5 Concepts Everyone Takes Seriously But Were Proposed As Jokes

Did you know the trolley problem was supposed to be ridiculous?
5 Concepts Everyone Takes Seriously But Were Proposed As Jokes

The world could have been saved a lot of trouble if, centuries earlier, people decided to end every sarcastic suggestion by writing out /s. Sometimes, you see, people aren’t being serious. No matter how legitimate the idea sounds to you, they were being satirical when they came up with stuff like...


Sometimes, an employee gets hired because they’re the boss’ nephew. Sometimes, they get hired because they attended the boss’ alma mater. Sometimes, they get hired because the boss wants to sleep with them. In particularly sad cases, the employee gets hired for all three of these reasons. We don’t like this. We instead wish for a meritocracy, where people only get rewarded because they deserve it.

smiling girl in black and white striped shirt

Julien L/Unsplash

“In a true meritocracy, I’d be on top.” — Everyone

When you toss out that word “meritocracy,” however, you may want to keep in mind where it came from. It entered our lexicon thanks to a 1958 book called The Rise of the Meritocracy. Author Michael Dunlop was a sociologist, but the book was no straightforward sociological text. You might instead call it dystopian sci-fi, or an alt-history novel. It takes place in the year 2034 and looks back at two centuries of increasingly fictional history leading to an imminent revolution. 

This history begins with meritocracy in schools. Schools assess students and categorize them accordingly (this system existed in the real world when Dunlop wrote the book). From there, things escalate. People take tests as adults, in addition to as children. Social mobility drops. Society divides sharply along new class lines, where classes are defined by intelligence — or other merits, such as looks. People only hook up with those as smart or attractive as themselves, so all children have as much merit as their parents. Power becomes more entrenched than when we stuck to traditional inherited wealth or nepotism. 

The Rise of the Meritocracy

Pelican Books

Then the robots come, and the undeserving all lose their jobs. It’s a fairly grounded dystopia.

Dunlop was still alive at the start of this century, to complain about the way people came to namedrop meritocracy. “The book was a satire meant to be a warning,” he explained. It’s all very well, he argued, to hire someone based on their merit, but a meritocratic society leaves people judged early on and stuck in place. Right now, it’s bad to venerate graduates from Oxford, because that place has its share of drunk screwups. But even if Oxford successfully worked as a sorting mechanism for picking the choicest 18-year-olds, a world where everyone worships Oxford grads would be a bad one. 

Dunlop mocked 21st-century British politicians for praising meritocracy and equality simultaneously, because meritocracy is elitist. And maybe this flavor of elitism doesn’t sound so bad to you — your politics may differ from Dunlop’s — but you should know the intention behind the words you use. Similarly, you’re welcome to call for a world where viewers set more time aside for watching low-budget comedies, but if you call it an “idiocracy,” know first that the movie criticized that world.

This is better than any Disney streaming show though, no lie.

Daylight Saving Time

Through Daylight Saving Time, we move our clocks so our schedules adapt to shifting sunrises and sunsets. Supposedly, this eases life for us all, though few people can explain exactly how. We’ve gone back and forth when it comes to enforcing Daylight Saving Time, starting in the early 20th century. Some people, however, credit the invention to Benjamin Franklin, who first proposed the idea all the way back in 1784. 

Constitution of the United States, page 1

National Archives

They could have inked DST into the Constitution.

Franklin wrote to The Journal of Paris about how a noise recently awoke him at six in the morning. This was an unusual experience for him, because he normally awoke at noon, having arrived home drunk at around four. Shockingly, the sun was rising when he woke this time, illuminating his room and eliminating all need for candles. When he shared this discovery with several scientist friends, none believed him because they, too, always woke at noon. Perhaps, suggested one, he was confused because he’d mistakenly opened his window and let the darkness out. 

Franklin calculated the amount of money Paris spent on candles every year from March to September (a period that almost-but-not-quite matches up to the period of Daylight Saving Time today). It came to nearly 100 million livres tournois, a sum equal to around $2 billion today. To spare the city this expense, people had to wake up earlier. The city couldn’t accomplish this by turning clocks forward for the simple reason that time was not yet standardized. Instead, he suggested firing cannons to rouse everyone from bed. Folks would wake with difficulty at first but would retire earlier the following evening, making the next morning less of a challenge. 

Benjamin Franklin from 1778

Joseph-Siffred Duplessis

Of course, to accommodate the shift, taverns must open six hours earlier.

