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November 15, 2003

Why Human Accomplishment is important

If you clicked my previous post linking to an audio interview with Charles Murray about his new book Human Accomplishment you heard the host state: "We're sorry that we're focusing so much about the methodology...." What a stupid thing to say! Like many, the interview ended up to be dickering over specifics in the rankings, when the accomplishment was bringing into the public eye Murray's methodology-using a statistical analysis of the mentions of "famous" figures in a variety of references to focus in on a cluster of "great" figures. See this article by Murray elaborating his method & conclusions.

To my eye, the importance of Murray's work is that it serves as a guide for those who don't have time to read 10-20 books on world history to get a sampling of the zeitgeist. Murray makes the point that various authors have their own biases, but if you combine their perspectives, you get a non-idiosyncratic viewpoint that is a rough representation of the "accepted wisdom" in a given field.

Let me give you a concrete example. If you read Murray Rothbard's 1,000 page Man, Economy and State, you'll be highly entertained-but probably think that Thomistic & Aristotelian philosophy is more important in modern social science than it is, and that most economists actually know the term praxeology. My point is not to belittle Rothbard or Austrian economists, but someone not familiar with economics entering the field through their vantage point will be receiving an inaccurate view of the importance of issues like empiricism ("positivism") and the utility of mathematical analysis in economics (hint: they aren't fans! Why I am Not an Austrian Economist is a pretty good article on the differences between Austrians and the rest).

This example illustrates the crux of the issue for me: works like Human Accomplishment can serve as guides for those who wish to have generalized information about various disciplines. Going back to world history, individual authors craft their own narratives, but most people don't have time to read a number of works by various authors to be able to create a composite that weeds out anomalies due to personal preference or random chance. A list of "great figures" produced by statistical analysis of authoritative works can allow lay readers to discard peculiarities caused by subjective preference.

Also, check out this snide piece in Slate by Tim Noah, where he states that he "would place Einstein ahead of Newton, but that may just bespeak sentimental attachment," no, it bespeaks your ignorance jackass. On a nicer note, here is an article by Steve Sailer from a less asinine and more favorable perspective on Murray's book.

Posted by razib at 11:38 PM