pluto, or that tomatoes are not vegetables, because we know they are, and no one is force-feeding us tomato-pecan pies for dessert.

It’s a lot less funny when it means we can’t remove job-killing legislation because children will lose their health care and it turns out that those “children” are 25-year-olds who are precisely the people who lost their jobs due to the legislation.2 Or that we need to raise taxes because raising taxes—but using a term that few people connect with the meaning “raising taxes”—has failed to bring prosperity. These kinds of definitions create an Orwellian imprecision in language that is easily exploited by politicians.

As I wrote in Economic misterminology: recessions that never end, this is not just bullshit but dangerous bullshit. Politicians and pundits will, for example, tell us that because austerity has failed to improve prosperity in other countries, we should raise taxes and increase spending. But the definition of austerity they’re using means that what they’re actually saying is that since raising taxes and increasing spending fails to improve prosperity when it’s tried, we should therefore raise taxes and increase spending.

They told us that since deregulation of energy resulted in a highly dysfunctional and expensive energy industry in California, deregulation is a bad idea—without telling us that by “deregulation” they meant tight-fisted control of both delivery and pricing by government bureaucrats through incomprehensible formulas in a government-run exchange.

They define words—austerity, children, deregulation—in a way that means what they aren’t, and then hope we don’t catch when they use a word in its opposite-world meaning hoping we take it for its real-world meaning.

It isn’t just about politicians trying to pull a fast one, however; it’s also about removing any sense of agency, any sense that our actions matter. By completely detaching the definition of recession from the common-sense term, for example, we have also detached it from any sense that there are things we can do to avoid or trigger recessions, lessen or worsen recessions, and recover more or less quickly from recessions. The beginning of most recessions, definitionally, probably comes before the event that triggered the recession. And the end of the recession likely often precedes the actions taken to improve the economy, obscuring any sense that our own actions have any effect on the economy. That’s entirely due to an academic definition of recession that is completely detached from the real-world meaning.

Now, real-world meanings are often messy and imprecise in their own ways. The fact that we can talk about “adult children” is a pretty good example of that. So it makes sense that professionals or scientists will want to define some terminology more precisely than their real-world meanings. But more precisely is not opposite. When some political or professional advice seems to fly in the face of logic, we should be very careful to make sure that the terminology isn’t being used to mean the opposite, or nearly so, of what we think the terminology means.

To misquote Orwell, much of modern political and professional language is designed to making meaning meaningless and logic illogical. It’s designed to give politicians cover for doing the illogical; and it’s designed to keep the rest of us from recognizing when the illogical things politicians do result in disaster.

Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable. — George Orwell (Politics and the English Language)

In response to Beware the Austerity of the Politician: Austerity, to politicians, doesn’t mean what you think it means.

  1. And according to the article, it’s kind of a joke inside the community, too, in that they are continuing to use the word planet even in scholarly articles in a way that ignores the definition.

  2. Besides taking advantage of a legislative redefinition of children, this also tries to confuse two different legitimate definitions: people who are currently a child, and the adult offspring of someone, are both very different kinds of children. Normally, though when we refer to the adult children of someone we use the phrase “adult children”.

  1. <- Economic misterminology