At some point while reading all this, you realized Franklin was joking. Still, Franklin’s proposal beat the current implantation of Daylight Saving Time, which makes no sense at all

Schrödinger’s Cat

Here in the quipping biz, we have a few stock references we drop into commentary to convince readers we’re smart. Some are literary (“The Cask of Amontillado,” The Picture of Dorian Gray), while some are scientific, the chief among these being Schrödinger's cat. Here’s how a typical Schrödinger reference goes: “With Jonathan Taylor now cleared to play again after the ankle injury, everyone’s awaiting news about whether the running back will stay with Indianapolis going forward. For now, he remains in a quantum state, both signed and unsigned. A Schrödinger’s contract, if you will.”

This, of course, references the famous experiment proposed by Erwin Schrödinger, in which a cat shares a box with a vial of poison. A hammer attached to a Geiger counter may smash open the vial and release the poison, which will kill the cat, but we have no way of knowing whether it’s done this unless we open the box and look. We can use this image to think about the broader concept of knowledge, since so much remains unknown until we find out for sure.

Cat hissing

Marlon Soares/Unsplash

Cats know all the answers, but they have no desire to tell us.

Except, that’s not an accurate summary of the experiment at all. When Schrödinger says the cat is both dead and alive, that doesn’t mean its fate is unknown. It means the cat’s literally both dead and alive. There is an alive cat and a dead cat occupying the exact same space. That’s because the radioactive atom that makes the Geiger counter start hammering exists in two states simultaneously, according to quantum mechanics. Of course, a cat cannot actually be both dead and alive simultaneously, but that’s the point of the thought experiment. Schrödinger proposed this to be ridiculous.

We’ve mentioned this before: Schrödinger rejected the idea of quantum superposition, and he described this experiment to show how absurd the idea is when extended past the quantum realm. You might also be interested in reading the man’s original words on the subject, which reveal how openly he was joking — and also that the cat paradox was just a brief paragraph in a 15,000-word longer article.

“One can even set up quite ridiculous cases,” is how he introduces the cat idea. When describing the apparatus, he says it “must be secured against direct interference by the cat,” as it’s always a winning joke to point out cats enjoy messing with stuff. The experiment ends with “the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.” 


Visitor7/Wiki Commons

Forming catsup (i.e., cat superposition)

When we make jokes referencing Schrödinger’s cat, that’s a joke referencing another joke — and referencing it badly. An NFL player isn’t both signed and unsigned; he’s either signed or unsigned, or rather is as-yet unsigned but may later be signed. “Both X and Y” is not a comic exaggeration for “either X and Y,” and when we use it like that, that misunderstands what was so comic about the original concept. 

If you’re referencing a cat that is merely either dead or alive until you check on it, that’s not Schrödinger's cat. That’s just any cat, period. 

Hiter’s Nobel Peace Prize

The Nobel Peace Prize is a sham, according to cynics who’ve never done anything. The Swedes gave a prize to Yasser Arafat, and they gave a prize to Henry Kessinger. They gave a prize to Barack Obama, who accepted it by giving a lecture on just war theory. If we extend our discussion to nominees as well as winners, we hit on how one nomination honored Adolf Hitler.

Adolf Hitler

German Federal Archives

The face of peace

Hitler was indeed nominated for the prize. Swedish parliamentarian Erik Brandt nominated the man in January 1939. “In September 1938, world peace was in great danger,” wrote Brandt. “It was only a matter of hours before a new European war could break out.” Hitler deserved credit for averting that war because “he voluntarily did not let weapons speak although he had the power to start a world war.”

Adolf Hitler’s love of peace had earlier been documented in Mein Kampf, wrote Brandt (“next to the Bible perhaps the best and most popular piece of literature in the world”), and Hitler had avoided the use of force by annexing Austria peacefully. “Probably,” continued the nomination, “Hitler will, if unmolested and left in peace by war mongers, pacify Europe and possibly the whole world.”

Nobel Peace Prize medal

ProtoplasmaKid/Wiki Commons

The peace prize should go to the best generals, since they end the war.

In case the sarcasm wasn’t clear, the text went on to explain Brandt’s motives. Other members of the Swedish parliament had nominated Neville Chamberlain for the Peace Prize earlier that week. Even at the time, many people realized appeasing Hitler was a terrible strategy for peace, and Brandt wrote this satirical nomination in protest. 

