19 November 2005

the odds are in no way 99

I have discovered in the last few days of posting, commenting and discussing that there is a simple chemical equation out there:

me + discussions of statistics ==> stupid me

anyone else feeling this?

I think it was the moment I read the link from OaO's blog that first fateful day that pointed to a helpful explanation of the Doomsday argument, here.

I suppose my problem is this: I'm not good with assuming abstract things and then applying said abstractions to made-up physical, real-world hypothetical examples (that, by the way, are supposed to make it easier). So, for example, when asked whether I'm in the first third or the last two-thirds of humanity, I of course first think: how could one know this? And then I think, hm. Well, the population hasn't been constant at all since the purported beginning of humanity, what with the whole black death thing, the exponential growth post-industrial revolution, and now the leveling off and even negative growth in some wealthier regions. I think about the effects of dentistry on eating habits and life span, the brutal conditions for agrarians in various periods, the fact that Mumtaz Mahal died bearing her 14th child (and didn't that just suck), the nomadic practices of various groups of Mongolians in the 10thc. And so you see: I am an historian.

I get the situated knowledge thing (I've read some recent anthropology, people!) and so it just seems that these questions that statistics asks and answers, or should I say this particular question, strikes me as silly. And it offends me that it makes me feel "stupid" not to follow something so clearly ridiculous as using basic logic and some 18th c. guy's theory about stats to figure out which number human you are. Shouldn't we be more careful with the questions we ask? Is there an ethics of statistics in which certain questions, which may prompt folks to argue about the precise location and identity of human number one, for example, as well as the precise date and time of the end of days/rapture, to be ill-formed? She asks these questions having not herself questioned their ethics?

Herewith endeth the 99th post of our blog.

1 comment:

Transient Gadfly said...

Funny, this is Mrs. Transient Gadfly's response to this as well. I don't want to give you the actual metaphor she used to describe what the whole dialog betwixt Sam and I was like, but to her a) the answer to our paradox of the moment, and pretty much all of them that are like this is, "Language doesn't work that way." and, b) just because something can't initial be explained doesn't mean that it is interesting or worth talking about.

So, you know, perhaps. Mrs. Transient Gadfly is very wise in these matters.