Civilization Meta Philoeconomica Quantity

The Illiteracy of the Literate

The complex feelings of lawyers and humanist scholars with respect to quantitative subjects, and particularly the quantifization of the social sciences, ought to give them greater empathy for the illiterate and uneducated. The humanist scholar is to the scientist as the illiterate are to the literate.

The illiterate view books with distrust, for books are used to undermine their most heartfelt positions in ways against which they are unable to mount a defense. But this is precisely how the lawyer feels when her nuanced doctrinal argument is demolished by a mathematical model of the economy that shows that regardless of the substance of the legal rule, the same economic outcome will obtain.

“It’s just mathematical mumbo jumbo,” says the lawyer. “These economists don’t know how things work in the real world.” But what the lawyer cannot do is to beat the economist at her own game. She can’t show that the economic model cannot withstand close scrutiny; all she can do is try to delegitimize the entire method. But the illiterate levy the same charge on the literate: “it’s just book learning,” they say. They cannot defend themselves in writing; but they can try to delegitimize writing itself.

It is particularly bitter for the humanists that they have been socialized to occupy the power position. For millennia, since the invention of writing, they have been the ones who use their learning to lord it over others. But now these merely-literates, these innumerates, must know what it means to be crushed by ideas. A very bitter position indeed.

I do not mean to say that the mathematicians have any better claim on the truth. But if the humanists think the mathematicians don’t, then it should perhaps worry the humanists to think that maybe they don’t either, in relation to the illiterate. Or maybe we are marching forward, after all, from one stage of intellectual progress to the next!