Worth Pondering

CS Lewis, describing his protagonist, a sociologist, in That Hideous Strength:

..his education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than the things he saw. Statistics about agricultural labourers were the substance: any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer’s boy, was the shadow…he had a great reluctance, in his work, to ever use such words as “man” or “woman.” He preferred to write about “vocational groups,” “elements,” “classes,” and “populations”: for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.

This phenomenon is a plague of our present era, and is by no means limited to sociologists.

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10 thoughts on “Worth Pondering”

  1. We have a generation of “elites” that have never done manual work of any kind. It is not real to them and therefore doesn’t matter. Even sports have been relegated to a spectator entertainment with professionals taking the place of Roman gladiators. The ridiculous regime that runs our country is made up of “men with no chests” who disparage those who have made up most of the US military since at least the Civil War.

    “strong men make good times; Good times make weak men; Weak men make hard times; Hard times make strong men.”

  2. Abstracting can be an extremely powerful tool–provided you keep all the important details in your model. It can be so powerful that you may forget that you must interact not with “generic strange dog” but _this_ strange dog.
    The models our sociologists and politicians use seem almost deliberately limited, and the descriptions the media use almost criminally so.

  3. James the Lesser…probably not many situations where you can keep ALL the important details in a model, but hopefully you can capture a lot of them, and also have a good understanding of what levels of accuracy you can & can’t expect from the model.

  4. David Foster: When “Believe this, not because it’s true, but for some other reason” dominates, honesty in research is treated as malicious dishonesty.

  5. We as humans have to model reality at some level of abstraction, level of theory not only to comprehend but to operate within it. The problem as JTL stated is that we often forget that we are dealing with the abstract and not real instances. The map is not the terrain.

    The abstract is seductive. One of the many important things I learned at my little podunk, rural high school was the distinction between a reliable and a valid argument. A reliable argument is one that hangs together with no internal contractions. A valid argument is one that matches up with the evidence on the ground. You find many reliable arguments in politics and media which sound great in their sound bites or 90-second segments but don’t hold up to scrutiny. Given our need to abstract reality, we all struggle with the reliable-validity distinction but we run into problems when we mistake one for the other.

    You see a lot of that divide from young people who enjoy giving us the benefit of their experience. They push socialism, a reliable argument that is very seductive and when you state that it has failed everywhere it has been implemented (valid argument), they state that it is because “real socialism” hasn’t been tried yet. Yo cannot debate this argument with them because they feel the abstract is so compelling that it must exist.

    I have found the way to deal with people who live in the other-world of reliable abstract arguments is attack the argument (and them) directly, as that plays into their rhetorical framework, but instead to attack on the oblique. The odd thing about people who live in that world of abstraction is that they have difficulty in defending their positions and must have have a specific person, even if it a strawman (or a kulak), to attack. In other words they cannot support their argument and instead attack their detractors. To deal with them obliquely, take them at their word that it hasn’t been tried yet and ask them what they would differently as far as socialism. Don’t attach them, but instead focus on attacking the problem. Most reliable but invalid arguments from most people fall apart after 90-seconds, the smarter people can hold up for a bit longer but run into the same problems.

    The abstract/observable divide will only get worse with the spread of post-modernism. It’s best we start getting a hold of it now

  6. AVI,

    I agree with you on that.

    Maybe the reason why socialism is often written in the future-tense is because it hasn’t yet accomplished anything of value… and never will.

    I doubt they even teach much of empiricism anymore at the undergraduate level but I found useful to analyze what happened when theories/ideologies were implemented in the world and what that feedback said about their original assumptions. Anybody who cannot modify their original conceptions of the world based on experience is probably a liar or a fool or maybe just an academic.

    I had always felt that political economy was a more interesting field than economics given that the former existed by applying in the real world the abstractions of the latter. Much like certain respiratory viral infections, politicians and their depredations will always be with us and should be planned for accordingly

  7. This discussion, particularly the comments on reliable versus valid arguments, reminds me of the advice given by Niccolo Machiavelli in “The Prince”:
    “An hypothesis is always more believable than the truth, since it is derived from what we believe to be true, whereas the truth is just its old, clumsy self. Therefore, never seek the truth when an hypothesis will do”

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