« previous post | next post »

Today's xkcd:

Definition of a liberal education: What you need to learn in order to get this joke.

To wit: the Bernoulli effect; the Doppler effect; the Leidenfrost effect; the Pelzman effect; the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; the Dunning-Kruger effect; the Stroop effect. Seems like the Coriolis effect, the Meissner effect, the Flynn effect, and the Hawthorne effect could be worked in there somewhere as well.

This curriculum is a little light on the humanities — though it's been a while since humanists invented things like Grimm's Law. And it privileges principles associated with proper names, over important ideas like the greenhouse effect, the placebo effect, the domino effect, the butterfly effect, the halo effect, etc.


  1. Rubrick said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 2:24 am

    I was a bit disappointed in the non-effect-ness of Sapir-Whorf (and wondered if there was a corresponding Sapir-Whorf Effect I hadn't heard of).

    [(myl) Well, to the extent that the hypothesis was borne out in a particular experiment, you could refer to the result as an instance of the Sapir-Whorf effect…]

  2. D.O. said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 2:54 am

    It's not a joke, it's a snoozefest. You can call it an XKCD effect.

  3. Yannick said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 3:21 am

    The reason that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is not called an effect is that it's not been tested in a quantitative controlled study. The closest we've come is by teaching numbers to people who only knew approximate counts before.

    [(myl) This seems quite false to me. One noteworthy counterexample is the work of Lera Boroditsky, discussed from time to time over years on LLOG. But there are plenty of other people who have explored these ideas experimentally.]

    However, people have usually only sympathized with the idea, instead of trying to find ways how to differentiate the obvious hypothesis of, "what we cannot talk about, we cannot teach others" (i.e., the boundaries of the language are the boundaries of education and culture) and the stronger one of "we cannot reason about that which we cannot describe in terms of our language" (or really, a language known to us).

    I has been quantitatively shown that there are at least some effects due to the language people do their reasoning in – be it that numbers' (sounded) names must fit in the phonological loop, or be it that people become attuned to different systems of values and belief and communication styles.

  4. K Chang said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 3:30 am

    Sometimes, XKCD is too philosophical or requires too much explanation for a joke.

    IMHO, this is one of those.

  5. Michal said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 7:02 am

    "requires too much explanation for a joke" – if you ever see one of those jokes, just stop reading it. It's not for you. Also – do you ever science?

  6. John Shutt said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 7:14 am

    Curiously, it worked well for me. Though I'm only passing familiar with four out of the seven effects. In retrospect, part of the humor value for me seems to have been in meta-level tweaking of the hard sciences and soft sciences at the same time (different kinds of unreasonableness occurring in simple principles in the hard versus soft, while both love to name things after people).

  7. shubert said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 7:17 am

    I have browsed all links more or less.The D-K probably affects greater range, thanks!

  8. Dork Lord said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 9:48 am

    Man, those linguistic relativists must be total quacks with no experimental evidence whatsoever for their silly ideas.

    Oh wait.

  9. Faldone said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 11:07 am

    I think the absurdity of this cartoon trumps any rigorous discussion of the various effects referenced.

  10. K Chang said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 12:59 pm

    @Michal — there's only so much a single-panel comic can do.

    A real XKCD classic has you grinning by the first few panels, then you started noticing the little details that makes you guffaw, then total ROFL by the time you finish.

    Something… like this:

    (Pardon for the non-language related reference)

  11. jtgw said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 2:35 pm

    xkcd's humor depends on knowing enough of the background to get the joke. I do OK with most of them, but I get completely lost with the obscure UNIX references, for example.

  12. Yannick said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 5:02 pm

    @myl: I stand corrected. Maybe then it (resp. the concrete instance/s found) could/should then be called the Boroditsky effect?

    I think the idea I wanted to float was that a "xyz hypothesis" (e.g. innateness hypothesis) is something that people in an ideas-driven field of research would use, whereas "xyz effect" would be something that people in an experiments-driven field of research would use.

    It doesn't mean that people in the humanities are not interested in evidence, or that people in physics are not interested in ideas, but that credit is given according to the "harder" part, respectively.

  13. the other Mark P said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 7:32 pm

    I do OK with most of them, but I get completely lost with the obscure UNIX references, for example.

    Likewise, but isn't it nice to have a comic that assumes that the readers are well read in the sciences?

    To me complaining that XKCD is not funny is like complaining that opera isn't good music or that Ferrari don't make good cars. At best it is a confusion of taste with value. At worst anti-intellectual snobbery.

  14. maidhc said,

    May 30, 2015 @ 7:44 pm

    Can you stop the firetruck by pushing a fat man in front of it?

  15. Solo Atkinson said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 4:26 am

    "And it privileges principles associated with proper names, over important ideas like the greenhouse effect, the placebo effect, the domino effect, the butterfly effect, the halo effect, etc."

    Interesting that names and common nouns aren't usually combined, like tectonic-Teller theory, or halo-Einstein hypothesis.

  16. Don Sample said,

    May 31, 2015 @ 1:14 pm

    I treat the xkcd jokes I don't get as an opportunity to learn something new.

  17. Alan Palmer said,

    June 1, 2015 @ 8:20 am

    I'm more of a humanities person so a lot of the references in XKCD comics pass over my head. That doesn't prevent my not enjoying them, although when completely baffled I'll usually search out the reference, which is an opportunity to learn something new, as Don Sample says. That's the great advantage of XKCD being a web comic – you're reading it on line so it's not difficult to open another tab to Wikipedia or wherever.

  18. Scott Schulz said,

    June 1, 2015 @ 10:44 am

    I happily to go to explainxkcd ( in this case) whenever the topic strays beyond my ken. Sure, I can see the argument that humor should not need it's own wiki, but "If you don't like it, you can't have any." as an editor used to quip at the Green Egg back in the day.

  19. Rubrick said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 3:07 am

    Some belated commentary: Nice classic overnegation in Alan Palmer's post, and I think the Boroditzky Effect might rather be the phenomenon where neo-Whorfian research conducted by an attractive woman gets a good deal of press.

RSS feed for comments on this post