More anodyne cures for the world’s ills by Reverend Tish Harrison Warren

October 24, 2021 • 11:15 am

Yes, Tish Harrison Warren, the Anglican priest who writes a weekly column to fill up empty space in the New York Times, has once again proffered a cure for the nation’s ills. It’s trivial and far from new, but at least it doesn’t involve God.  The email I got with the column (Ceiling Cat help me, I subscribe) was headed, “Why chatting with your barista could help save America.”  In the paper (click on screenshot below), it has a different title:

The entire thesis can be summarized with one of her paragraphs:

To learn how to love our neighbors we need cultural habits that allow us to share in our common humanity. We need quiet, daily practices that rebuild social trust. And we need seemingly pointless conversation with those around us.

By “pointless,” she means “avoiding hot-button issues like politics”. Her notion, which many others have suggested before, is that you can heal divisions between people by getting the “sides” to know each other. If you like or at least are friendly with a political opponent, you’ll find a way to eventually agree on politics.

This simple message, however, is unlikely to heal any divisions—after all, are citizens supposed to wait until they discuss these issues?—or are they supposed to become pals with their barista before bringing them up? Warren dilates at length about her hale-fellow-well-met Texas dad whom everybody loved and nobody hated, for he just cracked jokes and made pleasantries. He didn’t talk politics.

It goes on and on and on, without telling us how, after we’re pals with Trumpies, we can then begin to discuss abortion, the border, the unstolen election and so on.

And so we have the Paper of Record giving us stuff like this:

I see moments of this in my own life. I moved states recently and feel the loss of seemingly unimportant local relationships I’d built where we lived before. I have no idea if my favorite former barista and I shared any political or ideological beliefs. We likely disagree on important issues. But I don’t care. I know he adores his infant niece and I regularly asked how she was doing. He is working to get through grad school, and I found myself genuinely rooting for this person I barely knew.

Each of us is more than the sum of our political and religious beliefs. We each have complex relationships with the people we love. We each have bodies that get sick, that enjoy good tacos or the turning of fall. We like certain movies or music. We laugh at how babies sound when they sneeze. We hurt when we skin a knee. The way we form humanizing, nonthreatening interactions around these things taps into something real about us. We are three-dimensional people who are textured, interesting, ordinary and lovely. . . .

. . . Of course, to heal the deep divisions in our society we need profound political and systemic change. But though we need more than just small talk, we certainly do not need less than that. As a culture, our conversations can run so quickly to what divides us, and this is all the more true online. We cannot build a culture of peace and justice if we can’t talk with our neighbors. It’s in these many small conversations where we begin to recognize the familiar humanity in one another. These are the baby steps of learning to live together across differences.

Yes, and maybe if the Taliban got to know more Afghan women they would eventually allow them to go to school. Maybe if more Texas lawmakers had cake and coffee with pregnant women they would rescind their draconian anti-choice law. When Lyndon Johnson rammed the Civil Rights Bills through the Senate, he didn’t make small talk with the Senators. He used his leverage and power to bring around the Southern opponents.

Yes, we have to be able to discuss things civilly, for then, so they say, consensus will come. That’s what Biden ran his campaign on, and look where it’s gotten him.

How much longer will the NYT torture us this way?

Traveling with the Great Unmasked

September 23, 2021 • 2:51 pm

I’m cooling my heels in Baltimore for an hour, as the direct flights from Chicago to Boston and back were either ridiculously expensive or sold out.  In airports and on planes, masks are required, but, at least in the airports I’ve visited, obedience isn’t universal.

On my Southwest flight from BOS to BWI, for example, they were hardasses about mask wearing, and good for them! They announced several times that, except when you were drinking, you had to have your mask over your nose and mouth, and, sure enough, the flight attendants went down the aisles and chided those who had their masks over their mouth but not their nose. (Is this behavior sheer stupidity or a duplicitous way to evade the restrictions?)

