Friday, September 4, 2015

Arguments and Occam’s Broom - What should we name the highest mountain in North America?

On September 1st Donald Trump tweeted:

"President Obama wants to change the name of Mt. McKinley to Denali after more than 100 years. Great insult to Ohio. I will change back!"

That statement is almost hilariously silly. Why? Look at the Wikipedia page on the Denali - Mount McKinley naming dispute.

First, that mountain originally was named Denali.  Second, Alaskans long have considered the name change from Denali to McKinley an insult. They have been trying to change it back for forty years - since 1975. Third, consider why it was renamed in memory of President McKinley. An NBC News article on August 31st pointed out that:

“Kimberly Kenney, curator of the William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum in Canton, Ohio, acknowledged that the circumstances made it difficult to argue for keeping the mountain's prior name. 

‘McKinley didn't see it, didn't travel there, didn't do anything for the people of Alaska — it wasn't a state yet,’ Kenney said.”

On pages 40 and 41 of his 2013 book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking philosopher Daniel C. Dennett described Occam’s Broom:

“...the process in which inconvenient facts are whisked under the rug by intellectually dishonest champions of one theory or another.”

It’s not easy to find what you’re NOT being told, but it’s not impossible. That takes some more looking around. Articles with multiple viewpoints like those at Wikipedia are one starting point. Another is to systematically look for the other viewpoints - Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, science and religion, etc.   

What should those upset Ohioans do next? I saw one suggestion in a comment that they consider renaming the highest point in Ohio after McKinley. Apparently the 1,550 foot Campbell Hill already was federally owned, so their congressmen could easily request a change. 

Naming a mountain really isn’t the most important thing about it. In the chapter on The Making of A Scientist in his book What Do You Care What Other People Think? physicist Richard Feynman recalled what his father told him when he was a child:

“....One kid says to me, ‘See that bird? What kind of bird is that?’

I said, ‘I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of bird it is.”

He says, ‘It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you anything.’

But it was the opposite. He had already taught me: ‘See that bird?’ he says. ‘It’s a Spencer’s Warbler.’ (I knew he didn’t know the real name). ‘Well, in Italian, it’s a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it’s a Bom da Peida. In Chinese, it’s a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it’s a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatsoever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing - that’s what counts. (I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something).”

The argument image came from a 1909 cartoon found at the Library of Congress.

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