The Pseudo-Intellectuals Among Us

How pundits, quacks, sciolists, and charlatans subvert erudition and wisdom

I love books. Well… I’m obsessed, as I’ve unabashedly stated. I delight in learning new words—oftentimes in multiple languages—and I get strangely excited about their etymologies. But I also have a tendency to gorge myself in random—and arguably useless—snippets of information regarding all sorts of things. This is often guided by a mild case of self-diagnosed attention deficient/hyperactivity disorder; I’ll proffer an example for adjudication to demonstrate how far off the beaten track I can wander.

A few days ago, I was reading a book when I suddenly encountered a new word. I reached for my cellphone and opened my Merriam-Webster app. Before I my search could begin, I was distracted by the app’s Word of the Day: crepuscular. I clicked on the word knowing that I would be provided with an etymology of the word. I wasn’t disappointed. But I learned Latin had two words describing twilight, one which had kinship with the word lucid. This naturally led me to Lucifer (and his descent), then to luciferin, followed by bioluminescence, marine wildlife, and finally whales.

Braggadocio to Lucifer to bioluminescence to whales. And I was only interrupted by a phone call. My massive digression could have landed me in the darker recesses of the internet, from which few return.

I still don’t know how this happens.

So, I am acquainted with a panoply of ostensibly useless trivia. Jack of all trades, master of none. If we could stroll through the labyrinthine scriptoria of my mind, it would look as if an earthquake had struck the Library of Alexandria moments before the infamous conflagration. Bedlam. Chaos. Madness. Nevertheless, I’ve been assured I could possibly find limited success as a contestant on Jeopardy. Meh… who knows?

The loss of focus and seemingly haphazard detours are not without their triumphs. I am reasonably well-informed about current events—foreign and domestic—and can participate in all sorts of learned and quasi-learned conversations; I typically have much to say in all cases. Yet, I never claim to be an expert, even in areas which I have been formally educated—or which I fervently research. Indeed, I often wonder whether these superficial glimpses of knowledge make me a dilettante.

Unfortunately, we are familiar with those charlatans who claim to “know for a fact,” or have profound knowledge and wisdom we mere plebeians could never possess. (Or one could take the President-elect’s position: “nobody really knows.”) Few appreciate a know-it-all. Yet, fewer still wish to be considered uninformed or unlearned. I think it is this fear which spawns pseudo-intellectuals.

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Distorted Memories, Occluded Vision

“Nature never deceives us; it is we who deceive ourselves.”

If the dead could roll over in their graves, I’m sure Nelson Mandela would have done a 720-degree turn by now. Once again, humans besotted with strenuous explanations and the Mandela Effect come to haunt us with more fallible memories. This article—published in the New Statesman just before Christmas—outlines some of the cries Redditors had about a movie called Kazaam, starring Shaquille O’Neal. (Anyone who saw the move can understand why one’s memory would be garbled beyond recognition.)

It turns out that many Redditors erroneously recall Sinbad—instead of Shaq—starring in a film called Shazaam, following the same premise and storyline the real movie Kazaam took. One crackpot, Carl (not his real name), was so certain Shazaam was real that he offered a $1,000 reward to the person who could present him a copy of his beloved childhood film.

“I was dumbfounded to see that there was no evidence of the movie ever being made,” says Carl. “I quickly searched the internet, scouring every way I know how to search, crafting Boolean strings into Google, doing insite: searches, and nothing. Not a damn thing.”

Alas, in the absence of evidence, Carl persisted in his erroneous belief and insists on a “timeline shift.” Perhaps Carl has been dwelling too much on the Flashpoint Paradox. Another person—one approaching the outer margins of reality—believes that the “film was recalled and destroyed.” There are plenty of movies which qualify for recall, if not incineration. But who would undertake such a strenuous effort? Of all the copies?

[Insert exasperated sigh]

It’s such anemic beliefs which prevent us from embracing the new year and thoughtfully approaching the horizon. 2017 is off to a great start, no?

Thankfully, one subreddit is devoted to debunking “evidence” adduced in favor of the Mandela Effect, claiming that such detritus is “clogging up the sub” rather than combating this nuisance on principle alone. However, I fear the other subreddits where Redditors can share their personal Mandela Effect experiences portends a recrudescence of conspiracy theories generally—in the media and elsewhere. And I’m fairly certain we could all do with fewer of those.

When will we stop perpetuating these false memories and face the fact that our memories just suck?

The Lamentations of 2016

“Was I deceiv’d, or did a sable cloud, Turn forth her silver lining on the night?”

