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If I Were In Charge

I can dream, can't I?

P. Lutus Message Page

Copyright © 2019, P. Lutus

Most recent update:

Introduction | The Metric System | Daylight Time
Dictionary versus Encyclopedia | The Meaning of Science | Bad Science Reporting
Innumeracy | Flat Earthers Et al. | Psychology
The End of Print | Capital Punishment | Self-Determination

(double-click any word to see its definition)


Don't get me wrong — I don't actually want to run things. I think politics tends to attract the worst possible candidates for the job of being in charge. But if I were in charge, and if I had my way (two different things), I would make some basic changes — how we decide what's true, how we treat each other, and how we learn about everyday reality.

I say this because recent news stories and events reveal an astonishing public ignorance of basic and uncontroversial information, things we must know to function in the world. For example if I were in charge people would learn the difference between science and pseudoscience. People would learn that race, like beauty, is only skin-deep, and we're all human beings inside our skins. People would learn that a link between A and B does not prove that A caused B (or the reverse). People would discover that what's true, and what we want to be true, are different things, and no amount of intense feeling can twist a single fact out of its natural place.

This article includes some emotionally charged topics, but let's start with an uncontroversial issue that ought to have been resolved centuries ago — adopting the metric system.

The Metric System

If I were in charge I would immediately adopt the metric system — it makes sense and its alternatives are deliberate handicaps that waste time and money. Here's an example using Imperial (i.e. non-metric) measurements — how many square inches are there in five acres of land?

In the U.S., an acre is 43,560 square feet (the United Kingdom has a different definition of the acre, but never mind — they've adopted Metric), and there are (12 times 12) 144 square inches in a square foot, so:

  • 5 * 43,560 * 12 * 12 = 31,363,200 square inches.

Compare this to the metric system — how many square centimeters in five hectares? The simplest hectare is a square with 100-meter sides, threfore it has (100 times 100) 10,000 square meters (104 in scientific notation). And a square meter is composed of 10,000 (as before, 104) square centimeters. So:

  • 5 * 104 * 104 = 5 * 108 (five hundred million) square centimeters.

Now compare the above results. If you're standing out in a field and it's hot, which result can you get without a calculator or paper and pencil? And which result will you remember a week from now?

One more metric comparison — at normal temperature and pressure (NTP), what volume does a given unit of water occupy, and how much does it weigh?

  • One U.S. gallon of water occupies 231 cubic inches and weighs 8.37 pounds.

  • One liter of water occupies one cubic decimeter and weighs one kilogram.

As before, which conversion can you use without struggling, and which one will you remember a week from now?

Most of the world uses the metric system, in fact as I write this there are only three holdouts — the United States, Myanmar and Liberia. Myanmar is seriously considering a change to metric, but the U.S. seems determined not to switch.

The fact that the U.S. is a metric holdout can fairly be blamed on Thomas Jefferson, who even though an advocate of decimal-based measurements, found the metric system too "French" for his taste.

I think the U.S. ought to adopt the metric system top-down, meaning in an orderly way and guided by the highest civil authorities. This approach has been tried numerous times but has so far failed. Instead, as time passes we're seeing more bottom-up adoption of metric measures by individual companies who see its advantages, among which are Caterpillar, General Motors, Xerox, IBM, and Kodak (source).

My favorite metric system story is the 1999 loss of the U.S. Mars Surveyor spacecraft at a cost of $125 million. As the spacecraft approached Mars the principal aerospace contractor delivered instructions to NASA for a final correcting burn and course realignment. The correcting burn instead caused the spacecraft to go off course and crash. Why? Because the contractor used non-metric units of force (i.e. pound-force-seconds), contrary to NASA's requirement for metric units (Newton-seconds).

That's only a story of a failed spacecraft and the loss of some valuable scientific knowledge. The big picture is that, if the U.S. refuses to adopt the metric system, we might also crash and burn.

Daylight Time

If I were in charge, I would abandon daylight time, which might be the most ridiculous, paternalistic idea mankind ever dreamt up. It creates an imaginary and counterproductive role for government, it meddles in the daily affairs of millions of people with no discernible benefit, and twice per year it results in people being either early or late for countless appointments.

