Language, Society

Don’t lead with lies, even quoted ones

To anyone in the media who might ever read this, I beg you to stop spreading propaganda through your well-meaning but counterproductive efforts at “fact checking.”

When a politician releases propaganda, they want the propaganda to spread. They’re hoping for people to repeat it as often as possible. They’re trying to exploit the illusory truth effect — the way familiarity breeds belief.

Whether the propaganda is repeated approvingly or disapprovingly doesn’t matter. As long as the repetition – the transmission – occurs, the goal is achieved. If you, as a member of the media, repeat the propaganda and then explain why it’s false, you’ve still repeated it and served the goal of the politician who wanted precisely that to happen. This applies especially to the genre of fact checking.

When you fact-check a statement by a politician, you often do it in two steps. First, you recite the statement: “Politician X said ‘Pigs can fly.’” Second, you address the veracity of the statement: “There is no evidence that pigs can fly.”

It matters what you lead with.

Leading with a falsehood – even a quoted one – is a terrible approach because it gives the falsehood the spotlight. Wouldn’t it be great if pigs could fly? You should give the truth the spotlight instead. The truth is at a disadvantage because it’s less titillating than the lie. Pigs are earthbound – how boring! If your goal is to promote the truth, you need to work extra-hard to compensate for its inherent disadvantage. Showcase the truth by introducing it first. Explain why it matters. Only then, once the truth has been firmly established, quote the lie. Then repeat the truth. “Pigs definitely can’t fly. But Politician X claimed today that they can. But we know they certainly can’t.”

After this “truth sandwich” has been presented – truth-lie-truth – you should then examine the motivations behind the lie. “Given that pigs can’t fly, why would a politician want citizens to believe the falsehood that pigs can fly? What is at stake?”

Realize that your audience consists of some people who trust you more than they trust Politician X, and some people who trust Politician X more than they trust you. If an audience member is in that first category – if they’re already suspicious of Politician X – then your fact-checking probably doesn’t tell them anything they didn’t already assume. You’re only asking them to dedicate more of their mental energy to considering a falsehood that they’ve already rightly dismissed. But if an audience member loves Politician X, they’re going to cling to what Politician X said. When you quote Politician X they’re going to concentrate on the quote itself, ignoring the analysis that you offer next. They’ll forget your quibbling assertion that Politician X’s statement is false because what you’re saying isn’t as exciting and they don’t really trust you to begin with.

The only way to make fact-checking effective as a tool for promoting the truth is to make it about the truth. The truth is the story. The truth is the main character. The truth gets the spotlight. The propaganda – the false statements that are being fact-checked – should be given a minor role. They should only be allowed an appearance after the truth has had its initial say. And once the propaganda gets its turn, the truth should get another turn, the final say.

When I started writing this post, I assumed I was developing the material on my own. Indeed, fact-checking has been a pet peeve of mine for some time and I had written about it back in 2016. But when I searched for the term “truth sandwich,” I came across an NPR article from 2018 citing the linguist George Lakoff. I vaguely remembered reading it back then. I must have internalized the idea and forgotten the source — not unlike someone who remembers a claim they heard during a “fact check” session and then forgets the fact-checking part. So… the “truth sandwich” idea isn’t mine – the credit goes to Lakoff. Back in 2018, Lakoff’s proposal got a few mentions. A few members of the media discussed it and published articles on it. I fear that two years later, the lesson has not been widely learned and propaganda maintains the upper hand, happily co-opting the efforts of those who attempt to fact-check it out of existence. So I will do what I can to promote Lakoff’s truth sandwich. I hope you will too.


Only Twelve Notes

How is it possible that all of music… uh… make that all of Western music… uh… make that much of Western music is formed from only twelve notes? How is it possible that some of the greatest music takes flight with fewer than twelve notes — only seven, or only five? This is a question that often occurs to people taking their very first steps in learning about music theory. If you knew absolutely nothing about the technical side of music, but you only knew of the infinite variety of musical experience – the way music can make you feel ecstatic and depressed and every shade in between, the way music can keep you entertained for hours on end – you might be shocked to learn that all of these diverse and brilliant riches are constructed from at most twelve elements. It seems unbelievable that you’d never get bored of those same twelve elements repeated over and over. But then you get used to the idea. As you learn more about music theory, you may feel that you understand how it all works, but the question “Only twelve?” might still cross your mind from time to time. I myself was thinking about it the other day and imagining how I might respond to a beginning student who insisted that there simply must be more than twelve notes. I imagined several responses I’d give the student, and I’ll record them here.