And in the airports, while nearly all people have masks somewhere around their neck, a few are sitting around with all facial orifices open to the free air, while many others have their noses hanging out over the top of their masks.  Nobody is enforcing this, of course, and it’s only my fear of being yelled at or beaten up that keeps me from a “get off my lawn” gesture of reminding these miscreants to cover up their schnozzes. All I can do is keep away from them.

Well, I remember some advice that the Southwest attendant told us on the way to Boston: “Masks are like pants: if anything is hanging out, you’re doing it wrong.”

I also found a page of over 100 mask jokes. Here’s one:

I recently bought my pet duck a mask to protect it from coronavirus.

It’s nothing flashy, but it fits the bill.
I’ll be here all year, folks!


McWhorter returns to the mundane

August 27, 2021 • 12:15 pm

I think John McWhorter should write one column per week in the NYT instead of his contracted two, as the two-column gig just takes up too much time, and something’s gotta give. After his barnburner critique of performative anti-racism on Tuesday, McWhorter’s plumb worn himself out. Or so it appears from his much shorter piece today, which is on how spoken American has gotten more polite.

You can’t get this at the NYT yet, or by clicking on the screenshot, as it hasn’t yet appeared in the op-ed section, and you have to subscribe to see it anyway. Perhaps a judicious inquiry will yield the piece.

Of course McWhorter is a linguist, and this stuff is his bread and butter, but somehow I can’t get as juiced about contrarian linguistics as I can about McWhorter’s contrarian (for a black man) take on antiwokeness.. Ergo, I’ll be short.

McWhorter says that, contrary to our impressions, American language has not gotten rougher, with more frequent use of profanity, but in fact is becoming more polite. And politesse is, he says, one of the functions of language. When you take leave of a friend you don’t say “I am leaving now”, which is rude, but rather the gentler, “I’ll be heading out.”

To defend his thesis, McWhorter has to make some stretches. “Uptalking”, the irritating habit of ending a sentence with a rise in pitch, like a question, now becomes a form of checking to see if the other person is following you, “acknowledging the other person’s presence and marking their engagement and interest.” I wonder how we accomplished that before some people—no, not even most of them—adopted this annoying intonation. We did it by politely engaging in conversation.

And as for the reprehensible and nonstop insertion of “like” into every sentence, McWhorter also, like, likes that, too. He says, like, the word actually conveys different meanings depending on, like, how it’s used:

The infamous usage of “like” is a similar story. It’s easy to hear nothing but hedging in it — “That was, like, not a great thing to do.” But a linguist can break (and has broken) the new “like” down into assorted usages beyond hedging. For example, if a guy says, “We looked in, and it was so crowded. And not just a few kids. There were, like, grandparents and cousins in there. We had to go somewhere else,” he isn’t hedging; he’s stressing his point. The function of “like” there is to imply, “You might think it was just some kids, but actually ….” He is thinking about the state of mind of his interlocutors as he speaks.

Well, “but also” would have conveyed the same meaning. Yes, language changes, and we’re not going to get rid of “like”, much beloved of the younger folks (although notice that you don’t hear it on the evening news). But how many of us have heard a conversation between two young people in which almost every other word is “like”? And no, not every use of that word has a different meaning, or even a meaning.

As for curse words, which you hear increasingly in the movies or in prose (and I don’t mind that), those too show McWhorter that English is getting ever more polite.  Here’s how he justifies that:

A possible objection here is those four-letter words flying all over the place. I certainly use them more than my parents did, and most would consider me a reserved sort — and yet in this, I am not unusual for people my age. How much sweetness and light can we really see in an American English that allows into polite society people who use a certain F-word dozens of times a day?

But we need to change the lens here. It’s less that people use profanity more than that profanity is no longer as profane as it used to be. What people treated as truly bad words 100 years ago are now more realistically classified as salty. By my parents’ time, this was true of “damn” and “hell”; to dismiss something, they’d say “Oh, to hell with that,” even in front of kids. Today, though, my equivalent — and yes, sometimes in front of kids! — would involve that word that begins with “f.”