Without knowing the exact climate in which he wrote that nomination, you might think he meant it genuinely. We keep seeing old newspaper clippings from the 1920s being shared, right, about how people underestimated the Hitler threat. However, with a full understanding of the climate, people in 1939 who heard of the nomination also assumed Brandt meant it genuinely, and he resultantly found his lectures and group memberships canceled

Erik Brandt

Dagens Nyheter Archive

Brandt, Sweden’s antifascist association founder, Jewish refugee advocate, canceled as a Hitler supporter

Today as well, when someone sounds like they’re praising Hitler as a political point, stay skeptical. Sometimes, they really are praising Hitler, but far more often, they’re making some argument based on the assumption that both they and you already agree Hitler is bad. Oh, and if you’re wondering who did nab that 1939 Peace Prize, no one did. Nor did anyone for the next several years, until World War II ended, when they gave it to the Red Cross. 

The Trolley Problem

The trolley you’re driving is barreling toward people tied to a track, and the only way to save them is to switch to a different track, where you’ll hit just one person. This thought experiment continues to resonate, decades after everyone otherwise stopped calling trains “trolleys.” We’ve previously delved into many absurdities surrounding the trolley problem, including what happened when psychologists tried checking how people respond to a real-life version. Far less known, however, is the idea’s origin and the intended meaning behind it.

Philosopher Philippa Foot proposed it in a 1967 essay titled “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect.” The trolley problem is not some ancient idea passed down through many generations; Foot was alive right up until 2010. The idea, though, did have predecessors, including an old one about people trapped in a cave, debating dynamiting a stuck fat man blocking their path. All the best old philosophical models involved caves. 

Allegory of the cave

4edges/Wiki Commons

That’s why we call our ancient ancestors cavemen. 

Abortion views are so contradictory, writes Foot, because “we want, and do not want, to allow to the unborn child the rights that belong to adults and children.” To resolve this Schrödinger’s brat, some argue that it’s fine to do harm (e.g., kill a fetus) in order to do good, but only if the harmful move is a side effect rather than the intended act. Foot objects to that convoluted reasoning, but to illustrate its appeal, she poses some examples where the double-effect doctrine may sway your decisions.

The first has a mob pressure a judge to execute a wrongly accused man, and if he refuses, they will riot and execute five hostages. The second is the trolley problem. As originally framed, it’s almost exactly like we know it, except the people on the tracks are workers rather than tied down, so they have reason to be there beyond some supervillain’s whim. Also, she calls it a tram rather than a trolley and doesn’t call it a problem (problem comes from the essay’s title, where the problem is the status of abortion).

the trolley problem

McGeddon/Wiki Commons

Also, you’re driving the train, while other versions make you a bystander, for some reason.

And now Foot asks the big question. This question is not “Do you switch tracks?” It’s “Given that you obviously switch tracks, why do we say the judge should not execute the defendant?” That’s no rhetorical question; Foot doesn’t say we should treat the situations the same, just observes that we don’t then tries to explain why.

You see, the trolley problem itself was not supposed to be a dilemma. It was supposed to be a situation with a single, obvious resolution (of course you switch tracks and kill fewer people, assumes Foot), because it was artificial, stripped of complications to make it unlike any real issue. It was also a situation that Foot proposed so she could explain a point-of-view she was actually rejecting. And then, having created these two differing situations, and having decided the doctrine of double effect doesn’t justify our differing reactions to them, she proposed a new explanation.

The difference, writes Foot, is between what we do and what we merely allow to happen. Explaining each choice for each situation in those terms takes some time (go read the whole essay to see it all), but you can easily think of other examples of people invoking this distinction. Take Batman Begins, where Bats tells Ra’s al Ghul, “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.” This scene takes place on a runaway train. It’s not the trolley problem (Bruce prevents no imminent deaths by letting Ra’s die), but this scene is a nod to the trolley problem, just as the sequel nods to the prisoner’s dilemma with a prisoner’s dilemma that’s not the prisoner’s dilemma.

Batman Begins script

Warner Bros.

The Batman Begins scene had a different quip originally. Let’s debate which is more confounding. 

If you’re wondering what all this means for abortion, well, Foot never comes down one way or the other on that. She was “only trying to discern some of the currents that are pulling us back and forth,” she writes, and then the essay’s very final line is: “The levity of the examples is not meant to offend.”

Today, we’ve forgotten any levity in the examples and debate the trolley problem seriously. We weren’t meant to, but we’re free to do that. Even if the problem was proposed as having one obvious response, you might disagree and find more to analyze in the experiment than was intended. We ourselves have used the trolley problem multiple times just to analyze superhero movies, superhero movies besides Batman Begins

If people take seriously something you proposed as a joke, that’s not always so bad. It’s often better than the more common alternative, in which you mean something seriously and everyone laughs at you. 

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