2278: Scientific Briefing

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Scientific Briefing
"I actually came in in the middle so I don't know which topic we're briefing on; the same slides work for like half of them."
Title text: "I actually came in in the middle so I don't know which topic we're briefing on; the same slides work for like half of them."


Things are not good, and are going to be bad soon. The only way for things to not be bad is for someone to do something about it. Megan and Cueball are presenting these things to White Hat, evidently hoping to encourage him to do something about things, but he instead chooses to wait for things to become bad, to which Megan replies that the conversation itself indicates they have become bad.

Megan's final remark — "Based on this conversation, it already has [become bad]" — is an instance of recursion, and suggests that the unnamed subject of the graph may be something whose worsening is demonstrated by the way the discussion of the graph has gone. The subject of the graph could, therefore, be the phenomenon of people not acting on things that are worsening until they actually become bad, as White Hat proposes to do. Alternatively, if the group of people who could stop the Bad Thing is either small, or made up of people who will predictably act like White Hat, the fact that White Hat has refused to act itself means that will become bad, which is bad.

At the time this comic came out, the outbreak of COVID-19 was on the rise and about to be declared a pandemic, with widespread perception the US federal government had failed to act before the outbreak became a crisis. The first of the COVID-19 comics, 2275: Coronavirus Name, explicitly showed people not dealing with one problem while they concentrate on another (though in that case they were dealing with COVID-19 while neglecting an invading giant spider).

The recursive subject of the graph could also be the deterioration of data analysis into such abstract terms that it no longer depends on the content of the topic supposedly being analyzed. Or, Megan's final remark could be an ironic commentary on the situation without actually referring to the topic of the graph. The ambiguity of Megan's remark may be the point of the humor, as it compounds the absurd ambiguity of the entire discussion.

If the graph isn't about the recursive topic of the discussion, what might it be about? At the moment of release, an obvious possible thing on its way to becoming bad was the number of cases of infection in the COVID-19 pandemic. There were a series of comics about COVID-19, including the three comics immediately before and the four immediately after this one. The graph shows a steadily rising line, but with a slight zigzag in it, which could be an intentional similarity to the Keeling Curve.

The graph could also be about most anything else, because, as the title text remarks, it applies to "like half of" any things considered. While it's hard to say whether precisely 50% of all things are getting bad (or good), in a more general sense all line graphs would trend at least slightly either up or down. This binary 'either good or bad' finding may lead one to conclude that "like half" of all graphs show something getting bad (or else good). If not everyone agrees on what is "good" or "bad" on some issue, that same issue might even be viewed as going either from good to bad or from bad to good, providing two different graphs for each such issue with 50% of them broadly matching the comic.

To whatever extent this comic is related to COVID-19 — which it does not after all explicitly mention, but, at least, COVID-19 exemplifies the problem of waiting to act until things reach a crisis — it would be the fourth comic in a row in a series of comics related to the COVID-19 pandemic.


[Megan and Cueball are showing a graph on a projected screen. The graph is labeled "Things", with "Time" advancing to the right on the x-axis. The level of "Things" has been rising over time to a point labeled "Now". The current level of "Things" is above a level labeled "Good", and about as far below a level labeled "Bad". Megan is pointing to the line of "Things" with a pointer stick, while Cueball is pointing up to the "Bad" level with a pointer stick.]
Megan: Here's the situation:
Megan: This line is here.
Cueball: But it's going up toward here.
[White Hat enters the scene. His hand is on his chin. Cueball is no longer holding a pointer stick.]
White Hat: So things will be bad?
Megan: Unless someone does something to stop it.
White Hat: Will anyone do that?
Megan: ...We don't know.
Megan: That's why we're showing you this.
[A narrow panel focusing only on Megan and Cueball.]
White Hat (off-panel, left): So you don't know,
White Hat: And the graph says things are not bad.
Cueball: But if no one acts, they'll become bad.
[White Hat is back inside the frame. He is gesturing to Megan and Cueball with his palm up.]
White Hat: Well, please let me know if that happens!
Megan: Based on this conversation, it already has.


  • Poorly labeled graphs were already the topic of 833: Convincing.
  • This comic was initially missing the speech line to Cueball in panel 3.

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Reference to COVID-19? 20:42, 9 March 2020 (UTC)

Seems closer to global warming to me. LegionMammal978 (talk) 21:01, 9 March 2020 (UTC)
Given the title text, it could plausibly be about either of those, or just about anything else (ocean acidification, deforestation, wireless spectrum congestion...) --NotaBene (talk) 21:25, 9 March 2020 (UTC)
Or at least, like, half of them. -- KarMann (talk) 21:29, 9 March 2020 (UTC)
I read it as an analysis of actionable analytics...
ProphetZarquon (talk) 22:10, 9 March 2020 (UTC)
Not half of them, the other way around. Half of topics can be described by same graphs. This group of topics include global climate change, ocean acidification, deforestation, wireless spectrum congestion, IPv4 address exhaustion, COVID-19 and many others. -- Hkmaly (talk) 23:22, 9 March 2020 (UTC)
Well, yeah, still half of them, right? 14:22, 10 March 2020 (UTC)
Pretty sure it's about how the spider laid some eggs recently

I've heard that President Trump feels that the coronavirus will "blow over." -- (talk) 22:22, 9 March 2020‎ (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

So how about going to the winchester, have a nice cold pint and wait for that? --Lupo (talk) 08:04, 10 March 2020 (UTC)
Because I don't know where the tornado dropped the kegs. The roof is fine, and only two counties off. 16:35, 10 March 2020 (UTC)