But I’m not sure what he means by saying that they’re used more often because “they’re not as profane as they used to be.” Perhaps they became less profane because they were used more often! After people like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin broke the taboo by speaking the taboo words onstage, people realized that you could get away with using in public words previously reserved for private conversation.

I won’t go on; the piece is light, larded with claims about how phrases like “hop on the phone” and a waiter saying “I’m going to go ahead and take your plate” are harbingers of a new and kinder English, a “delightfully considerate language if you know where to listen for it—in informal language.”

Well perhaps McWhorter is right. After all, he’s a linguist and I’m not. But I’ll never get used to fifteen “likes” in a sentence, and I still think that uptalking is also a sign of insecurity. McWhorter most engages me when he’s in a hot passion about the follies of wokeness, not when highlighting the nuances of English. It’s his column, of course, and he’s perfectly entitled to write about his profession. But I bet he wasn’t hired by the NYT to talk about linguistics, at least linguistics unrelated to politics. And dare I say that he’s better when writing about politics and ideology than about language?

More words and phrases I detest

August 8, 2021 • 11:00 am

After a long dry spell, once again I’m inundated by infelicitous language.  Today I’ll show you five words or phrases that trigger me, inflicting linguistic microaggressions (i.e. violence) to my brain. And, as usual, I’ll take most of my examples from HuffPost, which is the Mother Lode of Bad Writing. (Click on screenshots if, Ceiling Cat forbid, you want to go to the articles.)  I may have used one or two of these before, but you can’t be reminded often enough about this kind of usage.

1.) “To medal” (used as an intransitive verb like “to defecate”). Meaning: to acquire a bronze, silver, or gold medal in the Olympics. The Oxford English dictionary even defines this as a proper verb, though it’s usually transitive, e.g., “George Tenet, the head of the CIA was medaled and commended by George Bush when he retired.” But it’s also intransitive, as you see every five minutes in reports on the Olympics. To wit:

I don’t give a damn if the OED says the usage is correct; this is the difference between something being legal and being wrong. And yes, the alternative is longer, “X won a gold medal”, but you see that usage even more often, and it sounds a lot better.

But wait! There’s more! Here’s a usage from the New York Times!

2.)Going forward”: This is just a “with it” phrase meaning “In the future” (it does not mean “moving on”, which simply means moving to the next topic in a discussion or article). Its purpose is to make you sound significant or important. Here’s one example from HuffPost:

The acceptable substitute is simply this: “in the future.”  I have a feeling that more than one reader will share my sentiments on this one.

3.) “A nominal flight”. This does have a technical meaning, “performing acceptably”, as we heard to no end when we watched the short Blue Horizon tourist flight. But the first time the announcers used it, I immediately thought of the usual definitions of “nominal”: either “in a small amount” or, more rarely, “in name only”. So I wondered why the flight should be less than expected until I had to look up the meaning of the word. You shouldn’t have to do that—the announcers were just showing off (it’s ok, though, for the SpaceX people communicating back and forth to the capsule to use it as a technical word).

4.) “Cash out”.  The usage to which I refer does not mean to redeem your poker chips or lottery ticket. Rather, I’ll show its meaning taken from a philosophy website, Maverick Philosopher:

Keith Burgess-Jackson writes in a recent post:

Philosophers use the term “cash” in a special way, as when they say, “This [concept] needs to be cashed out.” It’s another way of saying “analyzed.” I don’t know this, but I suspect the term derives from cash, as in money. To cash a check is to reduce it to (transform it into) money. To cash out a concept is to reduce it to (transform it into) other, more familiar, concepts.

Or, from reddit, answering the question of what the phrase means:

Explaining it. When you cash out your chips in a casino, you bring them to the cashier and get the money that the chips represent. When you cash out, for instance, an assertion, the assertion is metaphorically the chips, and you bring them to the philosopher, who presents you with the explanation of what that assertion means.

