by John Zielinski
I once knew a woman of great intellectual prowess. As a child she had been precocious. She loved both science and science fiction. She attended a Roman Catholic elementary school where nearly all of the teachers were nuns. This was in the ‘50s. In those days teaching nuns weren’t typically degreed or certified educators. One day she had a science fiction book that she was reading hidden inside the book that she was supposed to be reading for class. The book had to do with humans landing on the moon. She got caught and that resulted in an exchange with the teacher as well as a suspension. Her teacher pointed out that such things would never happen. Apollo 11 landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. That just happened to be Carolyn’s birthday. I wonder whether that teaching nun remembered having said that it would never happen.
The first book that I read on robotics was a college text that had been written in the early ‘60s. I was about 10 at the time. While I remember neither the title of the book nor the name of the author, there is one thing that I remember vividly. The author made the assertion that anthropomorphic robots would never be possible because computers would never be small enough and light enough to be mobile. Keep in mind that at this time computers were often the size of railroad boxcars, required special, climate-controlled environments and had dedicated operations staff. I wonder whether the author was still alive in October 2000 when Honda unveiled ASIMO. I also wonder what he thinks (or would have thought) about Atlas from Boston Dynamics. Needless to say, computers have continued to get smaller and more mobile to the point that almost 2.7 billion people will carry one in their pocket or purse in 2019. Of course, these aren’t usually called mobile computers even though they are. Most people call them smartphones.
When I was in high school and college in the ‘70s, I had classmates who asserted that despite the strides made in civil rights and equal opportunity regardless of race, there would never be a black president during our lifetime. Some of these people died before Obama was elected, but some are still around. I haven’t encountered any of them since school, but I’d like to know what they thought on the night of November 4, 2008 and during the 8 years of Obama’s presidency.
Although I’ve focused the preceding examples on “never,” it’s equally possible to find statements containing “always” that have also been demonstrated to be untrue in the fullness of time. Decades ago this led me to note that statements containing the word “never” or “always” are never true. Some people failed to see the humor.
Except when it comes to violating natural laws, nothing appears to have either a 0% or 100% probability although those may be approached. Even when it comes to violation of natural laws, though, that’s based on the current understanding of natural laws.
Under classical physics an object’s mass or length changing or the passage of time changing based on the object’s velocity was considered impossible. Special relativity tells us that this view was incomplete. The idea that a particle exists simultaneously in all states until it’s observed seemed absurdly impossible until quantum mechanics. This highlights the importance of time and its passage when considering absolutes.
We’re living in what could generously be called an interesting time in the United States. One side-effect of that is how the words “never” and “always” get tossed around pretty freely. As noted in a previous piece, each person’s focus seems to be limited primarily to things that have happened during her or his lifetime or the lifetimes of their parents. When they use “never” or “always,” then, what they may well mean is never or always during their lifetime. Even that may not be true. What they may mean is that the assertion is based on what they remember from their lifetime. As Emily Litella frequently noted, “Oh, that’s very different. Never mind!”
One of the statements that pops up with some regularity is that the country has never been this divided. I’ve heard it from people on the left, on the right and in the center. Hmm. I seem to remember more than a little division during US military involvement in southeast Asia that may have been as bad or even worse. Then there’s that little disagreement from 1861 to 1865 that followed previous, related disagreements. “The country has never been this divided.” Really?
Hyperbole can be a wonderful tool when used in moderation. Used in excess it easily stops being recognized as hyperbole and can be taken to be truth or at least a version of the truth. That can give it the ability to exaggerate intellectual – and even physical – aggression. So, why should you care?
The next time that you’re tempted to make a statement that uses “always” or “never” pause for a bit. Is the statement true across all time? If not, then what are you actually trying to communicate? It’s certainly not an absolute. Is there a better way to frame the idea? Claiming that your opposition universally does something, says something or embraces a certain philosophy is unlikely to help them to see your perspective. As a matter of fact, it will probably agitate them. This is especially true if the person on the receiving side knows that (s)he isn’t guilty as charged. Has hyperbole become a habit – a crutch?
As with so much else, intellectual and linguistic rigor isn’t easy. Choosing the best way to present an idea to communicate effectively rather than to inspire animosity is hard. While it’s probably untrue that the United States has never been this divided, the current state does make it difficult to foster cooperation. Maybe using “never” and “always” a little less frequently can help to lower the tension and make it easier to work together.