Week 16: Ask who's "they"?

Competing schools of phrenology remind us that in the battle between "us" and "them," sometimes no one is right. |  Wellcome Collection

Competing schools of phrenology remind us that in the battle between "us" and "them," sometimes no one is right. | Wellcome Collection

A quick Amazon search will show you that “They” is one powerful group of people. “They” are involved in endless conspiracies and cover-ups, as evidenced by titles like The Roswell UFO Crash: What They Don't Want You to Know, Terrorism in America: What They Don't Want You to Know, and  The Truth...The WHOLE Truth...And Nothing But The Truth!: (About What THEY Don't Want You To Know).

Other titles in the expansive “they” category offer can’t-miss financial strategies. Titles like Free Money They Don't Want You to Know About and Franchise Secrets - What They Don't Want You to Know, and even Estate Planning & Living Trust Secrets: What They Don't Want You to Know promise to catapult readers into the upper class. If that careful planning doesn’t work out, you can always just play the lottery, because Guessing the lottery numbers!: WHAT THEY DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW. MINDBLOWING RESULTS FOR EASY MONEY has got you covered.

The largest group in the category might be medicine and self-help, lumped together because its practitioners suggest that the key to health isn’t medicine, but simple home remedies. You cure yourself with Natural Cures They Don't Want You To Know About, or The Cannabis Solution: What They Don't Want You To Know. The most odious in this category focus on what “they” don’t want you to know about cancer, presumably, that it is curable with water or positive thinking. Once you’ve cured your ills, you can focus on immortality, with titles like Your Secret to the Fountain of Youth: What They Don't Want You Know About HGH: Human Growth Hormone.

“They” often appear in arguments about government conspiracies, financial planning, and health, but you can find them anywhere. “They” don’t want you to know about permanent hair removal, jury duty, direct sales, raw food, window purchasing, home decorating, eBay shipping, retiring, and the end times. Actually, there’s a whole sub-genre of titles devoted to secrets of the Bible that “they” don’t want you to know.

“They” sure have been busy, fleecing the public and preventing us from living our best lives. In each of the main categories above, “they” points to a group: the government, bankers, health care workers. But these books never deliver an actual “they.” The books don’t tell you the names of the government officials who covered up alien visitors, bankers trying to destroy your estate, or health care researchers or doctors deliberately withholding cancer cures from the public.

The really big problem with “they” is that ambiguous evidence has a tendency to transform into fixed knowledge. I’m sure you haven’t been taken in by the latest alien visitation conspiracy, but you probably have been treated to a lot of information “they” say about pregnancy and early parenting, like

Put down that coffee! They say you’ll miscarry the baby!
Put down that wine! They say you’ll give your baby brain damage!
Put down those chopsticks! They say pregnant women shouldn’t be trusted with sharp objects!

“They” points to an ill-defined group of people and borrows their authority to make an argument. The “they” in most pregnancy advice, for example, is often an unnamed group of doctors or folk wisdom.

A simple two-word question can often stop “them” in their tracks: “Who’s they?” If the friend, family member, or stranger offering you advice comes back with a specific article explaining her warning, great! You might learn something useful, or at least be able to explain why you disagree with that article’s conclusions. But if they can’t name a “they”? You can probably reject that advice.