When I see a philosopher use the phrase, I immediately discount that person. I can’t help it. You lose Coyne points when you say “cash out” because a). it’s trendy, used to show off professional jargon and b). its meaning is not clear to the average person like me.  If you are tempted to use this phrase, resist, resist, resist. Why not just use “explain” or “analyze” as in the definitions above?

5.) Bad-ass or badass.  This originally was an adjective designating a person you didn’t want to mess with because the consequences could be dire or dangerous. Now, with language being devalued right and left, it simply means, “someone who does something interesting, unexpected, laudatory or unusual.” For reasons I don’t understand, it now applies almost exclusively to women.  Let’s just say that the new version of “badass” is to the old one as the woke usage of “violence” is to real violence. Some examples from HuffPost.

At least in this version they put quotes around the offending phrase:

it gets worse. Here’s a common usage: the people referred to aren’t badass at all; they’re just people you like!

This one refers not to a woman, but to an impala:

I’m sure Orwell would find “badass” to be a “problematic” word (“problematic” is another word I detest). Think of something clearer. For the first one above, you can simply leave out ‘badass’. For the second, do the same thing, unless all the women you love are gangsters. For the third, what’s wrong with “determined” or “tenacious”?

Get off of my lawn!  Of course, now it’s your turn to beef, which you can do in the comments.

Words and phrases I detest

July 15, 2021 • 12:15 pm

I’ve been looking out for infelicitous phrases for a while, and I think my previous posts in this series have nearly exhausted my curmudgeonly policing of language. So in the past two months I have just two pharses. But they’re phrases that one hears a lot.

Now before you start telling me that “languages evolves,” don’t bother, for I’m highlighting phrases that bother me.  You have such phrases. too (and eliciting them is what I intend to do), while other folks, being liberal minded, will say that it’s fine that phrases like “begs the question” can be used to mean “raises the question”. After all, languages changes. But this is not the post to point that out.

As usual, I take my examples from HuffPost, whose writers cannot write without Twitter and must lean on language that they think is trendy.

a.)  “Deep dive”.  This simply means a “close look”, or, if you want to be fancy, a “thorough analysis”. You will never hear me use this phrase, but HuffPost uses it often. Here’s but one example:

But it’s not just HuffPost! The New York Times uses it, too!

b.) “Perfect storm”.  Now if you really want to sound au courant, just use this phrase to refer to the concatenation of factors that aggravate a situation. (Don’t get me started on “aggravate”!). The words were popularized by the eponymous 2000 disaster movie in which a boat and its crew are lost in a terrible storm. (The title came from the 1997 nonfiction book that inspired the film.) And, of course, HuffPost is aboard the linguistic Andrea Gale:

Note that in the headline above, “perfect storm” is in quotation marks, which indicates, perhaps, that the author knows he’s not writing something quite right. And he isn’t: for there are not multiple concatenating factors here that worsen a situation, but just a proposed sequence of violent episodes. Still, Mr. Mathias wants to sound cool, so he uses it anyway.

But the New York Times uses it as well. Here’s just one example:


At least they use it to refer to a series of concatenating factors that, together, could cause a big disaster.  But a good writer doesn’t just lean on these trite phrases. Instead, as Orwell urged, try thinking up your own fresh metaphors or similes. For that is the mark of language that’s a pleasure to read.

Now you know the drill: cough up some words or phrases that annoy you. Curmudgeon time!

More on the complete degeneration of modern pop music

February 16, 2021 • 2:15 pm

It’s not enough for modern pop music to be autotuned, brain-dead in lyrics, and necessarily accompanied by flashy videos. No, now it’s got to be full of sex as well, for sex is the best way to attract attention, especially if you’re an attractive woman like Ariana Grande. Every celebrity, it seems, is doffing their clothes, but that will attract attention for only so long.

