A banner day for me on reddit

By Phil Plait | May 10, 2012 2:57 pm

Well, wow. This is an honor: reddit.com put up a quote of mine on their science section:

Right there in the middle is a quotation from me: "Teach a man to reason, and he’ll think for a lifetime." That was from my speech The Goals of Skepticism (commonly referred to as my Don’t Be A Dick speech), which I gave at TAM a couple of years ago.

There it is, highlighted. I’m really happy to see that. I liked the phrase when I came up with it, and it’s popped up here and there (like on a mug, and in a Symphony of Science).

The only thing that bugs me about the phrase is the use of the masculine gender. I struggled to make the phrase more neutral, but since it’s based on an existing aphorism — "Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime" — I couldn’t phrase it that way without removing it too much from the original, and thus losing the hook. Oh well.

Anyway, I still like the sentiment. We tend to spend a lot of time arguing specific examples of bad thinking — antivax, global warming denial, and so on — but not as much on having the tools necessary to prevent ourselves from having our thinking go astray. Happily, there are places on the web you can go, like Tim Farley’s Skeptools site, the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast (which commonly uses examples of bad thinking to make a bigger picture of how to think), and of course Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit from his masterpiece book, The Demon Haunted World.

Heck, stop reading this and go buy that book right now if you haven’t already. It is the basic tome that will have you thinking for a lifetime.

Tip o’ the fishing pole to Starstuff_3 on Twitter.


Related Posts:

- Don’t Be A Dick Part 1: the video
- A reasonable mug
- New Symphony of Science: Wave of Reason
- Science IS Imagination

MORE ABOUT: DBAD, reddit

Comments (47)

  1. Gary

    “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” – Albert Einstein

  2. Chris

    Nice quote, and glad to see it’s being appreciated.

    I am also fond of Terry Pratchett’s take on the older quote:

    “Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.”

  3. BJN

    Gawdawful font. Worse than Comic Sans!

  4. Robin Byron

    “Teach a person to reason, and they’ll think for a lifetime – Phil Plait”

    Hmm, seems perfectly…um…reasonable, to me.

  5. KMR

    Being a female, I find myself not at all offended by the gender reference, and appreciate that it is based on that whole “fish thing” and all.

    You just go on with your bad self.

  6. As a bit of Skeptical Activism, I have bought nearly a case of The Demon Haunted World and I give it to schools, libraries, coffee shops, etc. I can’t recommend it enough!

  7. Chris

    “Teach a woman to reason and… nevermind, they’re always right anyway”

  8. starstuff_3

    Cool! I’m the guy who sent the tweet. It’s so cool to get mentioned in one of my favorite blogs.

    Phil if you’re reading this, I’m also the guy whose astronomy professor sent us to this very blog as part of an assignment. It was people like you and Neil Tyson that got me back to being interested in astronomy and made me decide to take that course. I got a 4.0 in the course, so thanks for everything and keep on blogging =).

  9. Carl

    ““Teach a person to reason, and they’ll think for a lifetime – Phil Plait”

    Hmm, seems perfectly…um…reasonable, to me.”

    Except for the disagreement between the singular “person” and the plural “they.”

  10. Tara Li

    *sighs* You know, the *prescriptionists* would insist that in the English Language, even though there are other languages that do differ, when referring to a human of indeterminate gender, the masculine includes the feminine.

    But of course, we’re too interested in re-defining words to mean just whatever we want them to mean, to actually worry about people being able to understand us. Just think of the poor astronomy students who will have to memorize the fact that for 76 years, Pluto was a planet. But, because we figured students were too stupid to learn a list more than 9 names long, we had to demote it.

  11. Jason Dick

    They is the accepted gender neutral singular third person pronoun.

  12. There was a little more to the Pluto decision than considering what schoolchildren can memorize…

    There’s nothing wrong with picking a gender for a quote. Anyone who would read this as exclusive of women wouldn’t have got the point no matter how you phrased it.

  13. Joseph G.

    Awesome! Congrats, Phil!!

