Monday, April 6, 2009

Elevating Fiction to Fact

When I was in college, over 50 years ago, I recall seeing a debate between our campus team and a visiting team from England. One of our bright lads buttressed his arguments with quote after quote from published writers. Not to be outdone, the first English debater stepped forward and proclaimed, "The quickest way to elevate fiction to fact is to quote someone else as having said it." I never forgot that moment.

About 30 years later, I discovered what I believed to be the quantitative corollary to the English debater's premise, to wit, "The quickest way to elevate fiction to fact is to hand someone a computer printout." People seemed to accept without question what computers spewed out, forgetting that the results were only as accurate as the data some human being fed into the computer.

A similar corollary is one that I heard from the professor on the first day of my first statistics class. He opened his lecture with the declaration, "You can prove anything you want with statistics; it's just a matter of selecting the right ones." I always think of that during election campaigns and the flow of political and economic discourse.

I don't know why I have been thinking about these things today but I have and decided to share them.


Charles Gramlich said...

People are very easily lead. they want to be lead. They won't fight very hard

Darlene said...

Your professors did what any good educator should do; teach you to think critically. How I wish that all teachers were as wise.

I often quote John Adams: "Facts are stubborn things."

Eric Valentine said...

An enjoyable & thoughtful read Leon, having not heard those quotes before, it's something for me to think about.