But Grande’s voice, which is pretty spectacular, apparently isn’t enough to carry this song. Here, in her latest “hit”, “34 + 35“, she has to flaunt her body and, most annoyingly, beg for copulation, oral sex, and other goodies. The autotuning, f-bombs, fancy video (the first one has a bit about its making at the end), and concentration on sexual acts has moved this one all the way to the top of the pop charts. Will this song last? Will it ever be an “oldie”, played on radio stations in 2070? Don’t bet on it! The listeners of this song, the young folks, must subsist on a diet of cotton candy rather than meat.

Some Wikipedia notes:

On October 30, 2020, the song was released by Republic Records as the second single from the album. The song’s title and chorus reference the 69 sex position, while the rest of its lyrics feature several sexual punsdouble entendres, and sex jokes. A remix of the song featuring American rappers Doja Cat and Megan Thee Stallion was released on January 15, 2021. The remix is included on the deluxe edition of Positions which is scheduled for release on February 19, 2021.

“34+35” debuted at number eight on the US Billboard Hot 100, becoming Grande’s 18th top ten single. It later rose to number two following the release of the remix. It also debuted at number five on the Billboard Global 200, becoming Grande’s second top ten single on the chart, before reaching a peak of number two. Additionally, “34+35” peaked within the top ten in Australia, Canada, Guatemala, Ireland, Malaysia, Singapore and the United Kingdom, giving Grande her 19th top ten single in the UK.

Here’s the remix:

Now I have to admit that the videos are well produced, but the idea that this could be a hit makes me feel sorry for today’s kids.  Do they ever encounter music that’s dense enough to make them ponder? 

Below is Billboard’s Top 10 from exactly 50 years ago. And I ain’t gonna lie, there’s a few real clunkers on there, including #1 and #2; and #3 might strike some people as bubblegum country music (I happen to like it). But there are some classics here, too, including My Sweet Lord, Your Song, and If I Were Your Woman. I suppose Grande’s music all falls in the Osmonds/Dawn category: insubstantial fluff that won’t stand the test of time.

Yes, I know I’m being a curmudgeon. And some readers will undoubtedly tell me I’m listening to the wrong groups—that Group X is as good as the Beatles! (Protip: it never is.) But I repeat my claim that rock and pop music are on the downhill slide. This categories of music exists not because it yields popular works of art like “A Day in the Life” or “God Only Knows,” but because the kids need something to listen to to mark the seasons of their young lives.

The Billboard Top 10 from the Hot 100: Week of Feb 13, 1971.

  1. One Bad Apple by the Osmonds
  2. Knock Three Times by Dawn
  3. Rose Garden by Lynn Anderson
  4. I Hear You Knocking by Dave Edmunds
  5. Lonely Days by the Bee Gees
  6. My Sweet Lord/Isn’t It a Pity by George Harrison
  7. Groove Me by King Floyd
  8. Your Song by Elton John
  9. If I Were Your Woman by Gladys Night and the Pips
  10. Mama’s Pearl by the Jackson Five

Now get off my lawn!

Words and phrases I detest

January 22, 2021 • 2:30 pm

Yep, it’s time for another edition of the Curmudgeon Gazette: a list of words and phrases that rankle me. As usual, most of them come from HuffPost, and, as usual, people will tell me that some of these phrases are fine. “Language evolves,” say the Excusers. Great, but I still don’t like these phrases.

On this cold but sunny Chicago afternoon, I have three for you. (Click on screenshots to see article.)

1.) “I’m all about X.” This one really burns my onions (see the subtitle below). First of all, nobody is all about anything—every human is multifaceted and has multiple interests and concerns. The phrase is simply gross exaggeration, and could easily be replaced by phrases (as in the sub-headline below) like, “This month, we focus on. . . ” or some equivalent.

You will never hear this phrase pass my lips.


