More on methods

–In the mid-1970s a group of physicists and political scientists met at MIT and “arrived at the conclusion that if a World Government was not implemented soon, the probability of a nuclear war before the year 2000 would be close to 100 percent” But what were their nuclear war scenarios? Without details against which to evaluate, the experts are like the early astrologer who cast Christ’s horoscope and found the end of Christianity within sight.

–In the early years of World War I, Rainer Marie Rilke, the poet, wrote that “the misery in which mankind has lived daily since the beginning of time cannot really be increased by any contingency. . . Always the whole of misery has been in use among men, as much as there is, a constant, just as there is a constant of happiness; only its distribution alters.” Here too is the literary all-rounder Jean-Paul Sartre, “essentially, there is not much difference between a catastrophe where 300 or 3000 die and one where ten or fifteen die. There is a difference in numbers of course, but in a sense, with each person who dies, so also does a world. The scandal is the same.”

Rilke and Sartre avoid a major point. The numbers do matter in determining whether or not misery is a constant. “From a statistical point of view, which is that of social and political life and of history, there is an enormous difference,” Maurice Merleau-Ponty said of Sartre’s remark. We know from survey research that conclusions are drawn much more confidently from structured surveys and samples consisting of 3000 people than, say, 30 persons.

I may be misremembering, but I think it was Kenneth Boulding, the heterodox economist, who felt that the greatest contribution of the social sciences to humankind was the notion of the sample survey, as imperfect as it is.

— Consider a passage from novelist, Virginia Woolf: 

Let us begin by clearing up the old confusion between the man who loves learning and the man who loves reading, and point out that there is no connection whatever between the two. A learned man is a sedentary, concentrated solitary enthusiast, who searches through books to discover some particular grain of truth upon which he has set his heart.  If the passion for reading conquers him, his gains dwindle and vanish between his fingers.  A reader, on the other hand, must check the desire for learning at the outset; if knowledge sticks to him well and good, but to go in pursuit of it, to read on a system, to become a specialist or an authority, is very apt to kill what it suits us to consider the more humane passion for pure and disinterested reading.

While asserting no connection whatever between learning and reading, her prose enables us to see one such connection, and an emphatically inverse one. 

–Our problems are rooted in race? No, they are rooted in class? As each has its own social science, it’s long looked like a methodological debate between the two. Guess who the losers are in doing so? “Statistics,” as poet Robert Frost puts it in his Notebooks, “are the way I have to look at everybody but myself.”

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