Thursday 30 June 2011

Asimov on Political Statements

From Isaac Asimov's Foundation:
"But then," interposed Sutt, "how would Mayor Hardin account for Lord Dorwin's assurances of Empire support? They seemed –" He shrugged. "Well, they seemed satisfactory."

Hardin threw himself back in the chair. "You know, that's the most interesting part of the whole business. I'll admit I had thought his Lordship a most consummate donkey when I first met him – but it turned out that he was actually an accomplished diplomat and a most clever man. I took the liberty of recording all his statements."

There was a flurry, and Pirenne opened his mouth in horror.

"What of it?" demanded Hardin. "I realize it was a gross breach of hospitality and a thing no so-called gentleman would do. Also, that if his lordship had caught on, things might have been unpleasant; but he didn't, and I have the record, and that's that. I took that record, had it copied out and sent that to Holk for analysis, also."

Lundin Crast said, "And where is the analysis?"

"That," replied Hardin, "is the interesting thing. The analysis was the most difficult of the three by all odds. When Holk, after two days of steady work, succeeded in eliminating meaningless statements, vague gibberish, useless qualifications – in short, all the goo and dribble – he found he had nothing left. Everything canceled out."

"Lord Dorwin, gentlemen, in five days of discussion didn't say one damned thing, and said it so you never noticed. There are the assurances you had from your precious Empire."
Bear that in mind, the next time you hear a political speech. Lay aside the platitudes, the vagaries, the abstract statements of principle, and see what's actually been promised.

There's also this little dig at the Humanities:
Hardin remained silent for a short while. Then he said, "When did Lameth write his book?"

"Oh I should say about eight hundwed yeahs ago. Of cohse, he has based it lahgely on the pwevious wuhk of Gleen."

"Then why rely on him? Why not go to Arcturus and study the remains for yourself?"

Lord Dorwin raised his eyebrows and took a pinch of snuff hurriedly. "Why, whatevah foah, my deah fellow?"

"To get the information firsthand, of course."

"But wheah's the necessity? It seems an uncommonly woundabout and hopelessly wigmawolish method of getting anywheahs. Look heah, now, I've got the wuhks of all the old mastahs the gweat ahchaeologists of the past. I wigh them against each othah, balance the disagweements, analyze the conflicting statements, decide which is pwobably cowwect, and come to a conclusion. That is the scientific method. At least" patronizingly "as I see it. How insuffewably cwude it would be to go to Ahctuwus, oah to Sol, foah instance, and blundah about, when the old mastahs have covahed the gwound so much moah effectually than we could possibly hope to do."
While Meta-studies have their place - it's what I'm engaged in in when it comes to the whole "science of sex and gender" thing - my PhD work is nothing but "insufferably crude" experimentation, plus some analysis.

In the Humanities, Lord Dorwin's "scientific method" appears the norm.


SnoopyTheGoon said...

Wow, wow - that last sentence will get you besieged by indignant carriers of degrees in Humanities. You should look over your shoulder for a while, I suggest ;-)

Lauren G said...

When I was at University (back in the Paleolithic era), a fiery radical student made a long speech during some demonstration or event.

He had used formal logic to make sure that everything in his speech added up to a big fat zero.

The reception was wild, lots of cheering and fists in the air. He had incorporated lots of buzzwords and catch phrases, firing up the crowd with a speech that deliberately said absolutely nothing!

Just sayn'

Major said...

Before we scientific types get too smug we should take a look at our own history... Lord Dorwin's method (rehashing Plato and Archimedes) was the way all "science" was done until a few hundred years ago.

wreckage said...

That method determined orthodoxy, but observation, experimentation and mathematical analysis had their own influential following as far back as the ancient Greeks.

Ana W.-L. said...

I've never interpreted this part of Foundation as a dig at the humanities but rather as a part of showing the level of decay in the Empire. While some of this certainly happens in some fields, it is by no means a general feature of humanities as opposed to science.

The basis of the scientific method can be summarised as striving for a theory that is in line with all the relevant observations. Mismatches between the two must be resolved somehow; in the past this has been done in widely different ways – sometimes observations are shown to be false (as happens with quite a few unpublished studies), sometimes new theories emerge to replace the old (as happened with Sir Isaac Newton), and sometimes the scientist gets burned on a stake (as happened with Giordano Bruno). Copernicus was well aware of intellectual inertia and political climate when he presented his work as not really a theory of the physical reality but rather an improved computational model.

As regards language, by the way, theories based on or related to various flavours of formal logic have been tried more than once over the last century. While at first glance such an approach seems attractive both to a scientist and to a linguist looking for 'scientific rigour', it tends to result with a theory with more exceptions and detailed corrections than the epicyclic model of the solar system. Grammars and text analysis are not impossible of course, it's just that overly rigorous formalisms often are at odds with a rigorously data-driven approach. Nothing new there. :)