2.) “All the feels”. I’m pretty sure that I’ve used this one before, but I keep seeing it, and it never ceases to irritate me, as in the HuffPost article below:

The word is “FEELINGS”, chowderheads! And even that is hyperbole. No movie moments give you the totality of human emotions, which run the gamut from despair to horror to complacency, to anxiety, to elation—and many more.  Can’t these peabrains just say “13 Emotional Movie Moments”? My “feel” when I read headlines like this one is disgust.


3.) “The thing is. . . is that. . ” Now this one baffles me. Why can you just say “The thing is X” instead of “The thing is. . . is X”?  For example, “The thing is, is that he’s been a real jerk to me for a long time” can be replaced by “The thing is that he’s been a real jerk for me for a long time.” Better yet, deep-six “the thing is” part, which adds little, or replace it with “The important thing is.”

Here’s a discussion from the website Language Rules:

From that site:

It may be much more clear to see when sentences are rearranged. One of the above examples [JAC: the grammatically correct sentence”How correct this is is clear to see”] can be arranged as follows:

    • How correct this is is clear to see.
    • It is clear to see how correct this is.

In this instance, we can immediately tell that “how correct this is” in this case is a complete noun phrase able to stand on its own. When we try to reconstruct an example of an incorrect sentence using “The thing is is…” in exactly the same way, we get this:

    • The thing is is that this is incorrect.
    • It is that this is incorrect the thing is.

Most folks should be able to tell that the second sentence is totally jacked, which immediately tells us that the first sentence, merely a rearrangement of the words, must be incorrect as well, even though it sounds slightly better.

You know the drill: it’s time to be petulant and put your bête noire phrases below.

Poetry should have rhymes

January 5, 2021 • 11:15 am

I’ve deliberately made the title provocative, and I don’t believe it 100%. Further, I know this is a personal view not shared by many others. But it’s come to me lately, when reading the Norton Anthology of Poetry that I keep by my bedside, that the poems that speak to me, that move me, are nearly always ones that have rhymes. Now they don’t have to have a rigid ABABCDCD. . . GG structure of a Shakespearian sonnet, nor does every line have to rhyme, but nearly every poem that I love has some rhyme, internal or not.

I suppose I feel this way because poetry, as distinct from a lot of prose (but not all) is supposed to be musical, and part of that musicality is rhyme, which adds a pleasing musical tenor to the work. The same goes for assonance and alliteration, which I guess haven’t yet gone out of style like rhyme has. For if there’s one trait that characterizes truly modern poetry, it’s a lack of rhyme, or even rhythm. (Yes, I know some current poets still use rhyme, but it’s not frequent.)

When I realized this the other day, I tried to think of more modern poets I like who didn’t use rhyme.  I already remembered that Yeats and T. S. Eliot used it, though the latter more sparingly in works like “The Waste Land”.  (The last stanza of “Ben Bulben”, by Yeats, also has no rhymes save for the implied rhymes of there/near and spot/cut; but the rest of the poem does.)

Dylan Thomas also used rhyme most of the time, though in some of his poems, like the lovely “Fern Hill”, the lack of rhyme is compensated by a surfeit of alliteration and the sheer musicality of the words themselves (Richard Burton’s recitation is much better than Thomas’s own).

There are exceptions. I like Seamus Heaney, but his rhymes are few. So are they in Wallace Stevens, one of my favorite modern poets, but they are there nonetheless. Although “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is rhymeless, another favorite, “Peter Quince at the Clavier” has sporadic rhymes that buttress the work.  Ezra Pound used rhyme early in his career, but it’s absent in my favorite of his works, his translations of Old English and Japanese poems, including the gorgeous “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”. His Cantos, which start off well but go downhill, are sans rhyme.

Still, a poem I discovered in the last few years, and one that, to me, ranks amongst the great works of our era—Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy“—is full of rhyme, mostly with the “oo” sound. And that rhyme is part of the reason it’s such a good poem.