There's some good news — at the time I write this, many states are abandoning daylight time in favor of a year-round time equal to the summertime clock setting, meaning one that takes a region's natural geological time and adds one hour. The result will be more light in the evening and no more twice-annual clock changes.

Here's my favorite daylight time story: in a 24-hour cafe, before going home for the night, the big boss tells the manager, "You need to change the clock. At 2 A.M., set that clock back one hour." So at 2 A.M., the manager acts as instructed — he sets the clock back one hour. Then, an hour later, when the clock again displays 2 A.M., he sets it back one hour. Again and again, through the night. No, boys and girls, I'm not making this up.

Dictionary versus Encyclopedia

If I were in charge, I would make sure people learn the difference between a dictionary and an encyclopedia. I can't tell you how many debates I've had with people who tried to support their technical positions with dictionary definitions when an encyclopedia was the obvious and only choice.

Let me explain:

  • Contrary to widely held belief, a dictionary doesn't list word definitions — it lists what people think words mean, however bizarre. This is why a dictionary lists the words "literally" and "virtually," ordinarily thought to be antonyms, as synonyms (Merriam/Webster: literally). A quote from an article on this topic:

    "There is no plot by dictionary-makers to destroy our language. There is not even a plot to loosen our language's morals and corrupt it a bit. There is, however, a strong impulse among lexicographers to catalog the language as it is used, and there is a considerable body of evidence indicating that literally has been used in this fashion for a very long time." [emphasis added]

    To summarize the above, a dictionary's role is to describe how people use words, not describe the words themselves. So if someone thinks "literally" and "virtually" mean the same thing, a dictionary agrees, without judgment or rancor.

  • By contrast an encyclopedia lists the actual meaning of words and ideas. If you need a formal definition of, say, science, don't rely on a dictionary, because most people don't know what science means. Let's compare a dictionary with an encyclopedia:

    • Merriam-Webster (dictionary): science (1): "The state of knowing : knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding."

    • Britannica (encyclopedia): science: "Any system of knowledge that is concerned with the physical world and its phenomena and that entails unbiased observations and systematic experimentation. In general, a science involves a pursuit of knowledge covering general truths or the operations of fundamental laws."

See the difference? A dictionary defines science as knowledge, which is (a) what most people think and (b) wrong. An encyclopedia defines science as the disciplined pursuit of knowledge of the physical world and of the "general truths" (theories) that describe that world.

This confusion between dictionaries and encyclopedias has serious public-policy consequences. It's how religious fundamentalists try to justify teaching Creationism in public school science classes — after all, they say, Creationism is knowledge. Yes, Creationism is knowledge — but it's not science. It lacks any connection with the natural world and it can't be falsified (scientific theories must be open to falsification). Therefore it doesn't belong in a science class.

This confusion may also explain why psychologists think their field is a science. Psychologists collect descriptions, but they don't try to craft theories to explain their descriptions, theories that might be open to falsification.

"The hope of a psychological science became indistinguishable from the fact of psychological science. The entire subsequent history of psychology can be seen as a ritualistic endeavor to emulate the forms of science in order to sustain the delusion that it already is a science" — psychologist and science philosopher Sigmund Koch, 1973.

This requires a more thorough definition of science, my next topic.

The Meaning of Science

If I were in charge I would make sure people learn what science means — people aren't learning this now.

It can fairly be said that the most important difference between the year 1600 and today is that we now have science (and mathematics) to distinguish what's real from what's not. But most people don't understand science — they think it's a collection of facts about the world. Not so!

  • Science is not knowledge, it's a disciplined way to acquire knowledge.
  • Science requires three key elements:
    • Reliable observations of the natural world.
    • A theory that tries to explain what's been observed.
    • A practical basis for falsifying the theory using contradicting observations and/or logical inconsistencies (a theory that cannot in principle be falsified by observations of nature is not scientific).
  • A theory without confirming/contradicting observations is storytelling, not science.
  • Observations without a theory are like bricks that could shape a house if an architect could be found. Or as Henri Poincar√© put it, "Science is built up with facts, as a house is with stones. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house."
  • A conscientious scientist suggests observations of nature that, if they were seen, would falsify her theory.
  • An outstanding scientist proactively seeks out observations and alternative explanations that might falsify her theory, knowing these will either strengthen or destroy it, but at least we'll know (not all scientists pass this test).
  • Contrary to a widely held misunderstanding, science rejects authority and expertise, replacing these with direct observations of nature. The greatest amount of scientific eminence is trumped by the smallest amount of scientific evidence.
Bad Science Reporting

If I were in charge, I would require science journalists to know something about science. To see the problem, notice how journalists misuse the word "linked" — as in, A is "linked" to B, therefore A caused B. This is a logical fallacy called post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this).