    I agree that it’d be nice not to be gender-exclusive there, but that it really reads best that way. IMHO, the lack of a better gender-neutral pronoun than “person” or “human” is a real problem for the English language*. IIRC, dozens have been invented over the last hundred years or so, but none of them ever seem to catch on. We really just need to pick one, publicize it, and stick with it .
    Who’s with me? :)

    *Yes, I know that “man” was once synonymous with “Human”, and in olde English there was separate terminology for male people. Bringing that back would be a helluva lot harder than just standardizing a new pronoun. I’d like to suggest “hem” with “shis” as a posessive.
    What? Stop laughing at me :(

  14. Chelsea

    I have no problem at all with the original quote, as Rachel says, anyone who would read this as exclusive of women won’t get the point. Makes is it easier to decide who needs to be edumacated. And besides, women come by reason naturally, it’s the “man” who needs to be taught! ;-)

    Joseph, got be careful with the “shis”, spellcheckers may miss and replace it with a German word for something that needs to be stored high in transit. Unfortunately what Will Rogers said many years ago is a timeless truth: “When ignorance gets started it knows no bounds.”

  15. VinceRN

    Sadly there are quite a few people who have been taught but still don’t think.

    Also, it saddens me just a little that you lament that this great quote isn’t politically correct enough. Anyone bothered by it isn’t really thinking.

  16. Dragonchild

    Oldie but a goodie:
    “Light a man a fire, and he’s warm for a day. Light a man on fire, and he’s warm for the rest of his life.”

  17. Joseph G.

    @#1 Gary “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” – Albert Einstein

    Somehow I doubt Einstein said that. I’ve been finding people attributing the quote to him, but so far I can’t find anything in the way of original citations or dates. If you can, I’d love to see it. I find it hard to believe that Einstein actually looked around and saw a world that honors the rational mind :-P

  18. Robin Byron

    @Carl #9
    “They-
    2. Usage Problem Used to refer to the one previously mentioned or implied, especially as a substitute for generic (s)he: Every person has rights under the law, but they don’t always know them.

    they’ll [ðeɪl]
    contraction of
    they will or they shall

    Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003
    thefreedictionary.com”

    Nobody likes dickish Internet pedantry.

  19. Chris

    “Try to teach a woman to reason and you’ll be sleeping on the couch.”

  20. Joseph G.

    Grrr. Stoopid italic tag not having the backslash I didn’t add but meant to :-P

  21. cephalopod30

    I’m fine with the “he” (though my opinion is likely not relevant, being a man).

    However, it might be cool if (say) the mug read “man” and “he’ll” on one side, and “woman” and “she’ll” on the other.

  22. Jean-Denis

    How about this change: “Teach a man to reason, and she’ll think for a lifetime”?
    It keeps the original in sight, and pays tribute to gender neutrality.
    Of course, English is only my second language, so what do I know…

  23. The real problem isn’t finding a gender-neutral way to phrase – that’s easy, as others have pointed out – it’s that it changes too many words form the original saying, so it loses the connection.

  24. OtherRob

    Hey, Larian, still giving those books away? That’s one I haven’t read yet. ;)

  25. Carl

    @Robin #18

    The page you link to lists that definition as a “usage problem,” and includes a note that says:

    “Most of the Usage Panelists reject the use of ‘they’ with singular antecedents. Eighty-two percent find the sentence ‘The typical student in the program takes about six years to complete their course work’ unacceptable.”

    I realize that correcting someone’s grammar online is often seen as “dickish Internet pedantry,” but I assumed it would be okay in a discussion that was about grammar in the first place. If you don’t want someone to comment on grammar, why are you making a post about grammar? I don’t understand what the problem is.

  26. Joseph G.

    How about “Teach a man to think, and his wife will be spared the trouble”? :D

  27. Wow, so many stupidly misogynistic jokes in this comment thread. Take it to Reddit Men. Sheesh.

  28. Robin Byron

    @Carl #26
    Clearly, you cannot deny that my stream has traveled farther than yours. Prolixity will not help you.

  29. K. Halse

    Look at all these crappy, pointless, overused jokes. I can see why reddit would like you!

  30. NeverTheTwain

    Am I the only reader amused by Phil saying he was worried about “losing the hook” of the phrase “…teach a man to fish…”?

