Saturday, May 9, 2020

Tolerable and intolerable lags

Up-to-date-fulness is a virtue, I guess, but we take gambles with it all the time. The late Swedish professor of health statistics, Hans Rosling, and his son and daughter, have made some inroads getting people to think about WHEN they learned something and how current their information is.

If you learn that the capital of Wisconsin is Madison, you expect that it will be true tomorrow and a year from now, too.  Rosling's book "Factfulness" was recommended reading for everyone by Bill Gates.  Rosling and his son and his daughter have some impressive, educational and memorable TED talks. Just search "TED" and then, in TED, search "Rosling."

If you are 50 years old and graduated from high school or college at age 22 or younger, it has been more than a quarter of a century since you studied your courses.  In 25 years, a great deal has changed.  So, various hopes and fears are now shelved in favor of different hopes and newer fears.  Rosling did many research projects and taught many classes about the general pattern:

We learn in school and higher education and then we age and age.  So, at 50 or 70 or older, we are often carry ideas, images and numbers that are wildly out-of-date. 

Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden (1854) that the old have nothing of value to tell the young. That is a silly exaggeration, of course.  But it is true that the old, however you decide who they are, may indeed carry out-of-date information in their heads.  

Frederick Lewis Allen wrote in 1952 about the US from 1900 to 1950 and discussions and comments from here and abroad:

When Vishinsky or Gromyko or Malik berates the United States, talking, for instance, about "lackeys of Wall Street," what he is doing is berating, exaggeratedly, the United States of 1900 rather than of today. If what he says makes an impression among many non-Communists in Europe, this is at least partly because a very large number of Europeans have been brought up on concepts of the United States long since outdated; and also because they and other Europeans, aware of the importance of business and of businessmen in the American scene, imagine that these, today, closely resemble their counterparts of a generation or two ago, and also behave like the business and businessmen of Europe. The mental picture of the United States that the average European carries about with him is lamentably irrelevant to the real United States of today. Not only that: the changes that have taken place in the American business system and American life are not fully grasped even by most of us here at home. Our own concepts tend to date sharply, particularly when we get into arguments. The chairman of the board of a great corporation decides to say a few words on behalf of "free enterprise" and against "socialism," and one is suddenly aware that the image of "free enterprise" in his mind looks more like an old-time country store than like the vast, co-ordinated, decentralized institution which he actually manages; and that the "socialism" which he excoriates is a textbook socialism quite different in direction and meaning from anything that has found a significant place in the American scene. The labor leader, in order to encourage the van and to harass the foe from the rear, decides to denounce management and the stockholders for their "lust for profits" and to arouse the "embattled workers," and he too pulls out of a drawer a well-worn stencil, cut perhaps about the year 1920. And all of us, when we hear a phrase such as "the American way of life," are likely to see in our minds' eyes some pleasant aspect of the America we grew up in as boys and girls; and the older we are, the more anachronistic this mental picture is. It may be useful, therefore, to try to chart some of the changes that have taken place since those images were formed.

Allen, Frederick Lewis. The Big Change . eStar Books. Kindle Edition.

So, how up-to-date does my information have to be?  It's a gamble.  When I say that I have one sibling, that figure is probably pretty stable.  When I write that Wisconsin has had a total of 9590 cases of coronavirus, that figure is likely to change, to rise, by 2 PM, Saturday, May 9, 2020.  

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