The Proverbial Skeptic's 5 Buzzwords to Stop Using in 2014

If we want to fail fast and fail hard, we should be sure to be mindful about disrupting gurus of innovation.

No matter how many times I write a post attacking an old adage, or a seemingly wise aphorism, or a grammatically or morally wrong modern usage, I never run out of material to be proverbially skeptical about. (read: wordy and curmudgeonly)

Why? Because, of course, of corporate buzzwords.

There is a scene in an old episode of The Simpsons from 1997 which depicts a corporate meeting held to create a new cartoon character (Poochie, who ends up being voiced by Homer). The executives in the meeting keep throwing out buzzwords until a writer, clearly fed up that the conversation is going nowhere, interrupts to say "Excuse me, but 'proactive' and 'paradigm'? Aren't these just buzzwords that dumb people use to sound important? Not that I'm accusing you of anything like that. I'm fired, aren't I?"

But that was 1997. It's a new year, and it's also National Hangover Day, so, as The Proverbial Skeptic, it is only right for me to suggest some resolutions. People don't say "paradigm" or "proactive" or the all-time classic, "synergy", anymore. But, they do say these words, which I not-so-humbly suggest we all resolve to kick out of our culture in 2014:

1) Innovation/Innovate

This word has become ubiquitous in 2013, which is too bad because it doesn't mean anything useful. It's closely related to the "entrepreneur" of the previous few years, but it's even more vapid. There are two main things wrong with it, besides that it is unnecessarily bandied about by people who want to seem technical and forward-thinking.

For one, it's not a universal good to innovate, even in the corporate world. Sure, businesses like Apple and 3M and whatever it is Elon Musk is doing this week (wearable solar panels to power mach-5 electric blimps?) rely on the release of a steady stream of new products and services to stay profitable and competitive. But, plenty of businesses simply need to make a quality product that fills a market niche and that stays abreast of current technology and then to just keep up the good work (Viking Ovens, my local bagel shop).

Also, and this is the big one, the term is just overused. Look at the sheer amount of recent books with the word innovation in their titles on Amazon. And the breadth with which people use it renders it completely meaningless.

Every time any minor thing changes, at a big corporation or anywhere else, it isn't necessarily "innovative", it's just different. 

These are all good reasons to stop using "innovative" all the time. Plus, it's annoying.

2) Fail

I have a very funny cousin who works in finance in Silicon Valley. Through him, I hear all of the fad-iest and silliest yuppie buzzwords early. But even being used to this, I still didn't believe him the first time I heard that swaths of the more "innovative" types in the tech world had started signing off their emails with "Fail fast, fail often". 

But despite my incredulity, 2013 nevertheless saw the rise of "failing" as a lionized and touted activity. There is even a whole book about it. I don't mean to say that there is nothing at all in the idea that experimentation is useful and that people should not be considered unhireable or untrustworthy if they have overseen a daring but failed enterprise. Experimentation and trial and error are the most inveterate methods for figuring things out and improving things, and they have been since the enlightenment or before. That's why it's just so damn smug and irritating how counter-intuitive and tolerant and modern people who say this think they are being.

3) Guru

Everyone's a guru these days.

This Forbes article even blithely uses the phrase "professors, CEOs and other gurus" as if it is obvious that anybody who talks about anything with even a modicum of self-ascribed expertise meets the definition of the term. We, or at least I, take this pretty much for granted at this point, but it's a new trend and it's odd. "Guru" is the Sanskrit word for teacher or master, and it has long been used for Eastern spiritual leaders with followers, and there is no reason to adopt it in "The West" to describe anyone who hopes one day to give a TED talk.

4) Disruption

"Disruption", a lot like "innovation", has become ubiquitous in the business world, which seems to have somehow just discovered this year that change equals good equals profit. 

I would love to give some great cringe-worthy examples of its use, and to take it apart and to explain why it has come to be a harmful rather than helpful. But, unfortunately for me and fortunately for you, this Slate article called Disrupting Disruption, by the always-insightful Matthew Yglesias, has already done so as well as I could possibly hope to. I urge you to read it.

5) Mindfulness

If there is subject about which you can sell people self-help services, you can bet there is a somebody trying to be mindful about it. I've been hearing it more and more this past year, less and less in the context of a specific type of Buddhist meditation (which I happen to like quite a bit). The problem with the way people have started saying "mindful" it is that is just smuggles in whatever it is the speaker already believes, but under the auspices of the methods of an ancient wisdom-tradition.

Let me explain further, because I don't want to seem like I'm opposed to awareness or thoughtfulness: When I was a freshman studying philosophy in college, I committed a common error in an ethics paper, which was to use the phrase "right-thinking". It was something along the lines of "what is moral is what all right-thinking people would do if they considered the consequences of their actions as if everybody would act as they did." What is so wrong with this, my professor reprimanded me, is that "right-thinking" nearly always means, in context, "agrees with me". It simply smuggles in my predetermined opinion, rather than actually explaining and justifying it. People have started using "mindful" in the same way, leveraging people's generally reverential opinion of Buddhist ideas so that "being mindful" just means "right-thinking" or "good", which in turn just mean "agrees with me".

Please tell me in the comments if there are any major clunkers out there that I neglected to mention, and have a eudaimonic, fruitful, loving, and proverbially skeptical new year!

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • Push Past Negative Self-Talk: Give Yourself the Proper Fuel to Attack the World, with David Goggins, Former NAVY SealIf you've ever spent 5 minutes trying to meditate, you know something most people don't realize: that our minds are filled, much of the time, with negative nonsense. Messaging from TV, from the news, from advertising, and from difficult daily interactions pulls us mentally in every direction, insisting that we focus on or worry about this or that. To start from a place of strength and stability, you need to quiet your mind and gain control. For former NAVY Seal David Goggins, this begins with recognizing all the negative self-messaging and committing to quieting the mind. It continues with replacing the negative thoughts with positive ones.

Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type ''?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes in 28th place, and in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of,,, and — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • Master Execution: How to Get from Point A to Point B in 7 Steps, with Rob Roy, Retired Navy SEALUsing the principles of SEAL training to forge better bosses, former Navy SEAL and founder of the Leadership Under Fire series Rob Roy, a self-described "Hammer", makes people's lives miserable in the hopes of teaching them how to be a tougher—and better—manager. "We offer something that you are not going to get from reading a book," says Roy. "Real leaders inspire, guide and give hope."Anybody can make a decision when everything is in their favor, but what happens in turbulent times? Roy teaches leaders, through intense experiences, that they can walk into any situation and come out ahead. In this lesson, he outlines seven SEAL-tested steps for executing any plan—even under extreme conditions or crisis situations.