Archive for Victorian society

The [errors in the] error of truth [book review]

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2021 by xi'an

OUP sent me this book, The error of truth by Steven Osterling, for review. It is a story about the “astonishing” development of quantitative thinking in the past two centuries. Unfortunately, I found it to be one of the worst books I have read on the history of sciences…

To start with the rather obvious part, I find the scholarship behind the book quite shoddy as the author continuously brings in items of historical tidbits to support his overall narrative and sometimes fills gaps on his own. It often feels like the material comes from Wikipedia, despite expressing a critical view of the on-line encyclopedia. The [long] quote below is presumably the most shocking historical blunder, as the terror era marks the climax of the French Revolution, rather than the last fight of the French monarchy. Robespierre was the head of the Jacobins, the most radical revolutionaries at the time, and one of the Assembly members who voted for the execution of Louis XIV, which took place before the Terror. And later started to eliminate his political opponents, until he found himself on the guillotine!

“The monarchy fought back with almost unimaginable savagery. They ordered French troops to carry out a bloody campaign in which many thousands of protesters were killed. Any peasant even remotely suspected of not supporting the government was brutally killed by the soldiers; many were shot at point-blank range. The crackdown’s most intense period was a horrific ten-month Reign of Terror (“la Terreur”) during which the government guillotined untold masses (some estimates are as high as 5,000) of its own citizens as a means to control them. One of the architects of the Reign of Terror was Maximilien Robespierre, a French nobleman and lifelong politician. He explained the government’s slaughter in unbelievable terms, as “justified terror . . . [and] an emanation of virtue” (quoted in Linton 2006). Slowly, however, over the next few years, the people gained control. In the end, many nobles, including King Louis XVI and his wife Marie-Antoinette, were themselves executed by guillotining”

Obviously, this absolute misinterpretation does not matter (very) much for the (hi)story of quantification (and uncertainty assessment), but it demonstrates a lack of expertise of the author. And sap whatever trust one could have in new details he brings to light (life?). As for instance when stating

“Bayes did a lot of his developmental work while tutoring students in local pubs. He was a respected teacher. Taking advantage of his immediate resources (in his circumstance, a billiard table), he taught his theorem to many.”

which does not sound very plausible. I never heard that Bayes had students  or went to pubs or exposed his result to many before its posthumous publication… Or when Voltaire (who died in 1778) is considered as seventeenth-century precursor of the Enlightenment. Or when John Graunt, true member of the Royal Society, is given as a member of the Académie des Sciences. Or when Quetelet is presented as French and as a student of Laplace.

The maths explanations are also puzzling, from the law of large numbers illustrated by six observations, and wrongly expressed (p.54) as

\bar{X}_n+\mu\qquad\text{when}\qquad n\longrightarrow\infty

to  the Saint-Petersbourg paradox being seen as inverse probability, to a botched description of the central limit theorem  (p.59), including the meaningless equation (p.60)

\gamma_n=\frac{2^{2n}}{\pi}\int_0^\pi~\cos^{2n} t\,\text dt

to de Moivre‘s theorem being given as Taylor’s expansion

f(z)=\sum_{n=0}^\infty \frac{f^{(n)}(a)}{n!}(z-a)^2

and as his derivation of the concept of variance, to another botched depiction of the difference between Bayesian and frequentist statistics, incl. the usual horror


to independence being presented as a non-linear relation (p.111), to the conspicuous absence of Pythagoras in the regression chapter, to attributing to Gauss the concept of a probability density (when Simpson, Bayes, Laplace used it as well), to another highly confusing verbal explanation of densities, including a potential confusion between different representations of a distribution (Fig. 9.6) and the existence of distributions other than the Gaussian distribution, to another error in writing the Gaussian pdf (p.157),


to yet another error in the item response probability (p.301), and.. to completely missing the distinction between the map and the territory, i.e., the probabilistic model and the real world (“Truth”), which may be the most important shortcoming of the book.

The style is somewhat heavy, with many repetitions about the greatness of the characters involved in the story, and some degree of license in bringing them within the narrative of the book. The historical determinism of this narrative is indeed strong, with a tendency to link characters more than they were, and to make them greater than life. Which is a usual drawback of such books, along with the profuse apologies for presenting a few mathematical formulas!

