If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.
Wednesday 14 Mar 2012
There’s no sense in being precise
when you don’t even know what you’re talking about.
John von Neumann (28 Dec 1903 – 8 Feb 1957)
One of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century and a foundational figure in the computer science revolution, Neumann makes a very, very good point here, one certainly applicable to action as well as talk. Offhand, I can think of – not to be too precise about it – just oodles and oodles of people to whom this observation cruelly but deservedly applies.
Let’s consider an example or two.
There are the idiotic catastrophists parading across Johnny Carson’s evening stage in the sixties informing us what (because of the Malthusian population bomb) the prices of precious metals would be in the future; that we should be rationing or even abandoning food aid to the hopeless (i.e., overpopulated) regions of the world; that we do a China-thing on birth control, and so forth. Then there was the Club of Rome (which magnanimously offered to manage our future for us) with its seventies fantasies about the limits of growth. Moving along, we recall religious sects giving us precise dates for any number of end-of-the-world ‘rapture scenarios’ (all now having passed their do-not-sell-after dates – but, of course, 2012 is not yet over …). In the nineties it was the turn of the ‘new economists’ and their mathematically precise certainties that laid down the foundation for the cataclysmic financial debacles the world is only now starting perhaps to recover from. In the two thousands we Americans are lofting drones with very precise laser guidance systems for killing the bad guys but end up slaughtering civilians in, e.g. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and not even God knows where else (Iraq? Somalia? Yemen? Chicago?).
And so forth and so on.
These kinds of often mathematically-based (whether grounded in readings of a Mayan Calendar or founded on higher-math predictability algorithms driving computer programs) forms of ‘precision’ would seem at times to be little more than obfuscating versions of witch-craft digitally updated for our desperate, teeth-clenching age.