Randall really missed a chance to talk about things going "from bad to worse." JohnHawkinson (talk) 23:20, 9 March 2020 (UTC)

No no it's about rising extremism wait no no no it's fresh water demand as a percentage of supply wait no no its Niagra falls going through a straw -- (talk) 00:59, 10 March 2020 (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

"or perhaps Things Which Need Explaining." - I'm not sure the book, or any of the things described therein aren't bad yet but are getting worse and will be bad if nobody does anything: though maybe my copy is slowly going critical and I've just never noticed... -- 07:33, 10 March 2020 (UTC)

I meant it in the sense that maybe the quantity of Things Which Need Explaining is increasing faster than Things Are Being Explained. --NotaBene (talk) 13:05, 10 March 2020 (UTC)

This is basically a comic about The Tragedy of the Commons. 08:31, 10 March 2020 (UTC)

It's obviously a graph of how much expert advice is being ignored on serious issues. 14:53, 10 March 2020 (UTC)

I agree. I also think that there are two kinds of "bad" in this comic, the first being the future value in the graph (whatever that might be) and the second being the apathy towards preventing that future bad value. I think the second one is what Megan refers to in the last panel, when she states it already has become bad. Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 15:28, 10 March 2020 (UTC)
I think the graph specifically represents that second kind of bad; namely that our responses to actionable information are moving farther from good toward bad.
ProphetZarquon (talk) 19:00, 10 March 2020 (UTC)
Exactly. I thought I said that earlier... I see: I wasn't specific.
ProphetZarquon (talk) 19:00, 10 March 2020 (UTC)
I guess I didn't know the meaning of "actionable analytics" in your earlier post! Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 03:44, 11 March 2020 (UTC)
It sounds like meaningless buzzwords from middle management. --Lupo (talk) 07:28, 11 March 2020 (UTC)

Probably the messiest explanation I've read in a long time... 10:26, 11 March 2020 (UTC)

You are free to help and improve it. --Lupo (talk) 10:36, 11 March 2020 (UTC)

I'm surprised Y2K hasn't been mentioned. A good example of when we did actually stop a big problem, but a lot of people think it was never a problem to begin with.

Actually, Y2K was always a tiny problem (speaking as someone who spotted the issue in the 80s). Like Coronavirus, the media and politicians leapt on the name and blew it WAY out of proportion. If nobody had fixed Y2K, what does it matter if this computer or that computer running this program or that (and generally old computers and old programs) thinks it's 1900? An invoice says it's due January 5, 1900 instead of 2000? Big whoop. Only actually mattered with expiry dates and date math, like if you rented a movie in December and returned it in January, there was potential that the computer might think you had it for -99 years. NiceGuy1 (talk) 03:26, 14 March 2020 (UTC)

Since when is explainxkcd a platform for urging explainxkcd readers to begin political action themselves and post links to it here?? I thought explainxkcd was for explaining xkcd. The entire (current version) first paragraph, while presumably well-intentioned, ought to be deleted entirely because it clearly does not belong here. Where are the explainxkcd regulars, and why has this been left that way for so long? 01:31, 12 March 2020 (UTC)

I thought I was helping what Randall was complaining about, and following his example of actually talking about it. It didn't seem political to me; what about it seems political to you? I notice your response was to remove it rather than follow it through. Do you consider the directness of the explanation more important than the ignoring-of-problems issue? 00:17, 17 March 2020 (UTC)

This explanation declares this comic is about Coronavirus, it seems merely potentially so. I was watching for this to be another one in a row, and all the language is kept generic, and how can one person seeing a graph and asking a question make Coronavirus worse? LOL! NiceGuy1 (talk) 03:26, 14 March 2020 (UTC)

On seeing the comic I first thought of the phrase "flatten the curve," (Google Images) which has been used often recently to conceptualize the goal humanity (or each community or nation) needs to have when dealing with COVID-19.—Arpose (talk) 13:20, 14 March 2020 (UTC)

"This chart shows that while things are fine now, we who are asking you for money want you to give us more based on how we're scaring you about what might ever happen." —Kazvorpal (talk) 18:32, 16 March 2020 (UTC)

Truthfully, my clear thought when I saw this comic was, thank goodness it has nothing whatsoever to do with COVID-19. I was astounded to find explainxkcd trying to view it through a COVID-19-colored lens. I still don't think it has anything whatsoever to do with COVID-19. The COVID-19-oriented interpretation seems to me to be based on conceptual baggage brought by the observer, with no encouragement from the comic itself. --Pi one (talk) 04:32, 22 March 2020 (UTC)
I've tried to keep the various analysis that was in place (yes, including the COVID-19 stuff), while excising the assertion that it's about COVID-19. --Pi one (talk) 06:36, 22 March 2020 (UTC)

Sigh. I think y'all have to be obsessed with the pandemic, to imagine this is related to COVID-19 when it manifestly isn't. However, since there's nothing I can do about that as the sole voice of reason on it, if the page is going to claim this is related to COVID-19, it needs to make that sound plausible, so needs to play up the not-acting-till-things-are-already-bad aspect. I'll see what I can figure, on that. --Pi one (talk) 20:29, 27 March 2020 (UTC)

This could also be about Global warming, as it seems like an issue that "isn't bad" but will soon become bad if we do nothing about it. 17:40, 14 May 2022 (UTC)