At the time I write this, I see any number of press misinterpretations of a marijuana study that shows a link between marijuana use and psychosis. The study's authors (and any number of science journalists) go beyond the evidence and claim the study shows a cause-effect relationship between marijuana use and psychosis, but because it's a retrospective study it can only link people who (A) smoke marijuana and (B) become psychotic. One critic of the study's apparent conclusion says, "You can't say that cannabis causes psychosis ... It's simply not supported by the data."

What other explanation could there be? Easily answered — people prone to psychosis might also be prone to marijuana use, in other words the reverse of the relationship the study claims. Or the study's result might arise from "data mining," which means examining large public databases and looking for random meaningless correlations. In many studies of this kind, an effect is reported without any attempt to explain why the effect exists — what caused it — only that there's a link between two observations. This problem is particularly severe in fields like psychology that have only observations and no theories.

I can imagine an experienced editor reading a journalist's copy, finding the word "linked" in a context like the above example, and saying, "Who are you trying to fool? Yourself or your readers?"

I can't leave this topic without saying the marijuana study's inability to prove its claim doesn't mean the claim is false or that marijuana is safe and harmless. The reason marijuana has become legal is not because it's harmless, but because it's no more harmful than alcohol or tobacco, which have always been legal, and jailing people for selling or possessing marijuana was an outrageous injustice.

Another advantage to legalizing marijuana is that it deprives "weed" of its mystery and romance, its association with rebels and original thinkers. Eventually smoking marijuana will identify you as just another kind of tobacco smoker or alcohol drinker. This should decrease marijuana's popularity among the young, contrary to the predictions of those who oppose its legalization.


("Innumeracy" is to numbers what "Illiteracy" is to words.)

If I were in charge I would require students to learn certain kinds of simple mathematics as a graduation requirement. This requirement might seem arbitrary until you read how innocent people are tricked into predatory consumer loans they can't possibly pay back, or who allow credit card balances (and accompanying interest charges) to grow out of their control.

Many consumer loan scams do what they can to hide how much the loan actually costs, and the worst offenders set the interest rate and payment amount so the principal is never paid off. These loans can be perfectly legal, but many of them exploit innumeracy to trap unwary consumers in endless debt.

Consider this example — you borrow $1000 and make monthly payments of $100 until the loan is paid off. It's a simple loan, but what if the interest rate is 10% per month? How many consumers understand, given the interest rate and the payment amount, that the loan's principal is never paid off, in fact it remains $1000 forever?

Let's say the interest rate is 7% per month instead of 10% (with the same monthly payment) — how much does the loan cost over time? In this case the loan's total cost is $1780.03, or almost 80% more than the borrowed amount, paid out over 18 months.

There are many ways to guard against this kind of financial trap. The best defense is to learn a little math. Another way is to use an online finance calculator to compute hypothetical outcomes and establish the real cost of consumer loans. Also, if the information provided by the lending institution isn't crystal clear, shop somewhere else — obscure loan terms and lots of small print are red flags.

Flat Earthers Et al.

If I were in charge I would require schools to teach skepticism and critical thinking, clearly not true now. I would also make people learn the difference between science and pseudoscience.

To a scientist, an idea is false until it's supported by empirical evidence, after which it becomes possible but never true — science can't prove something true, only false. In science an idea that has supporting evidence remains falsifiable in perpetuity by new evidence.

To a pseudoscientist, it's the reverse — an idea is true until someone else proves it false. Pseudoscientists don't accept personal responsibility for evidence, instead they assume their ideas are valid until someone else presents disproving evidence.

A scientist begins by collecting evidence, processes it, then shapes a theory about what the evidence means. Nothing is assumed a priori, everything flows from the evidence. A properly trained scientist accepts arguments and evidence against his theory, realizing this can only strengthen the theory. The fundamental premise of science is that a theory has no standing unless and until it's supported by evidence (this is called the null hypothesis).

A pseudoscientist begins with a belief, then seeks evidence to support what he believes (this is called confirmation bias). He systematically discards disconfirming evidence, only giving weight to evidence that supports his prior belief. He reacts with indifference or hostility to disconfirming evidence presented by others.

The pseudoscientist's attitude to reality-testing explains why people believe so many weird things. Consider Bigfoot — to a pseudoscientist Bigfoot exists until someone can prove it doesn't exist. But Bigfoot's existence cannot be disproved — that would require proof of a negative, an impossibility and a logical fallacy called argument from ignorance. This makes the pseudoscientist secure in any beliefs he cares to have.

But Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, alien visitations et al. cannot compare to the recently popular Flat Earth theory. According to this theory the Earth is actually a flat disc with the north pole at the center and a wall of ice enclosing the disc at its rim, where we ignorant disbelievers think Antarctica is located. In this theory the sun and moon are attached to a crystal hemisphere that covers the disc and rotates, which explains the changing positions of the sun and moon.

How does Flat Earth differ from other weird beliefs? To believe in Bigfoot, all one need do is assert something for which there is zero evidence. But to believe in a Flat Earth one must deny something for which there is copious evidence — a roughly spherical earth, with ships, airplanes and spacecraft traveling along routes that require the earth to be spherical.

Because I personally sailed a small boat solo around the world, I'm not obliged to take anyone's word for the shape of planet Earth — I know from direct personal experience that it's spherical. Simply put, if Earth weren't spherical, I wouldn't be here. So I'm not a likely candidate for this particular loony belief.

It seems that some Flat Earthers posture as principled rebels against the imagined paternalism and authority of science, which only proves their ignorance of science is at least equal to their ignorance of physics, because science rejects appeals to authority out of hand.

The Flat Earth belief represents a new frontier in human ignorance, easily sprinting past religion, psychology and other belief systems having the unenviable shared property that they disregard reality.


If I were in charge I would make sure people understand what psychology is, something that's certainly not true now. But instead of just saying what psychology is, I'll let my readers figure it out using historical examples:

  • Before the U.S. Civil War psychologists invented Drapetomania, a mental illness diagnosis that presumed to explain why slaves ran away from their masters. Drapetomania was used to justify the racist policies of the era and force free men and women back into the hands of their "owners." Unlike the other examples in this list, psychologists now accept that Drapetomania was pure pseudoscience.

  • In the 1930s psychologists invented a simple procedure that greatly improved the behavior of mental patients. Before the procedure, patients might rant and yell for hours, making life miserable for everyone. After the procedure, patients became much more docile and manageable. The procedure involved inserting an icepick into the patient's prefrontal cortex and moving it around, slicing through brain tissues. This produced a dramatic improvement in behavior, but as a side effect the patient lost any resemblance to a human being. Called "Lobotomy", the procedure reached its peak popularity in the 1950s, was eventually applied to 40,000 people, but has since been abandoned. The Wikipedia Lobotomy article includes this quote: "The purpose of the operation was to reduce the symptoms of mental disorder, and it was recognized that this was accomplished at the expense of a person's personality and intellect."

  • In the mid-20th century homosexuality was formally identified as a mental illness and various treatments were devised, including chemical castration. Since then two things have changed: the public has begun to accept homosexuality, and even psychologists realized their "treatments" weren't working. Eventually homosexuality was removed from the DSM, psychology's standard diagnostic manual, but this hasn't prevented some psychologists from offering phony conversion therapy treatments, and these practices have been declared illegal in some cases.

  • Over the decades some organic ailments have been misidentified as mental illnesses amenable to psychological treatments, among which were the various forms of autism. At the height of psychology's popularity, autism was widely blamed on "refrigerator mothers", emotional cripples unable to bond with their children. Fortunately for many innocent and caring parents this fad didn't last and autism was eventually identified as an organic, not mental, ailment.

