NEW YORK — In the week before Christmas, we opened up the Explainer mailbag and dumped the dregs into a bucket of the sordid, silly questions sent in by our readers — all the ones the Explainer was unwilling or unable to answer in 2012. These included puzzlers such as “Has anyone ever actually used a falling chandelier to take someone out?”
In accordance with tradition, we invited you to pick the one that’s most deserving of an answer. More than 66,000 readers registered their choice, and the winner is addressed below. But first, the runners-up:
In third place, with 7.5 percent of the total vote, a spin on the birds and the bees: “When and how did humankind figure out that sex is what causes babies? It’s not exactly the most obvious correlation: Sex doesn’t always lead to babies, and there’s a long lead time between the act and the consequences — weeks before there are even symptoms, usually. So roughly where do we think we were as a species when it clicked?”
In second place, with 7.7 percent of the vote, a question that has certainly been asked before: “Why do people hate the sound of their own voice when they hear it on a recording?”
And in first place, the question that was plastered on Slate’s homepage beside a photo of a bikini babe, and with 24 percent of reader votes, our Explainer Question of the Year for 2012: “Why do the rich and famous always sunbathe topless?”
The answer: Because they can.
It would be easy to explain away this question as a case of availability bias: Lots of people sunbathe topless, but it’s only the rich and famous ones who capture our attention. Photos of a half-nude and apricating royal — Kate Middleton, perhaps, or Princess Di — are more likely to make the papers than a picture of the Explainer’s nudist cousin Linda. If a model like Heidi Klum or Kate Moss gets caught on camera topless, it’s not because stars like these are more inclined to flash but because they’re under perpetual surveillance, and because people would like to see them without their clothes.
It could also be that rich and famous women have the means to visit places where going topless is expected. If they’re stripping down on the French Riviera, that’s because they happen to be on the French Riviera — not because they like to strip.