  31. peter

    “Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.”

    and

    “Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.”

    Terry Pratchett

  32. supaluminal

    I was always amused by: “give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day, give a man a fishing rod, and he’ll sell it and buy some fish.”

  33. Nigel Depledge

    @ Gary (1) -
    Einstein was wrong about quantum mechanics, too.

  34. Nigel Depledge

    @ Never the Twain (31) -

    I was hoping that, if we ignored that pun, it would go away.

  35. Nigel Depledge

    Tara Li (10) said:

    Just think of the poor astronomy students who will have to memorize the fact that for 76 years, Pluto was a planet. But, because we figured students were too stupid to learn a list more than 9 names long, we had to demote it.

    What, seriously?

    The IAU demoted Pluto?

    When did that happen?

    What rank did it have before, and what rank is it now?

    And they did this just to make life easier for students? How so, exactly?

  36. Peter Davey

    I believe that it was Benjamin Franklin who said: “I would as soon attempt to feed a dead man as argue with someone who had abandoned the use of reason.”

  37. VinceRN

    @35 Peter Davey – I have seen that attributed to Thomas Paine, except I think it was giving medicine to the dead. Still, good quote either way.

  38. Thomas Siefert

    “Give a man a fish and he’ll smile for a day, show him the Monty Python fish slap dance and he’ll smile for a lifetime”.

  39. “Give a person a joke and they’ll laugh for lifetime” after crying of course…

  40. Joseph G.

    Robin Byron: Clearly, you cannot deny that my stream has traveled farther than yours. Prolixity will not help you.

    *snerk!*

  41. Joseph G.

    Robin Byron: Clearly, you cannot deny that my stream has traveled farther than yours. Prolixity will not help you.

    *snerk!*

  42. Fritriac

    Well, why not use “hu-man” as a gender neutral word? Or are you adressing other species too? ^^

  43. BJM

    Re: gender neutral pronoun.

    I’m all for correct English, but rules change according to need. Otherwise we’d all still be speaking Old English. I like the use of “they” as a gender neutral pronoun. As far as disagreement between singular and pleural, “You” disagrees with the singular, or it did until people decided that it didn’t.

  44. Mike Saunders

    I guess its good that reddit finally got rid of the child porn sections of the website but its still a sad place.

    m.gawker.com/5884619/reddit-reluctantly-bans-child-porn

  45. Eric P.

    Reminds me of another *cough* well known verse.

    “Give a man fire and you keep him warm for a day; light a man on fire and you warm him for a lifetime!”

  46. Nigel Depledge

    BJM (44) said:

    I’m all for correct English, but rules change according to need.

    Agreed. Mostly, but see below.

    Otherwise we’d all still be speaking Old English.

    This is just wrong.

    After the Norman invasion of England in 1066, the Normans attempted to stamp out the use of Anglo-Saxon and replace it in all official uses by Norman French. Since they did not understand the power of language-learning in the very young, a great deal of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary and grammar survived into what eventually emerged as Middle English about 200 years after the conquest.

    So, you perhaps should have said : “Otherwise, we’d all be speaking Middle English”.

    However, languages change even without any need.

    For example, not only was Anglo-Saxon picking up many unnecessary new words from Danish during the Viking occupation of much of northern England (for example, skill and craft were once – respectively – the Danish and Anglo-Saxon words for the same thing. Now, their meanings have diverged, but not half as much as have diverged the derivatives skillful and crafty), but Middle English didn’t really need to evolve into modern English.

    Certain remnants of Anglo-Saxon grammar seemed to be too cumbersome to survive. For example, Middle English lost many of the inflections that its predecessor relied on for clarity. This process is still going on – the inflection of who into whom seems to be dying out, despite its role in clarifying the text (for example, “for who the bell tolls” could be a question asking who is ringing the bell, rather than the indication that the bell is tolling on behalf of someone).

    Of course, with the explosion of exploration and Empire-building in the 17th to 19th centuries, English collided with and stole words from dozens of other languages.

    So, while I agree that languages change at need, they also change at other times.

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