  • In the 1990s a fad psychological treatment called "recovered memory therapy" became popular. In this therapy, psychology clients "remembered" being victims of horrible crimes that were supposedly later suppressed from the conscious mind. Recovered memory therapy seemed to bring hidden traumatic memories into conscious recall, but the role of fantasy and invention — in both therapist and client — seems not to have been adequately guarded against. The result was that many people were prosecuted for imaginary crimes. Then, about the time virgins began reporting imaginary rapes, the legal system realized it was being played, the faux victims got no more attention and the therapy lost its popularity.

  • Even though it's since been abandoned, Asperger Syndrome ("Asperger's") is regarded by many as the perfect mental illness diagnosis. With a minimum of acting ability nearly anyone could get the diagnosis, it produced sympathy, special education funds and attention, and a number of important historical figures (Isaac Newton, Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein and Bill Gates among others) were given the diagnosis. These factors made Asperger's the first genuinely attractive mental illness, it resulted in an epidemic of diagnoses and nearly bankrupted some school districts who were obliged to provide special education funds for the victims of this cruel ailment. Asperger's has since been removed from the standard diagnostic manual (the DSM), but because psychologists are under no compulsion to honor the DSM's contents, Asperger's, not unlike Drapetomania and other bogus ailments, might eventually resurface.

The common thread in psychology's history is an absence of science, skepticism and critical thinking. Science requires a marriage of theory and empirical evidence, but because psychology's topic is the mind and because the mind is an idea, not a thing, it can't produce the kind of reliable empirical evidence that could lead to testable, falsifiable theories and to science. This means, regardless of how much data is collected and analyzed, psychology remains a narrative, a belief system, not an empirical science.

There are many harmless and even useful belief systems. In modern times psychology's problem is that it's often confused with science and with evidence-based medicine, sometimes with dreadful consequences. If I were in charge I would see to it that psychology was recognized and accepted as a belief system, not a science. Psychologists would be allowed to offer counsel and guidance (something many psychologists do very well) but neither pose as a science nor invent and promote bogus illnesses as in the past.

The End of Print

Readers may see from this and other articles that I rely on printed words to convey ideas. But it's clear that print is being phased out, replaced by images, often video, with unforeseeable consequences for intellectual communication.

If I were in charge I would make sure people planning to engage in print communication either demonstrate some basic lexical aptitude or be consigned to talking-head videos. Automatic spell-checkers often make the problem worse by either not flagging a correctly spelled but wrong term, or by accepting an obviously wrong spelling that has gained acceptance through repetition. I should add that spell checkers can't fix grammatical errors, and there are no effective grammar checkers — yet.

One may reasonably object that because language is an art, not a science, therefore there's no right and wrong and no absolutely correct and incorrect grammatical forms. That's true, but it misses the issue of effective communication — if a writer's prose doesn't convey the intended meaning, it fails in a pragmatic sense.

Having said that, here are a few of my A-list gripes:

  • Reign him in. I see this everywhere now. But it's "rein", not "reign". Reigning is what a monarch does to a kingdom, reining is what a cowboy does to a horse.

  • Use of tenant where tenet is the right word. This is now commonly seen, even in publications that presumably have editorial standards. Philosophy is not an apartment building. More here.
  • Less versus fewer. For some reason, this misuse grates on my ear. Use "less" for continuous quantities and "fewer" for enumerable (or "countable") quantities. Less water, fewer liters of water.

  • Perverse word order

    A subtle error, but one of my pet peeves. An example would be "Contributing factor to ..." or "Similar effect to ..." et al.. I'm seeing this mistake more often as time passes, in both print and speech, such that examples now seem to leap out at me. Corrected, they read:

    • "Contributing factor to ..." -> "Factor contributing to ...".
    • "Similar effect to ..." -> "Effect similar to ...".

    In these and other examples, the pattern modifier-noun-preposition should be noun-modifier-preposition. I think this error arises primarily from a failure to take a moment to edit a first cut, usually by people under time pressure and unwilling to review and improve their prose. To see the severity of the problem, enter these search strings (quotes included) into Google. Note the totals:

    • "Similar Effect to" : 1,070,000 cases.
    • "Effect similar to" : 917,000 cases.

