Friday, September 26, 2008

Usage tip: conflate vs. confuse

I've seen a lot of misuses of the word conflate lately. Many folks seem to be using it as a cooler-sounding synonym for confuse, as in "don't conflate political ambition with political knowledge."

I have to quote Inigo here: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." (The Princess Bride)

According to my trusty Merriam-Webster (11th edition), this is the definition of conflate:

"conflate (vt): to combine or mix (two variant readings into a single text, etc.)"

And here's the definition of confuse:

"confuse (vt): 1) to mix up; jumble together; put into disorder 2) to mix up mentally; specif. a) to bewilder, perplex b) to embarrass; disconcert c) to fail to distinguish between; mistake the identity of"
(both definitions from p. 306)

Notice the subtle (or not so subtle?) difference here. Confuse means just what everyone thinks it means. If you confuse A with B, it means you don't know the difference between them, or you think they're the same thing. Conflate, on the other hand, doesn't mean what one might expect. If you conflate A with B, it means you combine them and come up with something that's related to both, but different from either.

If you're trying to say that someone has mistaken X for Y, then you need to say that the person has confused X and Y. Use conflate only when you mean that someone has taken multiple (slightly different) statements and combined them into one.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Nice cream!

For those of you who haven't heard, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) recently sent a letter to Ben & Jerry (yes, that Ben & Jerry). Their position is, apparently, that B&J should start making ice cream with human breast milk, instead of with cow's milk.

Don't get me wrong--I'm all for the ethical treatment of animals. I don't like factory farming, and I don't think treating heifers with rBGH is a good idea. I won't eat veal, I try to eat "happy meat", etc., etc. I was once even a PETA member. But I do think it's possible to take a good idea too far (which is why I am no longer a PETA member). Breast milk ice cream? Because, apparently, there's a huge surplus of human breast milk out there?

The Straight Dope Message Board has a rather amusing take on it. They asked their contributors to come up with Ben & Jerry-worthy names for human milk ice cream. There are some clever folks over there. Check it out.

My personal favorites? Butterscotch Nipple, Thanks for the Mammaries, and Titty Fruitti.

(hat tip to Orac over at Respectful Insolence)

Sandy and the House Centipede

I had an amusing interlude this morning. I was in the kitchen getting a glass of water and I looked in on Sandy (my dog). She was curled up in a little brown Ball-O-Sandy on the Purple Chair, which is her usual status at 6:45 in the morning. Just as I was going over to tell her how cute she is, she suddenly leapt off the chair, dashed across the room, and pounced with alacrity on a spot on the baseboard. Just before she landed, I spotted what looked like a small freight train scooting across the moulding. "Ah-ha!" I thought to myself, "It's a million-legged bug!" (That's the scientific name. The more commonly used name is "house centipede" or—if you want to be really dull--Scutigera coleoptrata.)

Sandy has a great passion for catching and mauling all manner of arthropods (an activity we encourage, given that we share our house with a large number of them), so needless to say she was ecstatic to see one with more than twice the usual number of legs. She grabbed it, munched for a minute, and spat it out (this is her usual method—if they're still moving after that, they're still fun, so she goes after them again). The poor million-legged bug was lying on the floor, twitching, covered in dog spit and (thanks to the dog spit's adhesive qualities) dog hair. I expected Sandy to jump back in and give it the coup de grace. However, Sandy had discovered that, in addition to having way more legs than the typical cockroach, centipedes also have way more venom. In case you were wondering, a dog that has been bitten in the mouth by a house centipede looks remarkably like a dog with peanut butter stuck on the roof of its mouth, although with slightly more lip-curling. To save Sandy from further issues (she sometimes lets her excitement about creepy-crawlies overcome her basic good sense), I threw the centipede outside.

After doing some research, I learned that a centipede bite is rarely any worse than a bee sting. (Sandy didn't even yelp when it bit her, and she certainly seems to have recovered—although I think the belly rub probably helped.) I also found out that house centipedes eat cockroaches and other unpleasantness—thereby also discovering why Sandy tried to eat it (aside from the obvious "fun" factor): she was eliminating the competition!

So, I learned that house centipedes (aside from being really eww-y) are good to have in your house, if you can keep them away from the dog. Sandy also learned something: avoid crawlies with too many legs. (Although somehow I doubt she'll remember that in the heat of the moment next time.)

Here is a picture of Sandy:

And here is a picture of a house centipede:

(image of house centipede from Horror Wallpaper; images not to scale)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Even if...

There is a great deal written out there about the problems with Intelligent Design's "arguments" that supposedly "refute" the theory of evolution. I won't go into them here (although I may in the future), but suffice it to say, they pretty much all fall into one or more of the following categories:
  • misinterpretation (either deliberate or out of ignorance) of legitimate scientific data;
  • quotes and/or data taken completely out of context and tortured into implying something other than what they actually imply;
  • self-contradictions (or contradictions of other arguments made by the same person or organization);
  • fallacies of logic;
  • applications of valid scientific theory and/or concepts to things they have no business being applied to; and
  • outright lies.
However, as a thought experiment, suppose for a moment that every single argument made by Intelligent Design proponents were completely scientifically accurate. Suppose, if you will, that the theory of evolution really were as full of holes and problems as they'd like us to believe.

Even if that were true...Intelligent Design STILL would not be a valid scientific theory, and it STILL would not belong in science classrooms.

One point that I don't think is made often enough in the "debate" between Intelligent Design proponents and real scientists is this: proving one theory false is not equivalent to proving another theory true. (Not that you can prove a theory. But you know what I mean.)

They'd like us to believe that, if they can "prove" that the theory of evolution is invalid, scientists will magically just accept Intelligent Design. Allow me to use an analogy to illustrate how silly this argument is.

Imagine a really big party. Hundreds of people in a really big room, all milling around. Suddenly, a gunshot rings out, and someone falls down dead. Further suppose that there are security cameras in this room that catch the whole thing on tape. You can see the shooter's face--can even see the color of her eyes. What's more, there are 15 eyewitnesses that claim to have seen her shoot the victim. The gun has her fingerprints on it and is ballistically matched to the bullet in the victim. There is gunpowder residue all over her hands. And, she has a motive.

In court, the defense tries to get the shooter off by arguing against the validity of all of the evidence. Then, in the closing statement, the defense council says the following:
"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the evidence clearly does not show that my client shot the victim. Therefore, it must have been the doorman who shot the victim."

How likely do you think it is that the jury would convict the doorman, just because it couldn't possibly have been the defendant who shot the victim?

Disproof of one theory does not equal proof of another theory. A scientific theory is based on evidence. If there's no evidence to support it--and especially if there's no possible way to collect evidence to support it--then it cannot be a valid scientific theory!