What leaves me cold are rhymeless and music-less poems—the kind you see in The New Yorker, and which seem to comprise much of modern poetry. I can’t say that that kind of poetry is bad, because of course taste is subjective, but it doesn’t engage me. Nor will I aver that poetry has declined as an art form (though I maintain that both jazz and classical music have). But I will say that when I go back to read poetry, I tend to land somewhere between Shakespeare and Plath—avoiding at all costs Walt Whitman, Bill Clinton be damned.

Dare I say that the poetry of our era is concerned less with music than with thought? (Remember, I’m not an English teacher here, just a reader.)


Worst rock songs

January 2, 2021 • 1:45 pm

To complete today’s pair of splenetic rants, I’ll simply list what I’ve added, over the years, to my list of the Worst Rock Songs of All Time. (Well, some don’t qualify as “rock”, but they were all played on popular radio.) I’ll link each song to the original recording. .

You know what to do: add to the list!


Green Berets (Sgt. Barry Sadler).  What can I say? I’m a conscientious objector.

An Open Letter to My Teenage Son (Victor Lundberg)  A real anti-hippie song, the MAGA of the Sixties. You probably haven’t heard it, but it was popular.

Spill the Wine (Eric Burdon)  Burdon couldn’t recognize good lyrics if they bit him in the tuchas.

Brand New Key (Melanie) Sexual innuendo with roller skates.

I’ve Never Been to Me (Charlene) Don’t miss this one! Seriously! She’s been undressed by kings but is unfulfilled without a husband and baby.  n.b. lyric: “I’ve been to Nice/and the Isle of Greece”.  There is no “isle of Greece”!

Octopus’s Garden (The Beatles)  I know some people are gonna say this one’s good. . .

Macarthur Park (Richard Harris) Does anybody like this song?

Old Rivers (Walter Brennan) This kind of grows on you, but it’s still a dreadful song.

Take the Money and Run (Steve Miller) This takes the prize for the worst rhymes in any song (e.g., “They headed down to, ooh, old El Paso/That’s where they ran into a great big hassle” or “Hoo-hoo-hoo, billy Mack is a detective down in Texas/You know he knows just exactly what the facts is”.) They don’t write songs like that any more—thank God.

Muskrat Love (The Captain and Tennille) Anthropomorphic muskrats fall in love (“Muzzle to muzzle, now anything goes.”) This song has a decent tune, and I always had a thing for Tennille, but the words are cringeworthy (n.b. to Toni: muskrats don’t eat bacon or cheese!)

The Name Game (Shirley Ellis). This was a huge hit, and many of my contemporaries can still do the name thing.

Drops of Jupiter (Train) For pretentious songs since 2000, this takes the cake. (“She checks out Mozart while she does tai bo”)

California passes law to test prospective cops for both explicit and implicit bias: a poorly written article in The Washington Post

October 29, 2020 • 10:45 am

This law sounds good in principle, but seems impossible to use as a way of detecting racism in potential hires. The law and its problems are described in a long and poorly-written article in the Washington Post; I’ll have more to say about the writing later.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Here’s the skinny, and I’ve condensed an article whose published version is at least three times longer than it need be:

An ambitious new law in California taking aim at potential biases of prospective officers has raised questions and concerns among police officers and experts who fear that if implemented inadequately, the law could undermine its own mission to change policing and the culture of law enforcement.

The law, which was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Sept. 30, will expand the present screening requirements by mandating all law enforcement agencies conduct mental evaluations of peace officer candidates to identify both implicit and explicit biases against race, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual orientation to exclude unfit recruits.

Experts, police unions and lawmakers agree on the value of identifying whether those who aspire to become officers carry considerable degrees of biases, yet it is the lack of clarity on what tools and measures will be used to look for implicit biases that is raising concerns and prompting questions.

“If police departments start to reject applicants because they have implicit biases there will be no one left to hire,” said Lorie Fridell, professor of criminology at the University of South Florida and founder of the Fair and Impartial Policing program, one of the most popular implicit-bias awareness trainings in the country.

