Archive for September, 2015

False Air of Exactitude

September 25, 2015

“The mind is easily taken in by the false air of exactitude that even aberrant statistics retain and calmly accepts errors that it sees as cloaked in mathematical truth.” Tocqueville

Two Cartoons by Marshall Ramsey

September 24, 2015

Merit Pay


With All They Say

September 16, 2015

“I see some who study and comment on their almanacs and cite their authority in current events. With all they say, they necessarily tell both truth and falsehood. For who is there who, shooting all day, will not sometime hit the mark? [Cicero.] I think none the better of them to see them sometimes happen to hit the truth; there would be more certainty in it, if it were the rule and the truth that they always lied. Besides, no one keeps a record of their mistakes, inasmuch as these are ordinary and numberless; and their correct divinations are made much of because they are rare, incredible, and prodigious. In this way Diagoras, who was surnamed the Atheist, replied to the man in Samothrace, who, showing him in the temple many votive offerings and tablets of those who had escaped shipwreck, said to him: “Well, you who think that the gods care nothing about human affairs, what do you say about so many men saved by their grace?” “This is how it happens,” Diagoras answered. “Those who were drowned, in much greater number, are not portrayed here.” Cicero says that only Xenophanes of Colophon, out of all the philosophers who have acknowledged the gods, tried to eradicate every kind of divination. It is therefore the less amazing that we have occasionally seen some of our princely souls linger on these vanities to their disadvantage.

“I would certainly like to have seen with my own eyes these two marvels: the book of Joachim, the Calabrian abbot, which predicted all the future popes, their names and appearance; and that of the Emperor Leo, which predicted the emperors and patriarchs of Greece. This I have seen with my own eyes, that in public disorders men stunned by their fate will throw themselves back, as on any superstition, on seeking in the heavens the ancient causes and threats of their misfortune. And they have been so strangely fortunate in this in my time as to persuade me that since divination is an amusement of sharp and idle minds, those who are trained in this subtle trick of tying and untying knots would be capable of finding, in any writings, whatever they want. But what gives them an especially good chance to play is the obscure, ambiguous, and fantastic language of the prophetic jargon, to which their authors give no clear meaning, so that posterity can apply to it whatever meanings it please.”

(Montaigne, Essays, Frame Translation)

The Chief Business of the Citizens

September 9, 2015

“As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens, and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the State is not far from its fall. When it is necessary to march out to war, they pay troops and stay at home: when it is necessary to meet in council, they name deputies and stay at home. By reason of idleness and money, they end by having soldiers to enslave their country and representatives to sell it.” (Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book III, Ch. 15)

The Goal of Schooling

September 7, 2015

“Remember that schooling should begin at the beginning and not set out with hopeful endings; that it should make use of reasons and ideas, but not neglect memory and practice; that it should concentrate on rudiments so as to give a body of knowledge to some and the foundations of higher studies to others—well, what is the goal of such schooling? It is to turn out men and women who are not wide-eyed strangers in a world of wonders, but persons whose understanding of what they see makes them feel more at home in our inescapably double environment, natural and man-made.” (Jacques Barzun, 1991, Begin Here)

Why the Historian Doubts the Numerical

September 7, 2015

“The obsessive monism which affirms that whatever exists can be measured achieves its goal by taking the historical evidence an denaturing it into a featureless product. As in Mercator’s projection map, the earth is flattened out on a piece of paper and marked off in squares. The device is useful for navigation; it can only mislead where the sole aim is to reconstruct reality. That is why the historian who has not lost the sense of the actual—the sense that led him to history in the first place—doubts the numerical.

“When ‘violence’ is hypostatized into a thing, the historian wants to know the circumstances of each violent incident: was this one maliciously reported to the prefect as political when it was only a drunken brawl? Did the local authorities, for their own reasons, exaggerate the number? Doesn’t this report come from a government-subsidized newspaper? Did slovenly bureaucratic methods count some incidents twice? The quanto-historian was doubtless aware of these diversities and sifted out the comparable, but in the statistics that are produced with much labor and read with little pleasure, the leap from evidence to tabulation comes early and is not the difficult feat that it ought to be. The upshot, when certain studies achieve and fame, is that two or three generations live under the sway of ‘scientific’ findings destined for overthrow by the same statistical means.” (Jacques Barzun, 1972, Clio and the Doctors)