Friday, March 23, 2012

Reading Jared Diamond

Enjoyed Guns, Germs and Steel a little more than Collapse - perhaps because I had read about the theories of societal collapse in Easter Island at various magazines before this. What was most impressive was his ability to absorb the material from various disparate fields and pull them together into a coherent thesis. The books gave me some new found respect for archaeologists as a synthesizer of information.

In these two books, Diamond has captured the essence of what liberal arts colleges would like their graduates to be - someone who has gone through a liberal arts program can immerse themselves in any complex subject and yet be able to connect different dots into a neat intelligible package that a lay audience can relate to.

At the back of mind while reading these books however, were these thoughts coming from the comments on Andrew Gelman’s post on Freakonomics:

I’m reminded of my reaction to Charles Murray’s book of a few decades ago, “Losing Ground.” He looked at crime policy, education policy, welfare policy, poverty policy, etc., in that book. I thought he was right on in the other fields, but in criminal justice (my field) I felt he misused the data and got it wrong. I then found out that people in the poverty field at the University of Wisconsin felt that he had done a useful job on all areas he looked at except poverty, where he misused the data and got it wrong.

That reminds me of a story someone told about Immanuel Velikovsky’s “Worlds in Collision”. They thought the astrophysics, history, etc. was really interesting, but the chemistry was crap – hydrocarbons falling out of the sky, turning to carbohydrates, and becoming the manna that fed the Israelites in the desert! Then they talked to a colleague, who was an astrophysicist, who said the astrophysics was terrible, but he thought the history and the manna stuff was really interesting. So they went off to talk to a historian, who said…

In the end, does this mean that a liberal arts major is someone who knows (or thinks he knows) a lot about everything but everything he knows is wrong?

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