The first response is a cheeky one: asking more questions. So you’re surprised that there are only twelve notes? Then how is it possible that everything we taste is built from five basic flavor sensations: bitter, salty, sweet, sour, and umami? How is it possible that everything we see is based on three primary colors: red, blue, yellow? How is it possible that all of Shakespeare, no, all of English literature – everything we’ve ever read or written, and everything we will ever read or write – is formed from 26 letters and some punctuation marks? How is it possible that all of the content we’ve ever seen on the Internet – every video, every news article, every comment, every social media post – is represented using only two elements: ones and zeroes?

The second response is to dispute the premise. Yes, Western music has twelve named note but each named note may occur in many different ranges. The note A0 at the bottom of the piano’s range is a very different sonic experience from A7 near the top of its range, but they are both called A. A piano actually has 88 keys, not 12, and each of those 88 sounds different. If someone endeavors to sing the note A at 440hz, their voice may wobble slightly, or they may deliberately employ vibrato, in which case we hear a range of frequencies hovering around the 440hz mark. And in fact, a piano can be tuned in different ways – equal temperament is only one option. The use of twelve named notes is a simplification that conceals a much wider variety of sonic material that music can and does exploit. Music has cymbal crashes and washboard scratches and whispered words and other sounds that don’t have a specific pitch. And there is some Western microtonal music that uses 19 named notes, or 22, or 48….

A third response is to point out that twelve notes actually give rise to a very wide variety of permutations and combinations, which each have their own distinctive qualities. Lets say I want to make a sound combining four of the twelve named notes, and I want to pick one note to be the lowest, another (possibly the same) note to go above it, a third note to go above that, and finally a fourth note to go on top. I can do this in 12^4 = 20736 different ways. Now what if I want to create sequences of note combinations? The possibilities explode.

A fourth response is that notes can be delivered in an infinite variety of ways. A note can be loud or soft. It can be long or short. It can be played by a piccolo or a tuba or a guitar… or an entire ensemble. You can attack a note directly or you can slide up to it, or down to it. On each instrument there are countless articulations. There may be only one named note A, but that A can take countless forms.

A fifth response, perhaps the most interesting to me, is that notes can give different meanings to each other and can renew themselves in our perception. A sequence of notes can put a listener in a certain state of mind, and that state of mind then determines how the listener hears further notes in the sequence. If I play the note C a few times, it may come to sound familiar to you. If I play a C chord, followed by a G7 chord, followed by a C chord again, then the note C will sound like “home.” Even though you may have heard the F# chord millions of times in your life before, the F# chord would sound strange and unexpected if you heard it at this particular moment. Your perception of a note or a chord is not governed as much by your history of hearing it over your lifetime as it is by the context that’s been created by the notes and chords you’ve heard just moments ago. If I had played a different chord sequence – F# followed by C#7 and then F# again – it would be the note F# that you’d experience as “home” while the note C and its chord would sound alien and unexpected.

Music uses gesture and pattern to make certain notes and chords sound familiar while others sound foreign. Once a perceptual frame is established, music can shift it around, making the now-foreign sound familiar and the now-familiar sound foreign. In this way, you can listen to a four-hour concert that uses only twelve named notes, never getting bored with any of those twelve, because the context in which you’re hearing those notes – and thus the meaning those notes acquire – is constantly changing. A C that you hear at the beginning of the concert may not sound the same to you, may not mean the same thing to you, as a C that you hear in the middle or at the end. That C and in fact all of the twelve named notes are only vessels that assume different meanings and affects according to the infinite variety of contexts that they create for each other and the infinite variety of moods or perceptual frames that they put us in. Music uses notes to give meaning to other notes, and as the music continues, the meanings change. While the meaning of C can change over the course of a concert, it can also change from one moment to the next: C might serve as the root or anchor of the chord you’re hearing now — it might be a stable note in this instant — but it might become the tension-giving seventh of the chord you’ll hear next.

A sixth response is that we don’t only hear notes — and the melodies and harmonies they create — when we listen to music. We hear rhythm too, of course. (Another question: How is it possible that most of the rhythms in Western music are made from whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, sixteenth notes, thirty-second notes and their dotted and triplet varieties?) Beyond that, we hear texture. We hear performers, we hear composers, we hear the people the music is about, or the people it’s for; we hear something of the history of when it was written or performed; we hear the memory of when we heard it first or heard it last; we hear the way we feel right now as it relates to the sounds that confront us. We may be something of a different person each time we listen, and listen again, to the same piece. There’s that.


Food Shopping

Going to the supermarket is part of the rhythm of life. A long time ago, we might have hunted or foraged for our food; now we visit stores. At least it’s form of going out, leaving home, braving a wilderness of sorts.

