Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Raving Frauds (and Cats)

In The Elegance of the Hedgehog (by Muriel Barbery), a book I read this summer, one of the narrators is a 12 year old girl who writes:

My mother, who has read all of Balzac and quotes Flaubert at every dinner, is living proof every day of how education is a raving fraud. All you need to do is watch her with the cats. She's vaguely aware of their decorative potential, and yet she insists on talking to them as if they were people, which she would never do with a lamp or an Etruscan statue.

Ouch. I don't quote Flaubert at every dinner, but I do converse with my cats.

The mother in the story has previously been introduced to us in this way:

Well, my mother isn't exactly a genius, but she is educated. She has a PhD in literature. She writes her dinner invitations without mistakes and spends her time bombarding us with literary references.

Ouch again. Those sentences are a concise reminder that having a PhD doesn't mean you are a genius or that people will necessarily be impressed with an advanced degree.

Maybe someday my daughter will write a memoir that will include something like this:

Well, my mother isn't exactly a genius, but she is educated. She has a PhD in Science. She writes her Facebook status updates without mistakes and spends her time ranting about how all fruits and vegetables are organic and nothing is 'chemical free'.

20 comments:

CrankyMathGuy said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who rants "all fruits and vegetables are organic and nothing is 'chemical free'"!

Anonymous said...

This is slightly off-topic, but are you against buying "organic" veggies? Or do you just find the terms "organic" and "chemical-free" inaccurate and therefore annoying?

Si said...

A couple of weeks ago, I was fussing over the grammar of my facebook updates. If I send an update to twitter and facebook simultaneously, only one can be grammatical. Facebook requires third person, twitter requires first person. One of my closest colleagues called me "the biggest dork [she] knows" after hearing my dilemma.

Anonymous said...

Also a reminder how unlikely it is to consider any woman (especially a mother) to be a genius, regardless of her education, brilliance, and ability to discern animals from inanimate objects.

Too bad the mother didn't quote Beauvoir instead of Flaubert.

EliRabett said...

Eli talks to stuffed animals and on occasion to computers that are behaving badly.

Cloud said...

Oooh... I'm guilty of the occasional rant about nothing being "chemical free", too.

And don't get me started about how "all-natural" doesn't necessarily mean "safe".

Luckily, my daughter is too young to care about this. Yet.

Aisling said...

Anonymous @ 7:50AM - Well, the book is more about who is smart vs. who appears to be smart. So, although the mother with a PhD is said not to be a genius, the concierge with a mere high school degree (if that) who has been educating herself via library books is made out to be more of a genius-in-hiding; she plays dumb to the residents under the belief that it would not befit a concierge to be openly smart.

I won't say more; it's a very good book!

Nick said...

My general chem professor awarded a 5% extra credit on the final to anyone able to criticize the statement, "This product contains no chemicals," in five words or less.

Anonymous said...

Love that last comment--I always imagine breaking my teeth on inorganic food

Mark P

PS if that's the worst your daughter writes you're lucky (spoken as the father of a high school girl)

Anonymous said...

My dad has been saying for years:

"Of course I'm an organic gardener. I only use organic chemicals in my garden."

Anonymous said...

"Organic" foods contain carbon.

The cyanide in bitter almonds is "natural". So is strychnine.

Amazingly, my New Agey friends and acquaintances don't find this nearly as amusing as I do.

cicely

L-Siz said...

Who doesn't talk to their cats? Fatty, Handsome and Other Kitty have excellent conversations.

And I'm happy to know I'm not the only one who aggressively tries to educate those in my direct vicinity about all teh crap about organic, chemicals etc.

That being said I'm always amazed at how so many people poo-poo plant based remedies. Doesn't everybody know that 45-50% of pharmaceuticals on the market are derived from natural products?

Kevin said...

Of course the term "organic" is no more appropriate for "organic chemistry" than it is for "organic gardening". It has been a long time since chemists believed that carbon-based compounds had to be created by living organisms.

The Mad Chemist said...

And here I thought only us geeky chemists ranted about things being "chemical free". ;-)

Paul said...

"I always imagine breaking my teeth on inorganic food"

Given how much of inorganic chemistry is basically "let's make a big organic molecule. Now let's have it coordinate with a metal ion or complex" you could say all of your fruits and vegetables are also partially (and very importantly) inorganic as well. After all, we need Cobalt for B12 or Magnesium for chlorophyll?

Anonymous said...

Fruits and vegetables also have inorganic compounds, so maybe they aren't completely organic...

Anonymous said...

I don't poo poo plant-based remedies as much as the poops who put their blind faith in anything "plant-based." Ricin? It's plant-based. It's even natural! It must be safe!

Can't believe I just used the word poop on a blog. Even anonymously.

FemgineerPhD said...

Unfortunately, it takes someone pretty smart (like the precocious girl in your book) to identify a fraud. Frauds are notorious for spouting fancy-sounding words that mask their ineptitude, and for speaking louder and prouder than everyone else. The average person gets intimidated and impressed by this. Hence, the general social notion that we should respect everyone with a title. Hah!

On one hand I find this social norm irritating. On the other hand I plan to milk it for what it's worth whenever helpful (eg, getting industry funding for my students).

Kate said...

Your daughter probably will that when she is 12, but that's because she'll be 12. When you are 12 you say things like that about your mother.

Chemical free and it's natural so it can't be harmful are two of my pet peeves too.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

I have one theory about 'natural' remedies and that is that other than the main active molecule the rest of the 'chemicals' are merely stabilisers or inhibitors thus making those drugs safer with less adverse effects...still need to work on a proof though...I am wondering if anyone are intending to try researching about that?