Monday, August 07, 2006


If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we avoid snowclones?

I heard an advert a week or so ago, which featured a snowclone which I don't think has been discussed much (it doesn't even feature on Wikipedia's list of snowclones), but which strikes me as having some interesting features. It's:

If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we X?

There seem to be two basic uses, a serious one and a humourous one. It's the serious one that puzzles me. Now, X is always something wildly unfeasible, with no discernible link to the kind of technology needed to put a man on the moon, or the level of civilisation displayed by the ablility to put a man on the moon. Here's some examples from Google.

'If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we solve social problems in the ghetto?'

'If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we end poverty?'

'If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we provide good schools for everyone?'

'If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we create a computer program that can automatically distinguish between pornography and art?'

'If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we detect when someone is lying?'

One striking thing here is that most of these examples are cases where someone is patiently explaining why a particular claim quoted is stupid (that's the case for the first 4 of the above examples). The usual line of response is that getting a man to the moon was just a particular feat of engineering, and there's no reason at all to expect that managing to pull off such a feat shows we'll be able to tackle world poverty, etc.

But as is observed here, it's actually an essential feature of the snowclone that X has nothing to do with success in our space program, or some other related area of technological advance:

'Nobody said "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we design a reusable orbital entry vehicle?" It was always cure cancer or end racism or build a soup that eats like a meal. Noble causes, of course, but they don't necessarily follow from landing on the moon.'

So what's strange is that the snowclone seems to be a vehicle designed exclusively to say something false and daft. As soon as you make a reasonable claim of that form, it's no longer an instance of the snowclone. Most instances of really overused snowclones have something of an idiomatic feel, but I can't get anything like that from:

If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we put one on Mars?

I'd be interested to know how common this is; usually snowclones are just seen as templates overused by lazy writers, but I wonder how many snowclones constrain what can get plugged into the template in such an odd manner. My suspicion is the template picture of snowclones is somewhat oversimplistic.

The most common use of this particular snowclone nowadays seems to be for humourous effect. The most popular seems to be:

"If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we put them all there?" (for example, here and here),

and it's easy to find plenty of other examples. But what's weird about this snowclone is it does have a serious use, yet even when used seriously it doesn't look like one can use it to say anything sensible with it; making a sensible claim of that form seems sufficient to evaporate any idiomatic feel.

(See LanguageLog for more on snowclones.)

Update: Here's a post about the ad I saw, just in case you....well, I don't know. Just in case.


I don't think it has anything to do with the technology required for putting the man on the moon.
One can use putting the man on the moon merely as a metaphor for how commitment of mankind can reach very hard goals and solve very hard problems.
So "if we put man on the moon, we can do X", can also be meant as "if with commitment, hard work, ... we did put man on the moon; if we only had commitment, put hard work into it, etc.. we could do X"
Well, ok, I think perhaps the emphasis on technology might be a little out of place - it's more plausible is it's a claim more generally about possibility: "if it's possible for us to do X, it should be possible for us to do Y".

But I'm not all that happy with the 'with committment and hard work' interpretation of what's intended. Firstly, and I fully admit this is far from decisive, I certainly don't interpret such sentences that way, and I still get an idiomatic reading.

Secondly, and I think perhaps a little more impressively, such an interpretation makes poor sense of the use of the snowclone for comic effect. Here's one from

'If we can put a man on the moon why can't we manufacture a pair of men's socks that stay up?'

I find it hard to believe there was any sentiment expressed here about the committment of mankind.

It also makes very poor sense of some serious uses. Here's a good case, found at

'If we can put a man on the moon why can't we find a cure for cancer? We've spent billions of dollars. Some of our best minds have tackled it. But the results are a great disappointment. Cancer mortality rates refuse to budge and the public has lost confidence in the medical profession's ability to find a cure. Where have our efforts gone wrong?'

What's key here is that the snowclone claim is accompanied with an explicit acknowledgement of the money and levels of effort and intelligence that have been put in to attempting to solve the problem. The intended question is clearly why, given all this effort and resources, are we still unable to find a cure.
I should say, I realise that the claim wasn't that all instances of the snowclone could be interpreted like that, just that it might be one possible way of using it. But I'm worried that in general it doesn't give a good account of what's intended; the examples above are just cases where that it particularly evident.
From Seinfeld:

[Opening Monologue]
We never should have landed a man on the moon. It's a mistake. Now everything is compared to that one accomplishment. I can't believe they could land a man on the moon . . . and taste my coffee! I think we all would have been a lot happier if they hadn't landed a man on the moon. Then we'd go, They can't make a prescription bottle top that's easy to open? I'm not surprised they couldn't land a man on the moon. Things make perfect sense to me now. Neil Armstrong should have said, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for every, complaining, sob on the face of the earth. "

[Later in the episode...]

GEORGE: I mean we can put a man on the moon but we're basically still very stupid. The guy who's car this is? He could be one of the guys who built the rocket. You see what I'm saying?

KRAMER: Yeah, he could build the rocket but he's still stupid for double-parking and blocking somebody in.

GEORGE: So you really understand my point about building a rocket and double-parking.

KRAMER: Yeah, on one hand he's smart with rockets and on the other part he's dumb with parking. . . .
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