The Origin Of The Specious


The trivia board continued to tease me. Did you know, it asked in its white-board glory, it would take over eleven Empire State Buildings to reach the deepest point in the Gulf of Mexico? That “over” sounds weaselly, yes, but I can’t fault its inclusion. Obviously the exact number of Empire State Buildings needed would depend on where you start from. You need far fewer if you’re starting from Veracruz, Mexico than if you’re starting from Glen, New Hampshire.

This affects the economics of your Empire State Building-lined bridge to the deepest point in the Gulf of Mexico! I don’t judge how. It’s not my business to say whether you’re trying to build this bridge for the lowest cost in Empire State Building procurement, or whether you’re trying to keep the Empire State Building-building industry at a stable production level. These are questions of political and economic priorities and so are outside the domain of the trivia whiteboard. I think it’s important the nation have a robust Empire State Building-building industry. It’s unsound to have to trust there’ll just be ones on hand when we need them. It could be disastrous for a project requiring 22 Empire State Buildings to find we can only scrounge together 24 Chrysler Towers and an old 30 Rockefeller Center that was filling up the junk drawer, between the fabric pads for the chair legs and the ball of decaying twine. Again, that’s just my feelings on the issue. Reasonable people can disagree, though not with me.

But why do people love trivia? Sure, everybody likes knowing things. And everybody really likes knowing things they think other people don’t know. When you share trivia you’re giving up some of your hoard of knowledge to someone else’s. A good trivia item isn’t just something that makes you think about Empire State Buildings and the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a chance to dispense social patronage. And it works even if all you’re doing is telling someone the first video MTV played was the Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star”. They’ll grin and nod and tell the joke about MTV ever playing music videos, even though they already knew the trivia because they were one of the Buggles. You should’ve checked who you were talking to sooner. If they’re gracious they’ll share some trivia back. Say, that the first video played on VH1 was Bruce Woolley’s version of “Video Killed The Radio Star”.

That’s not true, but it doesn’t matter, because within eight months Wikipedia will say that’s true and it’s just VH1 anyway. It’s too good a story. Given a fact and a story we’ll pick the story every time. Consider: The United States produced 1,768,000 net tons of raw steel in the week ending the 15th of August, 2015. That’s a substantial amount of steel, more substantial still if you ram you toe into it in the dark, but it’s worthless as trivia. It’ll never be as popular as the Buggles thing, which has been the most-shared piece of trivia on Twitter for the past three years running.

That’s also not true. Well, maybe it is. I don’t know. Something’s got to be the most-shared piece of trivia on Twitter. But again it doesn’t matter, because that’s got the hope of grabbing the imagination. You can picture a story behind it that United States domestic raw steel production can’t match, what with the rate of capability utilization at 73.9 percent. Here’s one the trivia board said: the catfish has over 27,000 taste buds. Is that surprisingly many? Or few? How many taste buds should we expect a catfish to have on its tongue? Do catfish have tongues? Do they have taste buds somewhere other than a tongue? Could a catfish have tastebuds on its skin? If it does, would this imply they technically spend their entire lives in a state of licking rivers?

Even if the answer to all these questions is “get away from me” followed by the ichthyologist running down the hall, receiving this trivia has given us something to imagine. That would be thinking of how catfish taste buds were counted. Maybe it was a grad student in the biology department carefully tallying things with microscope and whiteboard. Maybe it was a local newspaper editor demanding, “Resnikoff! Enough of this debate about the city hiring a new building code inspector! Find out how many taste buds a catfish has and do it before we put Sunday’s paper to bed!” And Resnikoff had to turn in “over 27,000” because that’s as far as the counting got before deadline. I’d like to know more. Whether it’s true or not, I can tell you the catfish would rather have been left alone. Nobody shares good trivia with it. Maybe someone should tell catfish steel capacity utilization is down 8.4 percent from the same week in 2014. That’s starting to make a story, and with it, a good trivial one.