Saturday, February 9, 2013

SOPHISTICATED PRECISION: THE UNBEARABLE LIKENESS OF GREY


            Revisiting Isadore Nabi’s famous essay on the tendencies of motion, I am struck with today’s rapidly accelerating statistical methodology and its ability to measure, with precision unheard of just 20 years ago, the greyness of the swan.  But a philosophical question associated with this remarkable trend comes to mind, namely “who gives a shit.”  Now that is perhaps a bit harsh.  It is, without doubt, important in everyday life.  I am extremely pleased that the pilot landing the 747 on which I am travelling has an instrument that can measure with great precision the distance between the runway and the plane’s wheels.  And when my house was recently remodeled, matching the paint on the outside walls was not done by the painstaking methods I used when I tried to match paint in my first apartment many years ago, but rather with an automatic measuring device that translated the complex reflection spectrum of the current paint to parameters that the local hardware store could punch into its automatic color dispenser in its paint department.  These are good things.
            Yes, it is frequently important to know exactly what shade of grey sits on the feathers of the swan.  But like the spontaneous laughter when hearing a new and clever joke rather than the retelling of an old one, regardless of the artistic flair of the teller, when I see one of those black swans --- yeesss!
            Should the scientist keep with the program and work on even more sophisticated R code to measure with ever increasing precision the greyness of our beautiful swans?  Should we reward the scientist who comes up with the next level of precision? And then the next? And then the next?   Or should we encourage her to strike out and search the world for the black ones. 
Perhaps it is a matter of personal choice.  But certainly that choice should be made through a rational choice model, not by slithering down well-worn ruts.

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