    So more than half the online examples seem to result from entering words that become sentences without any advance reflection on the sound of the outcome: "Similar effect ... hmm ... to alcohol. Done!"

    I take time to edit/revise what I write, sometimes repeatedly, but then I'm not in a hurry. Also I learned literacy skills when print stood alone.

  • Confusion of the homonyms site, sight and cite. Site means a real or virtual location, sight is vision and cite is a verb meaning to quote or praise. This affliction strikes people who mostly hear words spoken, not read in printed form. Shall I tell you how often I've gotten an email saying, "I like your sight!"?

  • It's versus its, also general confusion of the s and 's suffixes. There are some confusing edge cases but "it's" compresses "it is", while "its" is a possessive signifying ownership or association. As to s versus 's, in most cases s pluralizes what precedes it, while 's signifies possession.

Obviously any such list can only represent a holding action against the inevitable end of print.

Capital Punishment

If I were in charge I would abolish the death penalty on moral and practical grounds.

People make seemingly persuasive arguments in favor of the death penalty, but they don't hold up to examination. One argument is that it deters crime, but there's no evidence for this and some counterevidence. Consider: if perpetrators commit capital crimes because they want to die, then capital punishment gives them what they want.

Another argument people make is that it's cheaper to execute a prisoner than to give him a life sentence without parole, but this argument also fails. Because of mandatory appeals and the cost of a modern execution, it's much more expensive to execute a prisoner than to jail him for life.

Finally, because the death penalty is final, there's the risk of executing an innocent person. This is an important issue — according to published studies, because of advances in DNA testing and other scientific methods, since 1973 123 death row inmates have been declared innocent and released. In these cases not only was a death sentence inappropriate, but these people were wrongly convicted — they were innocent.

Given these facts, we might ask: have any innocent people been executed by the state? All we can say is it's likely, but we may never know. Because of how our legal system works, after they've been executed, innocent people can't be cleared.

Race is a serious death penalty issue — a California study showed that juries applied the death penalty three times more often if the victim was white than if black.

Finally there's a pivotal moral argument: how can the state argue that its citizens can't kill people in extreme circumstances, when that's exactly what the state is doing?

More reading on this issue.


If I were in charge I would make self-determination a basic, universal human right. Some readers may wonder why I include this — isn't it already true? Isn't self-determination a universally recognized human right? Well, no — not for women and not for people of color.

For people of color, public education may help dispel the many myths of race and persuade acceptance of people without bias, although this long-overdue acceptance seems to be taking much longer than anyone anticipated (and we should be ashamed of ourselves).

Because of certain political and biological realities, the issue of self-determination for women is more complicated:

  • The political reality is that many people want economic growth, the easiest way to make that happen is to increase the population, and the easiest way to make that happen is to deny women the right of self-determination.

  • The biological reality is that a man can simultaneously engage in reproduction and remain free to act in other spheres, but this isn't true for a woman, who is quite literally attached to the activity.

The above points mean there's a strong political motive to deny women the right of self-determination, persuade them that their "real" purpose is to be breeders, not thinkers. This political motive is clearly seen in a systematic and deliberate pattern of information hiding in the lives of young people:

  • Preadolescent people could be warned of the risks of early sexual behavior during formal sex education classes, except for the political forces that often prevent this kind of class from being offered.

  • Young people in school could be provided with contraceptive methods and materials, but the politically motivated argument is often made that this might encourage early sexual behavior, at a time when thinking about virtually anything else would be more productive. The argument has merit, but if the purpose is to prevent short-circuiting a young woman's education and personal development, then the methods should be provided anyway.

  • Young people (not necessarily students) could be provided free access to modern contraceptive methods and materials at reasonable cost and with no questions asked, but political obstacles often stand in the way, in particular with regard to abortion.

The irony of abortion is that, if the issues in the above list weren't obstacles to information access, abortion would be so rare as to be a non-issue. But the politics surrounding reproduction, and the artificial prohibitions it creates, makes abortion much more common, and much less safe, than it would otherwise be.

The take-away on this issue: if you want to show respect for women as human beings, prove it by giving them the right of free choice, of self-determination.

Thanks for reading! — PL

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