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  • Orwell on the Dangers of Extrapolation

    Posted by David Foster on February 5th, 2007 (All posts by )

    In reviewing the work of James Burnham (best known for The Managerial Revolution), George Orwell says:

    Power worship blurs political judgment because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.

    If the Japanese have conquered south Asia, then they will keep south Asia for ever, if the Germans have captured Tobruk, they will infallibly capture Cairo; if the Russians are in Berlin, it will not be long before they are in London: and so on. This habit of mind leads also to the belief that things will happen more quickly, completely, and catastrophically than they ever do in practice.

    and

    Such a manner of thinking is bound to lead to mistaken prophecies, because even when it judges the direction of events rightly, it will miscalculate their tempo. Within the space of five years Burnham foretold the domination of Russia by Germany and of Germany by Russia. In each case he was obeying the same instinct: the instinct to bow down before the conqueror of the moment, to accept the existing trend as irreversible. With this in mind one can criticize his theory in a broader way.

    From Orwell’s essay James Burnham and the Managerial Revolution, originally published in 1946 as Second Thoughts on James Burnham. Included in the collection In Front of Your Nose: The Collected Essays and Letters of George Orwell, 1945-1950.

     

    5 Responses to “Orwell on the Dangers of Extrapolation”

    1. Joshua Says:

      I wonder if this line of reasoning might not go hand-in-hand with the “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em (or at least make peace with ’em while you can)” mentality. That is, once one side in a conflict gains the upper hand, uninvolved third parties may think it most advantageous to begin preparing for that side’s final victory in advance. For example, there has been on-and-off talk across the right side of the blogosphere about exhuming the remains of U.S. soldiers buried in France and re-burying them in the USA, in advance of an anticipated Islamic supremacist takeover of France. Now, at this point, said takeover is still far from being a fait accompli, but the fear is that by the time it begins to materialize, there won’t be enough time for the U.S. to evacuate all the soldiers’ remains, leaving at least some to be desecrated by the triumphant Islamists.

      In other words, this sort of thing tends to happen when the consequences of acting on an extrapolation and being proven wrong don’t look as scary as the dangers of not acting on the extrapolation and being proven right.

    2. Darren Says:

      “Power worship blurs political judgment because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue.”
      “This habit of mind leads also to the belief that things will happen more quickly, completely, and catastrophically than they ever do in practice.”

      Does this apply to global warming as well?

    3. aaron Says:

      Heh, this post made me think of the AGW too.

      Earlier today I made some quick observations of some of the, um, adjusting the report does. With logic like this, how could anyone be skeptical?

    4. Lexington Green Says:

      James Burnham went on to have a distinguished career in the decades after he wrote that book. A former communist who became a hardnosed anti-communist. He was one of the founders of the modern conservative movemen. His book Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism (1964) is still very much worth reading, especially in light of the Leftist response to Islamic terrorism — basically blaming the West and denying the threat. The exact thing that happened during the Cold War.

    5. Jonathan Says:

      I think that David’s point is valid and that it’s generally unwise to make substantial decisions based on extrapolations. Relevant current issues include global warming, US immigration trends and European demographics.