Saturday, 12 July 2008

The S-Files

S-Award given to Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain)

Contra Celsum is pleased to nominate Mark Twain for a posthumous S-Award for some wry observations on the wonders of scientific extrapolation


1. In 1882 Mark Twain was taking a nostalgic trip on a steamboat down the Mississippi River—nostalgic because he was revisiting his old haunts from his days as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi in the antebellum years. (His observations and reflections are recorded in his wonderful Life on the Mississippi [New York: Bantam Classic Edition, 1981])

2. He records that in his years as a pilot, and subsequently, the river had shortened itself considerably. Floods had led to huge bends being “cut off” as suddenly the river ran straighter. Towns, such as Vicksburg, once at the river bank, ended up “landlocked”, which was tiresome if your whole reason for existence as a town was river commerce. In the course of 150 years, the river had shortened itself by around two hundred odd miles.

Twain then seeks to bring some scientific reasoning to these observations:

Now, if I wanted to be one of those ponderous scientific people, and 'let on' to prove what had occurred in the remote past by what had occurred in a given time in the recent past, or what will occur in the far future by what has occurred in late years, what an opportunity is here! Geology never had such a chance, nor such exact data to argue from! Nor 'development of the species' either! . . . .

In the space of one hundred and seventy six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upward of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of alderman.

There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesome returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact! (p.93)

Mmmm One imagines that Mark Twain, were he alive today, would have been having enormous fun at the expense of global warming ideologues.

In passing, readers may be interested to know that even as the Mississippi has once again been bursting banks and in flood in recent days—and we have been told that this is yet again an “evidence” of global warming—Twain records that in 1882, an unusually large flood occurred, such that at some points the lower river broke its banks and became seventy miles wide! Clearly carbon dioxide and methane must have been working their deadly humours back then as well.

Science has clearly not lost its fascination. Thanks to computer “models” it now gets even more wholesome returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact. As Georges Santayana put it, he who does not learn from history is condemned to repeat it.

Mark Twain, author: S-Award, Class I for lampooning the conjectures of pseudo-science in a manner that unfortunately is still relevant to our day, and so acting in the course of duty in a way that was, and remains, Smart, Sound, and Salutary.

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