Day by Day

Monday, May 14, 2007

Another Fable

The Parliament of Clocks.

The clockmakers destroy the nonconforming clockmaker among them because they know that as a practical matter we judge the accuracy of clocks by consensus. Absolute time does not exist. Essentially, a parliament of clocks votes on the correct time. (Even scientifically, this is true.) By fiat, we say that the clocks that deviate from the consensus time are inaccurate, but logically that need not be so. Different technologies or different levels of care in setting, winding or servicing the clocks could lead to the minority clocks being more accurate. However, if all the clocks agree, then no lay person will have grounds for suspecting that the majority clocks don’t keep accurate time.

As a practical matter, articulate intellectuals face the same problem. They deal in areas in which no means exist for easily or quickly falsifying and testing their ideas. Like the king with the clocks, lay people looking at their work from the outside cannot evaluate the accuracy of their work. No means exist to make an objective measurement that would determine the accuracy of a particular literary criticism. Historians agree that certain events occurred at certain places and times and then argue furiously over the events’ import and consequences. Journalists do the same thing. Various theories in many academic fields knock around for decades before simply fading away, apparently because people grow bored with them.

In order to maintain their power and position within society, articulate intellectuals must convince the larger population that they really do have a superior understanding of the issues they study. The do so using a parliament of clocks. By enforcing rigorous conformist standards on their members, they seek to create the illusion of accuracy by making it appear that all people knowledgeable in a particular field all reach the same conclusion. If all the supposed experts in a particular field all tell the same story the lay people are much less likely to guess that none of the experts know what they are talking about.

Found via Kim du Toit. Good stuff.

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