As if 2016 weren’t finished with me yet, infirmity comes to me with some ironic leniency: I only suffer from severe sinus congestion. The situational irony is made a little more distressing because infirmity seldom visits me.

Nevertheless, these are the kinds of lamentations one finds circulating social media, becoming more thunderous as we approach the final moments of 2016. Undoubtedly, 2016 has been unique, beset with celebrity deaths, a contentious election cycle, and vehement political protestations. Let’s not forget that crime, corruption, war, famine, disease (infectious and otherwise), racism, gender and sexual discrimination, and myriad other tribulations could not be averted, pacified, or eradicated this year. Not to mention, the scourge of turkey bacon and non-alcoholic beer still persists.

2016 sucks. Or does it?

Could this be one’s most difficult year lived? Perhaps. Could it get worse? Unfortunately, it is possible; it is also possible that one’s fortunes could only get better. Or is everyone just exaggerating their woes? These are intended as reflective prompts, for I cannot possibly answer these questions for the reader. Plaintive cries about how terrible this year was are only slightly lost on me, and not for lack of empathy; my mouth was certainly agape at some of the events that transpired this year. In particular, I acutely feel—and have felt—the sorrow and heartache of friends and family that have suffered great loss.

I, too, have lost. I have faltered. I have struggled. I have been mocked. I have been injured. But I have not quit. I continue resolute.

And perhaps this is the coda to my post. Mewling is only as useful as one’s capacity to reflect and learn from adversity. Grief is important and should not be stifled; the same is true of finding an outlet for one’s anger. But grief—and venting anger—differs greatly from bitching and moaning, lamenting that the world or the universe has conspired to make one miserable. Such thinking serves solely to hold us back from thoughtfully and constructively engaging the future. Trust me, I know.

2016 didn’t suck. It certainly had its terrible moments. However, this year is adorned with accomplishments, triumphs, and joy. I know people who proposed marriage to their partners and lovers. People who married, started new careers, became homeowners, became parents. To those who have suffered greatly this year, shed the frayed tatters of melancholy, for silver linings are often found in the darkest caverns. It takes hardship and strife to learn one’s constitution, to ascertain one’s true friends, to realize that setbacks are temporary.

Wiser and stronger—at least, I hope we are—than our former selves, bearing the scars of winters passed, let us enter 2017 with a little more hope. Let us enter with more strength. More courage. We can mourn our dead but still slog forward; the fallen have taught us much about life, but those lessons cannot be for naught. We are the architects of our own futures, and we, therefore, have the responsibility to rise from the debris, bandage our wounds, and rebuild ourselves. Our goals. Our dreams. Our lives. The gloom was certainly dark and heavy. But we must set our sights towards the horizon, for the sun yet rises.

Punch-Drunk

The curious case of dementia pugilistica

Sports.

Many people flock to stadiums and arenas where uniformed warriors compete in strenuous physical activities. Team sports require athletes be clad in all sorts of armor—some more than others—to prevent injuries. Contact sports like football and hockey demand heavy padding and helmets, while non-contact sports like basketball and soccer call for little more than modest uniforms.

Does it not seem slightly strange that boxers or mixed martial artists aren’t obliged to wear protective gear save for a mouth guard? Or is it because the goal is to injure and maim?

The importance of brain for daily living cannot be stressed enough. We use 100% of our brains. However, I suppose a compelling case could be made that some individuals indeed only use 10% of their brain. Nevertheless, traumatic brain injuries have seen more coverage lately as former football players gradually slip into depression and suicide and their families bring legal grievances against organizations like the NFL. Let’s discuss that.

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The Salt in our Blood

How halophobia killed the humble potato

What happened to french fries in America? Did I pass through some membrane into another dimension where salty foods are verboten?

If so, get me out of here!!!

In all sincerity, I haven’t truly enjoyed a french fry in quite some time due to the country’s growing halophobia. That’s correct, halophobia: the exaggerated fear of salt in one’s diet. Admittedly not a term currently found in dictionaries, but I can hope to introduce this word into the already bloated English lexicon. It is this fear of salt that threatens the nobility of the french fry as the crispy vehicle of ketchup.

I am obliged, insofar as I am able, to combat this lack of seasoning and see its proponents defeated. Who eats french fries with no salt? Who thought that was a good idea? That’s like ordering an iced tea without first saying ‘Long Island.’ Screw that noise. Pass the damn salt, please!

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Setbacks Are Temporary

How does one rekindle one’s resolve when faced with bleak circumstances?

