Title quote taken from wikipedia, which took it from the QI website.
So, this post was prompted by the pet peeves thread on the Playground, in which I mentioned today my pet peeve of arbitrary contrariness/pedantry. I'll explain what I mean by that in a minute, but suffice to say my primary examples of it are things I learned from QI. So the subject of this blog post is basically 'Things I learned from/saw on QI with which I disagree'.
So, arbitrary contrariness/pedantry. It may seem strange that this annoys me, because I can be rather contrary and pedantic myself. But in a way, that's why. They are things which I do, and I hate to see them abused. The arbitrariness is my issue with it. Actually arbitrary may not be the right word. It's not just that there is no clear reason for it, but also that there seems to me to be an obvious reason not to do it (To wit, that it's annoying).
This is best illustrated through examples. So, examples you shall have!
As I'm sure many if not all of you are aware, a significant number of fruits with names containing the word 'berry' are not strictly speaking berries, by the botanical definition. Of course, one might dispute the point on QI (Though I'm pretty sure no-one did), on the grounds that a dictionary will give you other definitions than the botanical one, which do encompass said fruits. But I digress. The point is the botanical definition.
Which do you think came first? The names of the fruits, or the botanical definition?
I would guess the fruit names came first. In which case, why would some botanist come up with this definition which does not include many of said fruits? If they needed a name for that particular subset of fruits that are considered 'true berries', why couldn't they choose or invent one which would be less confusing?
It appears to be simple contrariness, for no apparent reason, while the confusion caused is an obvious reason to do otherwise. Or, alternatively, one possible reason for it is simply to facilitate arbitrary pedantry, in the form of "Oh no, strawberries aren't berries, whyever would you think that? Utterly ridiculous! Ha ha ha!" Whereupon the layman, having been unfairly tricked into ignorance, through a betrayal of his language, experiences considerable embarassment, and a not insignificant desire to punch the offending botanist in the nose.
Now this one, I'll grant you, is based on an assumption on my part. An assumption which could be at least partly wrong. It's possible the botanical definition of 'berry' predates the naming of at least some of the fruits (Though I'm nigh-certain it can't have predated all of them), in which case the blame goes to whoever named the fruits instead; but a failure in nomenclature has still taken place. Most generously, I could assume that at the time of the naming in question, whichever one it was, the fruits were believed to fit the definition, but the more advanced science of today allows us to determine that they don't. But even if that's the case, it's still annoying.
This one is much like the 'berries' example, but worse. Stonehenge, it turns out, as revealed on QI, is not a henge.
Do you know where the word 'henge' comes from? This was also revealed on QI.
Yes, the word henge was taken from the name Stonehenge, and then given a definition which excludes Stonehenge itself. No assumption here.
And my generous possible assumption for the previous example doesn't really apply here. The definition of a berry has something to do with which bit of it the edible part comes from, it has to do with the biology of plants, so you can see why one might make a mistake about that in less scientifically advanced times. But the definition of a henge is something to do with the placement of a ditch near a stone circle. The reason Stonehenge is not technically a henge is because the ditch is in the wrong place. And I'm pretty sure we haven't made any staggering scientific advances in the field of looking at where a ditch is in relation to some stones in the ground.
So, one concludes contrariness. And gets annoyed by it.
There may be other such examples. In fact I consider it pretty likely. But I don't know what they are.
I do, however, have what may be considered an example specifically for the pedantry rather than the contrariness, and this is the one case where I genuinely disagree with QI. I mean, with the previous two, should I become famous, go on QI, and get asked the question, I intend to give the obvious 'wrong' answers, in protest against contrary nomenclature, and argue my case (I don't expect it to work, but I'll do it). But they're not responsible for it - they're just pointing it out to the nation. QI is a wonderful means of education on the subject of popular misconceptions. But on this one I disagree with them, because I don't think it's quite so objective.
3. Henry VIII's wives.
Of course, everyone (At least everyone from Britland who payed any attention in history lessons) knows that Henry VIII had 6 wives. And QI has told us this is wrong. I disagree.
