Monday, January 6, 2014

It's Fischer Time!


It's that time again! You know, when I relate something I read online to something I learned about in David Hackett Fischer's Historians' Fallacies.

In today's episode, we point you to an article by National Review writer Charles C. W. Cooke. In it, Cooke points out the pitfalls of prediction, or extrapolation, or prognostication, or, . . . you get the point.

The Antarctic ice shelf hasn't disappeared, as predicted.

The Arctic summer ice hasn't vamoosed, as predicted.

We haven't entered into another ice age, as predicted.

And so on and so forth, ad nauseam.

(Just to be clear, the politics of global warming is, emphatically, not what this post is about.)

Nope, before we get ourselves sidetracked from the task at hand, let me refer you to a humorous passage by Mark Twain as quoted in Historians' Fallacies.
The Mississippi between Cairo [in Illinois] and New Orleans was twelve hundred and fifteeen [sic] miles long one hundred and seventy six years ago. It was eleven hundred and eighty after the cut-off of 1722. It was one thousand and forty after the American Bend cut-off. It has lost sixty-seven miles since. Consequently, its length is only nine hundred and seventy-three miles at present.
Now if I wanted to be one of those ponderous scientific people, and 'let on' to prove what had occurred in the remote past by what had occurred in late years, what an opportunity is here! Nor 'development of species,' either! Glacial epochs are great things, but they are vague—vague. Please observe: In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the lower Mississippi has shortened itself two-hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old O├Âlitic Silurian Period, just one million years ago next November, the lower Mississippi River was upward of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.


xkcd: Extrapolating.

1 comment:

BoiseNoise said...

This reminds me of when cave tour guides used to authoritatively say how ridiculously long stalagmites take to form . . . and then on one tour I noticed one growing on the sidewalk. I asked that guide about it, and she said, "I have to come out here regularly and scrape it off to keep people from tripping over it."