When the pandemic hit in March, I stopped going to supermarkets. I knew they were open and full of shoppers, but I felt that if had the option of staying home, I should take it: I’d be safer, and so would all the people I might otherwise encounter and exchange air with. So I figured out how to get all my groceries delivered.

As unnatural as it might have felt for a person of times past to think of buying food in stores, so it felt unnatural and deflating to me to avoid stores and have food magically arrive at my door. But the whole thing worked out in a way that – to my surprise – moved me closer to some of my goals. To reduce packaging waste and possibly save some money, I had been wanting to buy my food in bulk more often. And to prevent Amazon from taking over my entire life, I had been wanting to reduce my dependence on the grocery chain it acquired in 2017, Whole Foods.

When the pandemic hit, I placed my first few grocery orders through – you guessed it – Whole Foods a.k.a. Amazon. These orders arrived at my door unreasonably fast. But then, for a while, it became impossible to get a delivery slot. So I looked at my other options.

I had been a longtime customer of a produce delivery service called Boston Organics. It’s a small business local to me, and it’s a certified B corporation. I had been getting a box of fruit from them every two weeks. Now I realized I could also get my veggies from them, as well as bread, yogurt, tofu, and basic condiments. I updated my order contents and changed my delivery schedule to once a week. This part was really easy.

With my perishables taken care of, the next things to consider were all the shelf-stable items I wanted to buy in bulk: grains, lentils, nuts, pasta, dried fruit, oil, tinned fish, soymilk.

For grains and lentils, I remembered that I often bought the Bob’s Red Mill brand when I shopped at Whole Foods. So I went to the Bob’s Red Mill website and found I could order directly from them. For many items, there’s an option of ordering a case of small packages that’s eligible for free shipping, or a 20-30 lb. bulk bag that costs $30 shipping. The bulk bag is often cheap enough that you end up saving money over what you’d pay for the equivalent amount of small containers at a supermarket, even with the added shipping cost. I ordered bulk bags of quinoa and bulgur wheat from Bob’s Red Mill. I found another company, Pleasant Hill Grain, that ships grain in large plastic pails. I ordered teff and oatmeal from them. All of a sudden, I had enough grain in my house to last a year.

I ordered at least six months worth of beans from Rancho Gordo in California.

When I had shopped at Whole Foods, I often bought the Eden brand of soymilk, along with some of Eden’s Japanese condiments (rice vinegar, mirin). I went to the Eden website and found I could order a case of soymilk from them directly, free shipping, along with any of their other products.

There was an inexpensive variety of whole wheat Orecchiette pasta that I sometimes bought at Shaw’s. I went to the De Lallo website and found I could easily order a case.

For nuts and dried fruit, my friends recommended Tierra Farm (a B corporation that focuses on organic items) and I also knew about Superior Nut Company because it’s local to me. Between these three companies I ordered enough nuts to last a year or more (I’m freezing them).

I ordered many month’s worth of prunes from a prune company called Sowden Bros. I ordered tinned fish (which I eat occasionally) from Cole’s Trout. I ordered some cooking oils from a small company in the Finger Lakes of NY, Stonybrook WholeHeartedFoods. And I ordered more oil and a bunch of Portuguese specialties from a Portuguese importer that’s located just south of me, Portugalia Marketplace.

What did I discover? I discovered that I could purchase all my non-perishable items in bulk, directly from many of the brands I used to buy at Whole Foods and other stores. Coupled with a delivery service like Boston Organics for my perishable items (fruits, veggies, dairy, etc.) I had a complete solution. I literally never needed to go to the store. And none of this involved Amazon. If you don’t have a company like Boston Organics near you, there might still be CSAs in your area — arguably an even better option as it means buying directly from the farmer.

Of course, a lot of packages are being shipped to me – that’s a lot of cardboard, and a lot of fuel spent bringing the boxes to my door, and a lot of work by couriers who may be putting their own health at risk. I’m not saying this is a perfect solution.

Still, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to buy in bulk, directly from companies I like, eliminating Amazon and Whole Foods almost entirely from my food shopping routine.

The whole solution was only possible because I’m privileged enough to be able to afford these bulk purchases, often from brands that charge an organic premium. Still, I think I’m saving money over what I would have spent going to the store every week or two. And while each box that arrives at my door means fossil fuel was spent on delivery, the contents of the box are going to last me a really long time.

Will I ever step foot in Whole Foods after the pandemic is finally under control? I might. But I won’t need to. And unless they’re willing to sell me a 30 lb. bag of oatmeal at a bulk rate, I’ll be buying that directly from the supplier from now on, thank you very much.