Sometimes bugs are not insects

I’ve talked in the past about two kinds of category fights, one involving accusations of bait-and-switch tactics, another where the accusation is free riding. Often these aspects of the fight are obscured or denied, and the conflict is instead presented as between a right way and a wrong way to think about the categories. For example, one bait-and-switch allegation is presented as “THE TRUTH about natural chicken,” and Dr. Nerdlove says that “being anxious or socially clumsy or inexperienced isn’t the same as being creepy.”

Sometimes, however, there is no evidence that the accuser suspects a bait-and-switch or free riding. Instead, it appears that the only objection is that the other person is using “the wrong word.” There is almost always an appeal to authority for the “right word”: often a dictionary, but sometimes a text of science, religion or philosophy.

If there is a consequence predicted for using “the wrong word,” it is usually that the other person will look foolish. Occasionally, accusers will prophesy, or decry, the imminent downfall of society due to an inability to communicate.

This is the most arrogant approach to category fights, because it sets the accuser up as the source of the true taxonomy and devalues all others. Because of this, it is usually a sign of insecurity on the part of the accuser.

A great example of this one-size-fits-all approach is this book I discovered one day. Maybe like me you grew up thinking that insects like ladybugs and fleas were bugs. I also thought that spiders and pillbugs were bugs. But woe, have we been misinformed!

But all that changed when I got a copy of Bugs Are Insects. It turns out that Scientists Know that ladybugs and spiders are not bugs; only an order of insects called Hemiptera are True Bugs. This looks like a cute book about bugs, but it’s actually about telling kids that they and their parents have been Doing It All Wrong for years. Their categories are worthless; the only ones that matter are the ones blessed by entomologists. Imagine saying that to a six-year-old.

Please don’t do this. Don’t write a hectoring book like this. Maybe you have come across the true meaning of “fruits” and “vegetables,” or “crimes” and “misdemeanors,” and been tempted to run out and tell the world that all along they’ve been wrong, wrong, wrong. If that’s you, please do the world a favor and keep your mouthparts shut. Just because you heard it from an Authority, that doesn’t make it right. Something can be a planet to a layman and a Kuiper Belt object to a scientist, and they’re both right. If someone else’s categories aren’t hurting anyone, let them be!