Good Advice = Bad Science

With a New Year soon to begin, our thoughts turn to resolutions, most of which we simply won’t keep. For some, the problem is that the resolutions themselves are dumb: “Diet?” For many, though, the problem is lack of adequate motivation. That’s why there are calendars, posters, mugs, notebooks, T-shirts, and greeting cards with inspirational sayings. When examined closely from a scientific point of view, however, as I have done, they also are revealed to be dumb. (This essay is a distillation of a scholarly article, “The Scientific Moronocism of Proverbial Advisements,” originally published in The Journal of Clichés, Vol. XXVI. No. 3.)

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars. This apothegm is attributed to Les Brown, a professional motivational speaker. The moon is 356,400 km from Earth, at its closest. The next nearest star, on the other hand, is 4.37 light years from the Sun. So if you shoot for the moon and miss, you will in fact not land among the stars. You will land in empty space, still very much in our solar system, but probably too far from Earth to get back safely. Also, why are you shooting for the moon in the first place? There’s nothing there. It’s a hunk of lifeless rock, with maybe a couple of old golf balls on it somewhere. You can certainly shoot for a better destination instead. Tahiti. Shoot for Tahiti. Then, even if you miss, you’ll land among the other beautiful islands in the Windward group of French Polynesia.

Every strike brings you closer to the next home run. When Babe Ruth said this, he revealed that what he didn’t know about mathematics could fill a book. Hundreds of textbooks, in fact. The Bambino seems to have thought that swinging at pitches was akin to flipping a coin, and that every time he didn’t get the outcome he desired, it became more likely that he would on his next at bat. (He also seems to have thought that there were only two outcomes to swinging at a pitch—although in his case he might have been correct about that.) The probability of either outcome of a coin flip is not affected at all by previous outcomes, however. It’s even odds every single time. That’s the simple mathematical truth. (This leads to my recommendation that managers direct their hitters to flip coins when on deck, to reinforce the statistical lesson involved. Indeed, one Triple-A team has adopted this technique, with a consequent increase in the squad’s overall batting average from .246 to .251.)

We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light: Plato. From an ophthalmological point of view, this is extremely dubious. Either Plato was rather insensitive himself, or he’d never heard of photophobia, the serious medical condition characterized by an abnormal intolerance to visual perception of light prompted by discomfort or pain in the eyes due to light exposure. Common causes of photophobia include migraine headaches, cataracts, mild traumatic brain injury, and uveitis or corneal abrasion. And in any case, as there were no Donald Duck nightlights in his time, Plato’s entire hypothesis is open to question.

You can’t fall if you don’t climb. But there’s no joy in living your whole life on the ground. Whoever said this was, like Plato, not a doctor. Possibly not even human. Every human one encounters—which logically must include everyone that you know—has, at one time or another, fallen from standing height, and not all of them had been drinking, either. You certainly can fall if you don’t climb, even if you don’t have vertigo. And as to no joy in living your whole life on the ground? If I may say so: Groundless! The ground is where some of the best stuff is: merry-go-rounds; taco trucks; swimming pools; the Mall of America. On the other hand, both physics and logic indicate that the more you climb, the more likely you are to fall, and the higher you climb, the farther you’ll drop when you fall, and the farther you drop the faster you’ll accelerate until finally you hit the ground again, where many subjects of my experiments in this matter find themselves wishing they’d stayed in the first place.

If you don’t like how things are, change it! You’re not a tree. Jim Rohn—American entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker—evidently did not master noun-verb agreement, but one segment of this motivational assertion actually do—I mean does—make sense. You don’t have to be a botanist to realize that, in all probability, you are indeed not a tree. Work with that in the New Year.

Matthew David Brozik is a pretty lazy guy. Shoot for matthewdavidbrozik.com; if you miss, you’ll still land on the Internet, which can be a fun place.