The argument that Henry VIII had less than 6 wives is, as I recall, that several of his marriages were anulled, and therefore considered never to have happened.
But they did happen. He hasn't gone Big Brother on us and erased all records of them after the marriages were anulled. So, regardless of what he may have later declared, the marriages did happen, with the arguable exception of Anne of Cleves, since consummation was considered a crucial element of a marriage in those days, I believe. So by the standards of the time, you can argue that she didn't count.
The others though, he did marry. He declared after the fact that he didn't and they weren't his wives, but while he was married to them he would have said that they were. As I see it, it's a matter of when you count. Because of course, if you count at just one point in his life, then he either had no wives or one wife. He didn't have 6 (Or 5) wives all at the same time, certainly. So this suggests that we should look at multiple points in his life. And for each of his 6 wives, I believe there was some point in history where they were each officially considered to be his wife. Add them up, and voila! Six wives.
Now, one can argue the other side, of course. But that does seem a bit like arbitrary pedantry to me.
In any case, the simple fact that one can debate the point suggests to me that QI was wrong to declare outright that it was untrue to say Henry VIII had 6 wives. You can contest that he didn't, using certain arguments, but you can also contest that he did, using different arguments. And in the end, it all really just comes down to arguing over things which really don't matter. We know, to some level of accuracy, the historical facts. We don't need to keep score.
So, changing the subject. There's one other thing which I saw on QI with which I vehemently disagree. I was already aware of it before seeing it mentioned on QI, but because it was mentioned on QI and it annoys me, I do associate it with the other three I mentioned above.
I have no problem with the above equation. I do, however, take issue with the fact that apparently it had to be proved by a really good pure mathematician. I first was told about this in a set theory lecture when we came to the mention of Russell's paradox, and my lecturer mentioned that of course, Bertrand Russell, who first found this paradox, then went on to (IIRC (If I recall correctly)) come up with axiomatic set theory, which sorts out the paradox, and that he basically built it from the ground up starting with 1+1=2 and it was so amazingly insightful of him to realise that this had to be done and blah blah blah blah blah.
And of course, on QI, the guests joked about it, like "Surely that's a bit late? Surely if it turned out that one plus one didn't equal two, the whole of maths would be screwed?" (I'm paraphrasing, but that was the gist)
Both these things bother me, because, well, taking the second point first, maths is not screwed, you cannot destroy the foundations of maths. It's true, if one plus one didn't equal two maths would be screwed, but it does. Of course it does. And it doesn't take any great insight or genius to prove it. I can prove it. Watch:
And there we go. That's it, that's all you need. You cannot make one plus one not equal two unless you change the definition of 'one', 'plus', 'equals', or 'two'. This is a concept which predates maths. Because at some point in the extremely distant past, some early human decided that when you had a thing, that was one thing (1). And when you got more things, that was adding things (+). And when you'd changed how many things you had, you got an answer, and if it was the same as what someone else had, they were equal (=). And finally, they decided that when you had one thing and added one more thing, rather than call that one and one more one, which was a bit too long-winded, they would call that having two things (2).
OK, so actually this early human probably wasn't speaking english, but you know what I mean.
You don't need to prove that 1+1=2, because the definition of 2 is 1+1. You don't need to prove it again to build from the ground up, because it is the ground which you've already built up from.
Now, the actual circumstances of this proof were more complicated. There were apparently paradoxes shaking the very foundation of maths, or something (Though of course I've already indicated my scepticism as regards the feasibility of doing that). It may be that the point was not to prove 1+1=2, but rather to prove that you could prove 1+1=2 without recourse to real world examples. I'm still uncertain about it, though, because it just sounds like rationalism taken way too far. I may be a proponent of avoiding contact with the real world, but a little bit of empirical data can be a very good thing under certain circumstances.
And, in the course of ranting about maths it appears I have forfeited my opportunity to go to the library and get out some books on it. Oh well, there's always tomorrow (And tomorrow, and tomorrow...)