(Cross-posted on my personal blog.)
There is a memory that has always stuck with me. In sixth grade I remember sitting on the floor at a friend's house. We were supposed to write an essay together. I distinctly remember him proposing that I should write the first version and then he'll go over it afterwards and make it sound good. Because he's better at making things sound good than I am, and I'm better at the content.
I was annoyed. Not because he slyly wanted to escape doing any of the real work. At least not primarily. I was mainly annoyed at the claim that I'm not good at making things sound good.
Basically, he wanted to go through the essay and use "bigger" and "fancier" words and phrases. Ie. he'd replace "wanted to" with "had the desire to" and "essay" with "article of collaborative verbal expression" or something. He thought those sounded better and that my simple phrasing didn't sound very good.
I hated that. Those didn't sound better. They sounded like pretentious douchebaggery.
Still, it could be worse. At least that sort of pretentious douchebaggery I'm describing is accurate. There are other times where, in an effort to make something "sound good", people say things that are untrue. For example, the video 5 Meal Prep Bowls In Less Than 1 Hour starts off with the following statement:
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It gives you the energy to keep you going. And that's why we're making these absolutely delicious breakfast meal prep bowls.
I'm not in the author's head so I can't be too confident, but I'm probably about 70% confident that he doesn't actually believe that. Or at least that he himself isn't confident in those first two statements. I think the primary reason he said them is because they sounded good.
To elaborate, I'd like to distinguish between a few different things here.
- Saying things you know to be false.
- Saying things you suspect are false.
- Saying things you are unsure of.
The author of the video is probably in category #2, I think. It doesn't feel like category #1 to me. Category #3 wouldn't surprise me though. To be clear, each category is still a sin. It's just that some sins are worse than others.
Anyway, is this a big problem? Medium-sized? Small? Trivial? I'm not sure.
I think that people generally have decent bullshit detectors. On the one hand, when I heard the start to that video I brushed it off as something that he isn't actually confident in and is just trying to sound good. I suspect that most people do the same.
On the other hand, maybe other people don't do the same. Or maybe they do but hearing the "party line" of "breakfast is the most important meal of the day" over and over again adds up and leads to you eventually believing it.
And maybe it has a subtly bad impact on the epistemics of the author. I'm just spitballing here, but maybe if you're the type of person who makes things "sound good" when you write for an audience, maybe it pushes the private thoughts that you think to yourself in that direction as well.
Furthermore, I think that we were actually being taught something like that in school at the time. Ie. to use words like "gigantic" or "gargantuan" instead of "large". I remember this project where we were supposed to create a menu for a hypothetical restaurant and use very colorful language. There is of course a place for colorful language and a menu is arguably a great example of one. I just wish they also taught us that it is usually more appropriate to keep the language as simple as possible, a la Paul Graham. ↩︎
If the stuff about intermittent fasting is true then breakfast might do more harm than good. ↩︎
Sounds like simulacra level 4 to me! Just saying things for the vybez.
I think there's another category to consider: not rigorously true, but not importantly false either, and it conveys a feeling and attitude. The purpose of the intro is not to denigrate Lunch or Midnight Snacks or whatever, it's to affirm that it's worthwhile to put effort into breakfast. I'm sure some do believe it literally, but it's a belief that pays no rent, so there's no harm whether they're right or wrong on any given day for any given person.
The grade-school assignment was bullshit, no argument. But that's school, and 80% of it it bullshit, with this as a pretty minor example. "Breakfast is the most important meal" is a very old meme, quite possibly a corporate marketing ploy, and even so the lack of rigor doesn't bring it to the level of "bullshit", IMO.
Good point. And I like that phrasing of "not rigorously true, but not importantly false either". Maybe I'm being too literal and it's just clear to everyone that the true message is that it's worthwhile to put effort into breakfast. I'm not sure. But even if that is the message I still suspect the author isn't confident of it, in which case a weaker version of what I was saying in the post applies.
I don't think that 1) it pays no rent or 2) it does harm on any given day for any given person are true. For (1) the rent it pays is the prediction that eating (a good) breakfast will have physical/cognitive/whatever benefits. For (2) this is a bit of a stretch, but I could see someone who buys a version of the breakfast idea making an effort to sit down and have a big plate of pancakes, eggs and bacon every morning and subsequently feeling lethargic every day. It's probably not too harmful most of the time though, so I'm only quibbling here.
Oh, interesting. I actually don't think I've ever had that thought but I could see it. Still gotta work on my cynicism.
I'm not sure I understand your point here. Are you saying that because it is such a popular meme it's clear to people that they're "just words" and that the speaker doesn't actually mean them?
This reminds me of a revelation I recently had from going to a Steiner school (an alternative "holistic" school system popular in Germany) as a kid. When I talked to my sister who goes to the same school, I was noticing that she thought that the stories her teachers were telling her were literally true. I then tried to make it clear that humans had not started planting wheat because someone put a golden dagger into the ground, and that this was mostly an entertaining story. I would not even have known how to start explaining to her which things her teachers said were just stories and which were actual things worth remembering. Often they intentionally invent weird stories to teach you things like the alphabet. As a child, I had just found this a little frustrating because that meant we were just learning one letter a day. We also got told a lot of classics (like Greek Anthology) though, which I do actually appreciate. I am also not sure if we got taught a lot more bullshit than regular schools.
The last 2000 years of human history is a strong counterargument.
To find out about the memes origin, I put "Breakfast is the most important" into Google Ngram. I couldn't add meal because of the five word limit.
It seemed to have it's first showing in the 1920's and then was silenced in the great depression. When food wasn't as plenty it might have died down. Interestingly, there's a strong increase in the phrase after 1994 and a dip after 2014.
There's also the claim that a 1944 marketing campaign created the belief. I created a skeptics question to find out.
"People say it because it sounds good" seems to me like a model that explains little about why the popularity of the meme changed over time.