The Sciences

The Hallmark of a black hole

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitJun 14, 2010 3:01 PM


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Leon Jenkins is the President of the LA chapter of the NAACP, the organization that advocates for equal rights for black people. The work they do is fine by me, and I support their efforts. But organizations are made up of individuals, and individuals can make mistakes. This is really one of those times. Here's the story: Hallmark came out with a card for recent graduates, and it's one of those deals that has a speaker in it that activates when you open it. Like all such cards it's twee and sugary and over the top. It involves two cartoon characters with squeaky and high-pitched voices talking about how the graduate can now take over the world. It has an outer space theme to it, and what they say, well... watch/listen for yourself: Um, yeah. It's pretty clear to just about anyone who hears it -- and doesn't have any particular stake in the claim -- that the card is saying "black holes". The space theme is obvious enough, and black holes are a common topic. So why on Earth would someone think the card is saying "black whores", as Mr. Jenkins and other LA NAACP members do? In fact, there's a good reason. What we have here is a very well-understood topic to skeptics: audio pareidolia. That is, mishearing recorded phrases or words, and thinking they are saying something else. This phenomenon is really strong, and once you think a recording is saying a certain phrase, it's difficult to not hear it. So once someone thought the Hallmark card was saying "black hos", they told other people, and that biased them into hearing it as well. I've written about this before; go here and here for great (and very funny) examples of this. So it's understandable that Mr. Jenkins might hear that... but then his own biases kick in. He looks at the card and finds pretty dubious evidence to support his claims; like saying that the word "ominous" means "evil" and therefore cannot be used for inanimate objects. In reality, ominous means foreboding or menacing like an omen, so of course it can be used for events or objects. Like many people do when making a claim, Jenkins is finding evidence after the fact that simply isn't there. Because honestly, when you think about it: Hallmark? Putting out a card that uses a racial slur? Hallmark's products are the least offensive, blandest I can think of. They're the lettuce-and-lite-no-transfat-mayo-on-white-bread sandwich of greeting cards. But that doesn't really make much of a difference to someone once their mind is made up. Note that Jenkins also says, "If reasonable people can listen to this and interpret it the way I did, you can pull [the card off the shelves]." That's wrong, and in fact somewhat dangerous thinking; just because a lot of people think something is true doesn't make it true. Still, caving to this pressure, Hallmark pulled the card. That's too bad. The company took a financial and PR hit because of the customers' misunderstanding, and that's a bad precedent.This just reinforces the overall problem of people making decisions in their lives based on bad evidence or the misinterpretation of good evidence. How many ills of this world would disappear if we could make that go away? Also, and more importantly, when anyone accuses someone else of racism when it's not there, it hurts the overall cause. Given the press this has received, it's the LA NAACP's credibility that has taken a hit, not Hallmark's. Crying wolf diminishes the NAACP's work, and will make it harder for them to fight real racism the next time it pops up. And that, to me, is uncritical thinking's biggest danger. Not that people actively believe in things that are wrong -- that's here to stay -- but that it masks the truth and prevents people from seeing it.

Tip o' the mortar board to Fark.

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