Mark Twain’s ‘returns of conjecture’ from ‘investment of fact’

One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.

This was Mark Twain on science in “Life on the Mississippi”, but he could well have been talking about any aspect of the modern world.

It’s a human folly to interpret new information in a way that confirms everything you already think. In danger of repeating this folly, though, the Twain quotation hits home with me for two current reasons.

First, I recently reflected on my relationship with news and decided to make a conscious and proactive choice to opt out of the news, social and other media. This was because:

I’d grown tired of most sources of media. Their focus seemed only to be on trivial, untrue or highly creative interpretations of things to do with politics and policy, or fanning the flames of these things with news stories and opinion pieces. I’d also grown increasingly tired with social media, the majority of which was people sharing either trivial, untrue or highly creative interpretations of things relating to politics and policy, or sharing a news story or opinion column that had fanned the flames of their outrage. On top of this, I found myself frustrated with the never-ending wealth of blogs, reports, videos and so on which offered organisation x’s perspective on the latest thing y or z.

This clearly reflects Twain’s observation. In this case, ‘trifling fact’ was the latest policy idea or something political that had happened, and the torrent of interpretations, opinions and perspectives were the ‘wholesale returns of conjecture’.

The second is on the nature of evidence.

Instead of considering, questioning and reflecting on new evidence – what it might actually tell us, what limitations it has, what our interpretations of it might reveal of our own assumptions – our current policy and political approaches tend to use any new evidence as the jumping off point for any number of other directions. As I intimated before, this is because we don’t live in a rational, evidence-led vacuum that is protected from the whims of politicians and public opinion. This in itself is fine (well, it’s reality); Twain’s observation reinforces to me we should invest more in what is currently ‘trifling fact’ than where most effort is made – on ‘wholesale returns on conjecture’.

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“… be reclaimed according to somebody’s theory but nobody’s practice”

Much mighty speech-making there has been, both in and out of Parliament, concerning Tom, and much wrathful disputation how Tom shall be got right. Whether he shall be put into the main road by constables, or by beadles, or by bell-ringing, or by force of figures, or by correct principles of taste, or by high church, or by low church, or by no church; whether he shall be set to splitting trusses of polemical straws with the crooked knife of his mind or whether he shall be put to stone-breaking instead. In the midst of which dust and noise there is but one thing perfectly clear, to wit, that Tom only may and can, or shall and will, be reclaimed according to somebody’s theory but nobody’s practice. And in the hopeful meantime, Tom goes to perdition head foremost in his old determined spirit.

This is from Bleak House, and I couldn’t agree with it more. We need less thinking and more doing.

Quotation of the week

Part a:

The more we excuse ourselves from our common obligations, escaping into separate identities and a self-serving culture of blame and excuses to rid ourselves of the inconvenient needs to others, the more we weaken all kinds of subtle common goods on which we all rely.

Part b:

People have been using their wealth and loosened social, economic and moral constraints to rid themselves of the potential “inconveniences of others” in all walks of life.

– From Social Capital, by David Halpern.

General McClellan on (in)action

I’m not sure why, but this quote from General McClellan – a sort of antihero in the American Civil War – stood out for me when I read it a few days ago:

It has always been my opinion that the true course in conducting military operations, is to make no movement until the preparations are as complete as circumstances permit, & never to fight a battle without some definite object worth the probable loss.