Friday, August 21, 2009

Half Wrong

"To generalize is to be an idiot.”
--- William Blake

The glass is half full or you die.

Optimist shmoptimist. Pessimist shmessimist.

Anyone who isn’t brain dead recognizes that the glass is both half empty, and half full, and that you could even say it is half empty because it is half full, or verse vica.

But what about when the glass is 90% full: is it just as valid to say that it is almost empty as to say that it is almost full?

At some point imprecision slips in: 92.67%? 86.9817%?

At some point, you generalize.

I once read that less than 10% of Americans owned slaves before the civil war.

A slightly higher percentage of blacks were free.

If this were true, it would be as accurate to say that blacks were free as to say that whites owned slaves.

My point here is twofold: if we are “forced” to generalize, we should prefer the generalization that is 90% true and 10% false to the one that is 90% false and 10% true. Both are true (in part). Both, false. But one of the two (optimistic or not) better approximates our sense of truthfulness and honesty.

You can speak conventionally, and you can speak truthfully, but you can’t speak bothfully (I note that my spell-checker does not like this last word).

Take another example. Mathematicians define a “manifold” as something that is locally flat, but globally curved. This is the way living on earth feels. When a carpenter tries to determine whether something is flat or not, he compares it with the flat ground. It does not concern him that the planet itself is curved. People on both the political left and right call their adversaries “flat earthers”, trying to imply that they will not admit the “truth”. But the truth is that the earth is flat. And the earth is round. Bothfulness again.

In an odd obverse of this, consider the human habit of referring to “sunrise”, and “sunset”. More than 400 years after Galileo, you might expect that people would no longer believe, or at least utter sentences that sound like they believe, that the sun revolves around the earth. Are people who use the words “sunrise” and “sunset” “flat earthers”? Think here also of “moon rise” and “moon set”, and recall that the moon really does revolve around the earth.

Revolution, rotation. It’s all so confusing.

The problem is that the problem is always at least two problems. Consider the (non)equations:

2 + 2 = 79
2 + 2 = 4.000001

We want to say that one of these is more right than the other. But asked whether each one is “right” or “wrong”, we feel compelled (for the most part) to answer that each one is wrong. They are both “100% wrong” even though the first one is wrong only by some small fraction of a percent.

We want the fact that the glass is 99.999% full to count for something.

I would be remiss were I not to mention that whatever the case may look like, the glass really is much more than 99% empty since atoms themselves are mostly empty space; atoms themselves are fantastically empty. Should you doubt this ask yourself this simple question; why do x-rays work?

Even the glass part of the glass is more than half empty (more than 99%: light does, after all, pass through it.) The emptiness (or is it the extreme concentration) of matter caused the discoverer of the nucleus, Ernest Rutherford, to wax poetic. Of his early experiments with gold foils he observed it was "as if you fired a 15-inch naval shell at a piece of tissue paper and the shell came right back and hit you."

Another way of describing the situation is as the universal synecdoche (rhymes with Schenectady) of words, as the American Heritage Dictionary defines it: “A figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole (as hand for sailor), the whole for a part (as the law for police officer), the specific for the general (as cutthroat for assassin), the general for the specific (as thief for pickpocket), or the material for the thing made from it (as steel for sword).” Note that to restrict the definition of synecdoche to any one of its parts would itself be, in part, synecdoche.

We may want William Blake to be right when he observes that “to generalize is to be an idiot”, but we note that Blake himself is generalizing.

Nor is this fact restricted, as might be concluded from my examples, to scientific situations.

When the United States in an act of naked aggression invaded Iraq thereby committing the supreme crime under international law, many Americans, myself included, were horrified. Many sought ways to make this crime palpable to their fellow citizens, in order to counteract the massive propaganda campaign conducted by the military-industrial media. One group called “Iraq Body Count” sought to collate press accounts of Iraqis killed by American force. Their methodology was such as to err entirely on the side of undercounting Iraqi dead. This was understandable since they wanted to have thorough credibility. But, this had unintended consequences.

When, in 2004, the American researcher Les Roberts published a study of Iraqi mortality based on cluster samples he and his colleagues had conducted in Iraq, he found a number about ten times the size of the number published by Iraq Body Count.

The glass was 90% empty.

Iraq Body Count’s numbers were used to dispute Roberts’ results although the two were measuring entirely different things by entirely different methods with entirely different types of errors (note in passing that an ungelded horse is called an entire.)

With the glass, the sunrise, the flat earth, the x-ray, the nature of error in arithmetic, free blacks, white slave-owners, 15-inch naval shells, Iraqi body counts, we, in order to speak, are compelled, like William Blake, to generalize. To synecdochize.

Maj Ragain writes that we are all f**ked tomatoes.

He may be half wrong.

No comments: