Worst-case scenario

One seldom sees the drama of a superlative in the headlines. You might see "Best Picture," "Youngest Player" or "First Clone," but you don't get "Congress Passes Stupidest Law EVER" or "Presidential Race Declared Most Boring of All Time." Only the satirical newspaper The Onion ever gets the full drama of an event into their headlines, like the one they wrote for the moon landing ("Holy Shit! Man Walks on Fucking Moon!" ). When I read this in Borders it made me honk raspberry latte out of my nose. This kind of flamboyance isn't newspaper standard. If every headline read like this -- "Elian: Could We Talk About Something Else Already?" or "Ha Ha Ha, Bill Gates, You Rich Bastard" -- I'd be the most informed person in the world.

That's why, when a superlative does appear in a headline, it stands out like a baby in a wig. Such was the case when the headline "Mead Work Named Worst of Century" appeared a few months ago. It referred to Margaret Mead, an anthropologist who went to Oceana in 1928 to study adolescence in primitive cultures. She concluded that Samoan kids were more socially and sexually liberated than ours. Her book "Coming of Age in Samoa" made her an internationally recognized scholar, though since then her methods -- and motives -- have been the subject of academic debate.

But there's a yawning gulf between "subject of academic debate" and "worst of the century." As usual, it's well to consider the source of the criticism.

Partial judgment

In this case, the arbiter of taste was the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), a "conservative think tank," according to the Associated Press and, according to their own website, a group that assists college students and seeks to "enhance the rising generation's knowledge" of, among other things, "Judeo-Christian standards." The books on their list of the 50 worst of the century were those "widely celebrated in their day but which upon reflection can be seen as foolish, wrong-headed, or even pernicious." Among them are Alfred Kinsey's "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male," described as "a pervert's attempt to demonstrate that perversion is 'statistically' normal," and Bertrand Russell's "Why I am Not a Christian," "known to be harmful to your spiritual health."

"Our Bodies, Ourselves," by the Boston Women's Health Collective, also made the list, which made me screech like a bluejay. This book has seen me through countless panics as an invaluable source of gynecological information, the specifics of which I won't go into lest the Real Men take to fainting. Yet ISI calls it "a textbook example of the modern impulse to elevate the body and its urges, libidinal and otherwise, above soul and spirit." But knowledge is never bad, and besides, when your down-there itches, you get mean, and that's no good for your spirit, so arguably "Our Bodies, Ourselves" is a spiritual work. "Gray's Anatomy" didn't make the list, so maybe it's just women's bodies that are spiritually degrading. They can be, but mostly to men who can't get at them (didn't anyone see Disney's "Hunchback of Notre Dame?").

So whether it's gossip, alleged common knowledge or even a newspaper story, it's a good idea to look into the source of the information. Margaret Mead may have been the dumbest bunny ever to tour the Pacific, but when she ranks in with the "worst" alongside a book that's proved helpful to lots of women, you have to wonder whether the taste of those making the judgment call isn't just as questionable as her scholarship may have been.

Future shocks

It's an intriguing idea, nonetheless, that things that were considered scholarship as little as 70 years ago could be revealed as utter hokum now. Mead's work may not have been the worst, but who knows? The research standards employed in 1928 might look like the rules for a junior-high book report by modern standards. Things that are told to us as indisputable fact -- salt is bad for you, eggs are bad for you, college isn't just about the beer -- are proven wrong within a few years, but we take them for granted, at the time, because they are based upon "a study."

Even the most essential beliefs can be shown up as fake. People used to believe it was hard fact that Earth was flat, bathing was unhealthy and if you worked hard you'd be happy and successful, now all known to be utter myths. Who knows if 100 years from now we won't be looking back at whatever the latest bestsellers are and laughing at what a bunch of bunk it all was. We'll all be smoking cigarettes, now stuffed with the recommended daily allowances of vitamins and minerals, in cafes with the aliens the universe has been crawling with the whole time, and laughing about what a humongous flop the Internet turned out to be.

And the headlines will read: "Elian: Could we talk about something else already?"

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