It’s been quite some time since I’ve given an autobiographical entry. I felt compelled to write about my most recent injury as I am certain some will be able to relate to the setbacks one encounters throughout one’s quest from self-improvement.

Allow me to set the stage with some relevant background material. I’m an obese man who has made some progress towards a healthier life. I consume more vegetables and exercise more frequently than any time in my first 29 years of life. I’ve even lost some weight (47 pounds) that I’ve been able to keep off. I still have another 147 to go. Over the summer, I had a minor hiccup in the form of acute bursitis. However, I’ve been injured numerous times before, and I’ve certainly not seen my final one.

But this latest trauma was different.

During a brief snowstorm yesterday, I slipped just a few meters from my car. My right leg slipped out from under me with a loud popping sound at the knee before I crumpled to the ground in extreme agony. On my hands and knees in the fresh snow, I screamed. My mind raced frantically, replaying the painful event, contemplating my injury, and, to my dread, what this injury meant for my goals. As each pulse of pain rushed from knee to brain, all I could think about was how I would fail myself. I wouldn’t accomplish my goals. I wouldn’t be able to continue. I had already failed, here in the snow. These startling realizations filled me with paralyzing terror.

In retrospect, I don’t remember how long I remained on the ground. Fortunately, a public safety officer had seen my fall and drove to ascertain my condition. It was his voice that ripped me away from my toxic stupor.

“Are you alright? Are you hurt? I can help you!” I heard the crunch of his boots approach as I finally lifted my head for the first time since my fall.

“I’m okay,” I uttered in half-truth. My pain had subsided long enough for me to comprehend the world once again. I slowly stood, gauging how much weight my knee could bear. It held up, but it trembled. Assured that I was well enough to make it to my car, the public safety officer departed.

It is certainly an inauspicious interlude in my long journey towards a healthier life. But I have come to understand that all setbacks are temporary, as my use of the word ‘interlude’ would suggest. Rather than an impediment to progress, my injury has afforded me time in which to reflect on my goals for a healthier life. I can plan meals and workout regimens without an agitated urgency. We easily become so inundated with work, school, familial responsibilities, friends, and myriad other activities we contrive for ourselves that we seldom take a few moments to slow down and think deeply about anything. I am guilty of this; save for today, I cannot recall the last time when I had nothing planned.

It has permitted me time to ruminate on my toxic stupor. It reminds me of something Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, an adage I am certain is familiar to us all:

But the worst enemy you can meet will always be yourself; you lie in wait for yourself in caverns and forests.

I am my own worst enemy. It could not be clearer to me now. I spend (and have spent) an unhealthy and considerable amount of time criticizing myself, my intentions, my physical appearance, and my actions. But as I’ve stated above, I’ve had time to think. I am the sole victim of my poisonous thoughts, the thoughts I use to pounce upon myself at every opportunity, the result of which has been anxiety, anger, and depression. My focus was not where it should have been. I would have been better served if I thought about my generous friends and family that have reached out to me with well-wishes, the fantastic support system that has seen me through my darkest days. It would have been better served if I concentrated on what I have accomplished so far and on the body’s capacity for regeneration.

It would have been easy to attribute my lack of focus to stupidity or foolishness. How could I have been so stupid to think that way? But this manner of thinking has been my true impediment to progress. I can’t promise that I won’t be tempted to attack myself, but I will (as we all should) attempt to build a strong bulwark—grounded in familial love, friendship, kindness to myself, and dignity—to guard against pernicious thoughts. I have to remind myself that I’m not that bad.

My knee will heal, restoring my ability to ambulate and, more importantly, exercise. I will resume my workouts. I will continue towards my goal. More importantly, I have not failed myself, nor shall I.

Health Literacy

Among an ocean of literature

What is health and what does it mean to be in good health? These questions and more have beset humanity prior to classical antiquity, as we continually struggle to combat disease and chronic ailments.

There are perhaps too many books and articles about health and wellbeing. Or are there?

One’s life could be spent dedicated to the singular task of reading every article and book published related to the topic, and one would only be at the outer margins of the field. Unfortunately, one must read quite a lot about to learn what constitutes good health and wellbeing. And that will always entail the capacity to discriminate between accurate, evidence-based information and unsubstantiated, false claims. Basically, one must be able to sift through the shit to arrive at the truth (or as close to the truth as possible).

I’m not going to tackle the first two questions I opened with. Instead, I want to address what it means to be health literate. As we approach the dawn of 2017, it behooves us to reflect on this as we prepare to craft our New Year’s resolutions.

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