Published: March 8, 2021

Here’s the problem.

Litmus tests are useless for assessing people, even though they work fine for water samples.

Let’s say you are an unusually self-aware and articulate water sample, and you have been withdrawn from a mountain stream for testing. And let’s say that the investigators who are testing you are not hydrogeologists. Instead, you have fallen into the hands of political activists, advocates, commentators, and pundits.

So when the investigators say to you, “We just put you through a litmus test, and you failed it,” as an unusually self-aware water sample, you are empowered to respond with sophisticated scorn.

“A litmus test reveals whether I am more acidic than alkaline, or more alkaline than acidic,” you get to say. “It doesn’t make a milliliter of sense to say that I ‘failed’ your test.”

Science has provided people with many valuable comparisons, analogies, and figures of speech. But every now and then, society has made a bad move in picking up a term from the scientists’ toolbox. When that happens, society should return that term to the scientists instantly, before it can do any more damage.

Instead, the misuse of litmus tests is constantly escalating.

Conservatives who do not unite in loyalty to the former president are declared to have performed poorly on the litmus test for true and proper priorities. Conservatives who went a step further and voted for the former president’s impeachment so completely failed the litmus test that state and local Republican organizations are condemning and censuring them.

Liberals who do not unite in support of the Green New Deal or join in moral horror over the book, On Beyond Zebra (Dr. Seuss’s celebration of the alphabet), have failed the litmus test required for certification as holders of righteous progressive character. 

If ever a feature of scientific lingo begged to be returned to the safekeeping of scientists, to be used only in circumstances where it actually applied, “litmus test” has conclusively earned that status.

An actual litmus test measures proportions, with few material substances registering as pure acidity or pure alkalinity (quickly put distance between yourself and those substances!). 

Misused, a figurative litmus test measures an individual’s proportions of conformity and deviance, sharply distinguishing an insider from a pariah, an ally from an outcast.

And that’s the worst aspect of this ill-advised borrowing of a term from science. 

Applied to a human, a litmus test is mercilessly either/or in its findings and assessments:  insider OR pariah, ally OR outcast.

As a technique for assessing the complexity of the human mind and soul, the litmus test has failed every test.   

And so, fellow humans, when a political activist or advocate, commentator or pundit, informs you that you have failed a litmus test, respond with a good-natured correction.

“I suspect that you meant to say that the test failed, not that I failed,” you should say. “Take a quick look, and you’ll notice that I am a human being, and not a water sample.”

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