That’s one problem with the implicit bias test: it shows that nearly everyone has implicit bias (the article mentions that 88% of whites and 48% of blacks have an implicit bias for white people (when I took the test, it showed I was “race neutral”: the optimal outcome). Not only that, but the IAT (Implicit Association Test) has been widely criticized on many grounds, not the least that it doesn’t seem to translate into measurable behavior, which is the reason you measure it. You can see The Replicability Index‘s useful summary of all the analyses by clicking on the screenshot below:

From the article’s conclusions:

An unbiased assessment of the evidence shows no compelling evidence that the race IAT is a valid measure of implicit racial bias; and without a valid measure of implicit racial bias it is impossible to make scientific statements about implicit racial bias. I think the general public deserves to know this. Unfortunately, there is no need for scientific evidence that prejudice and discrimination still exists. Ideally, psychologists will spend more effort in developing valid measures of racism that can provide trustworthy information about variation across individuals, geographic regions, groups, and time. Many people believe that psychologists are already doing it, but this review of the literature shows that this is not the case. It is high time to actually do what the general public expects from us.

(See also this article from the British Psychological Society’s “Research Digest.”) Based on the widespread criticism of these tests, it’s simply not valid to claim that everyone has implicit bias.

Now onto the writing quality of the article. It’s long, tedious, and the prose is convoluted and abysmal. There are also some errors. I’ll give a few examples:

The law comes amid a moment of social upheaval where police departments across the country are facing scrutiny. . . .

WRONG. A moment is a period of time, and so it should be “when police departments” rather than “where police departments”. This is a common mistake, but an editor should have caught it.

None of the experts interviewed by The Washington Post claimed to know of law enforcement agencies that screen for unconscious biases — those that people are unwilling or unable to identify — as a hiring standard.

This is awkward. Although the antecedent to “those that people are unwilling or unable to identify” should be “unconscious biases”, it could also be “law enforcement agencies that screen for unconscious biases.” The awkward sentence could easily be fixed to “None of the experts interviewed claimed to know of law enforcement agencies that hire using screenings for unconscious biases—those biases that people are unwilling or unable to identify.”

. . . . he is skeptical of taking implicit bias evaluations like IATs, as benchmarks of deep-seeded beliefs that would lead to discrimination.

IT IS NOT “DEEP-SEEDED” but “DEEP-SEATED”. Everybody should know this, but the mistake is common. But that doesn’t excuse it from appearing in a major newspaper.

These screenings vary agency to agency and often include review of social media postings for sexist or racist comments, interviews with acquaintances, past employers, family members and thorough mental evaluations.

That’s another awkward sentence implying that the review of social media posts includes “thorough mental evaluations”. This could have been solved by putting “thorough mental evaluations” before “review of social media postings.”
A shared concern among scholars is on the use of tools such as implicit association tests (IATs) — sometimes used in bias training — as a hiring tool or screening device due to the unreliability of its findings.
The bit after the second hyphen is confusing and hard to read. It would be easy to fix: “Because implicit association tests (IATs) have been found to be unreliable, scholars are concerned about their use to screen or hire applicants, or in bias training.” Further, the construction “a shared concern . . .on” is awkward and should be “Many scholars are concerned about. . . ” or some other construction.

Yes, these errors may seem minor, but don’t newspapers like the Washington Post employ line editors any more? What’s just as bad, or worse, is the painfully awkward prose, with long sentences, that pervades the entire article. Like this:

Kang said implicit bias tests provide useful, yet inexact information, which he compared to weather forecasts, about a person’s beliefs and stereotypes at a certain moment, but they ought to be used as road maps to help law enforcement agencies develop better methods and procedures, rather than as individual hiring tools.

UG-LEE! But examples are easy to find. One more and I’ll leave you:

Catafi said POST will be working with psychologists and law enforcement experts to incorporate these new required items to the current psychological screening manual, and they have until January 2022 to complete the process.

That one has a bad error as well: it’s incorporate INTO, not “incorporate to”.

But where are the editors? There ought to be editors. Well, maybe next year.

h/t: Luana