When we look back in history, we see things that were considered perfectly normal at the time but which now seem absolutely atrocious to us, such as the battle of gladiators, executions in the Middle Ages, slavery… But have you ever wondered what the people of future generations will think about us?

We are constantly making mistakes that we are not even aware of: In the way we see the world, in how we speak, and in how we think. Today we will see that naming those errors can help us correct them.

But before we get into the details, allow me to tell you an anecdote.


In the middle of 2008 I moved to Germany to work on a nuclear physics experiment. There, I collaborated with a Japanese professor, who, instead of Pablo, called me “Paburo”. And I often wondered “why is it so difficult for him to say “Pa-blo?”

Then I learned that, to begin with, there is no “l” sound in Japanese, so when they come across it they usually unknowingly pronounce it like an “r”. But to top it off, Japanese doesn’t usually have two consonants next to each other in one syllable. What’s much more common is to have individual consonants separated by vowels, such as “a-ri-ga-to”. So when encountering two consonants in a row like “b” and “l”, the Japanese tend to add an intrusive vowel in between, turning “Pa-bro” into something like “Pa-bu-ro”.

A Spanish speaker like me found it very strange that this professor was incapable of saying something as simple as the syllable “blo”. However, without realizing it, I was also making my own pronunciation mistakes when speaking in English.

For example, how would you pronounce the word stop? It turns out that a very common mistake among Spanish speakers is to add an “e” at the beginning of words that begin with “s” followed by a consonant. So “Star Wars” ends up being called “Estar Guars”.

I made this mistake constantly until the night when I finally became aware of it. It was the night I met my friend Giulia. She was laughing at my Spanish accent for saying “estop”, with an unnecessary “e” at the beginning. And I was laughing at her Italian accent for saying “stope”, with an unnecessary “e” at the end. And so we ended up in the most absurd argument I’ve ever had:
-Giulia, why don’t you stop saying “estope”?
-And why don’t you stop saying “estope”?
-But it’s you who’s saying “estope”!
“No, you say “estope”!!
…And that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The pronunciation mistake that Giulia and I were making is due to a phonetic phenomenon called epenthesis, which consists of the intrusion of a vowel to facilitate pronunciation. It’s the reason why Spanish speakers say “estop”, Italians say “stope”, and the Japanese say “Paburo” (and drink “Orenjijusu”).

Orange juice and some oranges.
Photo by JÉSHOOTS from pexels.

Naming things

The interesting thing about this anecdote is that both Giulia and I could clearly hear the error in the pronunciation of the other, but not our own. And learning that epenthesis is a typical error committed by Spanish-speakers was what helped me to detect my mistake, and thus be able to correct it.

And that is precisely what I want to illustrate in this episode of AltruPhysics: We are constantly making mistakes that we are not even aware of, so it’s important to learn of their existence in order to identify and correct them.

Two people point at a stop sign, one says "estop" and the other says "stope".

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right name.” Or at least that’s what Confucius said.

We come with faults

As I explained in a previous episode of AltruPhysics, we come into the world with mental factory defects: Cognitive biases. To give some examples, the negativity bias makes us more receptive to bad news than to good; the attractiveness bias makes us tend to value a person more if we find them attractive; and the halo effect causes us to remain affected by first impressions. These and many other biases determine and limit our way of reasoning.

But of course, the environment we live in also influences our way of thinking and interacting with the world. For example, the mere fact of having grown up in a Spanish-speaking country makes me prone to betacism, which means pronouncing “b” and “v” in the same way (which is “bery vad”). If, on the contrary, I had grown up in England, the difference between the words “van” and “ban” would be obvious to me… Although I would be unable to say “El perro de San Roque no tiene rabo”.

Phonetics aside, our environment and historical context even predetermine our moral values. If I had grown up in Morocco, where homosexuality is still illegal (as it is today in many other countries) I would perhaps be more prone to homophobia. If I had grown up in Mississippi at the turn of the 20th century, I might have been more prone to racism. And if I had been born 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, I would surely be prone to… flat earth theory.

People often look back on Nazism as an unacceptable atrocity. But if you had been born in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, perhaps you would have adopted that ideology too.

So, if you are watching this video in 2023, ask yourself: Could you be making a mistake that you are not yet aware of?

How to identify our mistakes?

Correcting our mistakes is not easy. And no matter how hard we try, it’s likely that we will never be able to correct them all. But the most important thing is to identify them. And for this there are two fundamental steps:

  1. Learn about the most common mistakes we humans make, which includes understanding our cognitive biases.
  2. Ask yourself if you may be guilty of committing any of them.

In future AltruPhysics videos I hope to help you with the first step. But the second one is up to you.

Identifying my own mistakes is something that has changed my life. Specifically, as I mentioned in the first episode of AltruPhysics, the 25th of October, 2014 marked a before and after in my life. That day I became aware of a huge mistake I was making, and consequently, decided to radically change my life.

But we will talk about that and much more in another episode of AltruPhysics.