I write about plate tectonics. I eagerly jumped from my news feed to the story: “License Plate Tectonics” after I read the headline. About time, I thought. We license everything else – hunting, fishing, driving, marriage. Why not license plate tectonics? There must be some money in it for the government. Make magma pay. License plate tectonics. When the story opened up on my computer screen, I slowly realized that I had fallen for click bait. Bait obviously intended to trick thousands of geophysicists into cranking up the Richmond Times Dispatch’s rank on search engines.
The word license, as used by the Dispatch, is an adjective, or perhaps a noun, forming the compound noun ‘license plate’. I thought it was a verb. In every part of the world (except for the USA) English speakers have licensed two licences. Here in Canada, with an ‘s’ it is a verb; with a second ‘c’ the word is a noun. But the Dispatch is an American paper, so they recklessly (and correctly) used the ‘s’ spelling for every instance of licence. After a while I realized the article was talking about licence plates – the clever sheet of metal attached to the rear ends of cars to give out-of-state tourists a reason to fear traveling. There was no magma anywhere in the story. (I read it twice, just to be sure.)
I am not going to go into a lengthy discussion on clarity of writing and honesty of intent (after all, it’s the internet that we are talking about); nor will I speculate about what Steve Pinker might write about the curse of knowledge and how it relates to this story. But I will continue to lament my disappointment – for both the lack of tectonic stories in the newspaper and for the persistence of Confederate symbols on Virginia licence tags, which is what the piece was really about.
Here’s an excerpt from the Richmond Times Dispatch story: