Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Mencken on crowdsourcing

I am half way through Francis Wheen’s excellent How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions.  Excellent, that is, apart from his apparent endorsement of Keynesian economics, which is no less mumbo-jumbo than any other piece of economics, but that's another story.  The section on creation science and evolution teaching summarises the issues clearly, and I was particularly taken with this quotation from Mencken:
The inferior man's reasons for hating knowledge are not hard to discern. He hates it because it is complex -- because it puts an unbearable burden upon his meager capacity for taking in ideas. Thus his search is always for short cuts. All superstitions are such short cuts. Their aim is to make the unintelligible simple, and even obvious. So on what seem to be higher levels. No man who has not had a long and arduous education can understand even the most elementary concepts of modern pathology. But even a hind at the plow can grasp the theory of chiropractic in two lessons. Hence the vast popularity of chiropractic among the submerged -- and of osteopathy, Christian Science and other such quackeries with it. They are idiotic, but they are simple -- and every man prefers what he can understand to what puzzles and dismays him.

The popularity of Fundamentalism among the inferior orders of men is explicable in exactly the same way. The cosmogonies that educated men toy with are all inordinately complex. To comprehend their veriest outlines requires an immense stock of knowledge, and a habit of thought. It would be as vain to try to teach to peasants or to the city proletariat as it would be to try to teach them to streptococci. But the cosmogony of Genesis is so simple that even a yokel can grasp it. It is set forth in a few phrases. It offers, to an ignorant man, the irresistible reasonableness of the nonsensical. So he accepts it with loud hosannas, and has one more excuse for hating his betters. [The Baltimore Evening Sun, June 29, 1925]
Very true, but I wonder what Mencken would have made of Wikipedia?


William M. Connolley said...

Or of those who seek a simple answer to complex subjects such as GW?

Edward Ockham said...

Glad to see you are still with us, Belette, I thought we had lost you.

In answer to your point: an explanation should be as simple as possible, but no simpler than the facts require. I.e. no more, and no less, than is necessary.

Do you agree?

William M. Connolley said...

Don't worry, I'm watching (

Certainly I agree, but your assertion is nearly vacuous. Also, it provides no guidance for how simple an explanation a given situation requires. In particular, you need to guard against the common error of "this is a simple explanation, that is a complex one, therefore this is correct".

Edward Ockham said...

>> your assertion is nearly vacuous.

Not really, there are plenty of people, and I argue with them a lot of the time, who feel that nothing is quite in order until they have made it sufficiently complicated for their tastes.

>>you need to guard against the common error of "this is a simple explanation, that is a complex one , therefore this is correct".

Reading ‘better’ for ‘correct’, I would say this is not an error, so long as actually is an explanation. A dragon (or a ghost) “explanation” is not an explanation.