The overall presentation further has a Victorian and conservative flavour in its adoration of great names, an almost exclusive centering on Western Europe, a patriarchal tone (“It was common for them to assist their husbands in some way or another”, p.44; Marie Curie “agreed to the marriage, believing it would help her keep her laboratory position”, p.283), a defense of the empowerment allowed by the Industrial Revolution and of the positive sides of colonialism and of the Western expansion of the USA, including the invention of Coca Cola as a landmark in the march to Progress!, to the fall of the (communist) Eastern Block being attributed to Ronald Reagan, Karol Wojtyła, and Margaret Thatcher, to the Bell Curve being written by respected professors with solid scholarship, if controversial, to missing the Ottoman Enlightenment and being particularly disparaging about the Middle East, to dismissing Galton’s eugenism as a later year misguided enthusiasm (and side-stepping the issue of Pearson’s and Fisher’s eugenic views),

Another recurrent if minor problem is the poor recording of dates and years when introducing an event or a new character. And the quotes referring to the current edition or translation instead of the original year as, e.g., Bernoulli (1954). Or even better!, Bayes and Price (1963).

[Disclaimer about potential self-plagiarism: this post or an edited version will eventually appear in my Book Review section in CHANCE.]

Holmes alone

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2020 by xi'an

From reading a rather positive review in The New York Times (if less in The Guardian, which states that it all rattles along amiably enough!), and my love of everything Holmes (if not as much as George Casella!), I watched Enola Holmes almost as soon as it came out on Netflix. While the film was overall pleasant, with great acting from the main actress Millie Bobby Brown, I found quite light and missing in scenario (mystery? sleuthing? forking paths?) and suspense. Which is not that surprising given that it is adapted from a young adult book. (Making me laugh at the PG-13 label!) And rather anachronistic in depicting the free-spirited Enola, roving Victorian London as a modern teenager, masquerading like her famous older brother, and mastering jiu jitsu. I was also disappointed in the low key appearance of  Helena Bonham Carter as an (obviously) unconventional mother and a bomb throwing suffragette… Nothing to compare with the superlative reworkings of Wells’ stories by Benedict Cumberbatch. As a side anecdote, I read a few days later that the Arthur Conan Doyle estate is suing the film makers for presenting an emotional Sherlock!

Dracula [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures with tags , , , , on August 10, 2014 by xi'an

As I was waiting for my plane to Bangalore a week ago, I spotted a cheap English edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in De Gaulle airport. I had not re-read the book since my teenage years (quite a while ago, even by wampyr’s standards!), so I bought it for the trip ahead. I remembered very little of the style of the [French translation of the] book if the story itself was still rather fresh on my mind (as were the uneasy nights after reading the novel!).

“I can hazard no opinion. I do not know what to think and I have no data on which to found a conjecture.”

Dracula is definitely a Victorian gothic novel in the same spirit as Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho I read last year, if of a late and lighter style… Characters do not feel very realistic (!), maybe because the novel is written in the epistolary style, which makes those characters only express noble or proper sentiments and praise virtues in their companions. (The book could obviously be re-read with this filter, attempting at guessing the true feelings of those poor characters forced into a mental straitjacket by the Victorian moral codes.) However, even without this deconstructive approach, the book is quite fascinating as a representation of the codes of the time. More than for a rather unconvincing plot which leaves the main protagonist mostly in the dark [of a coffin, obviously!]. The small band of wampyr-hunters pursuing Dracula seems bound to commit every mistake in the book and miss clues about his local victims and opportunities to end up Dracula’s taste of England earlier… And the progress of Dracula in his invasion is too slow to be frightening.  Anyway, what I found highly interesting in Dracula is the position and treatment of women in this novel, from innocent vaporous victims to wanton seductresses once un-dead, from saintly and devoted wives to unusually bright women “more clever than men” but still prone to hysteria… Once again, many filters of (modern) societal and sociological constraints could be lifted from this presentation. I also noticed that no legal authority ever appears in the novel: the few policemen therein lift rescued children from cemeteries or nod at the heroes breaking into Dracula’s house in London. This absence may point out issues with Victorian society that may prove impossible to solve with out radical changes. (Or I may be reading too much!)

Reading list [finale]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on September 3, 2011 by xi'an

Staying on the boat for several days meant some of us exhausted the few books we had brought and started looking for others’ discarded books. My daughter took David Gemmel’s John Shannow (in French) from my son, my son started The lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch,  as soon I finished it and he completed Abercrombie’s Best served cold, and no one touched my George Martin’s A Game of Thrones as Alex had already brought a copy! Anyway, several of us were eager for Sylvia to complete her Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier, whose French translation I tried to impose on my daughter before we left. Captain Mark got the higher hand and managed to finish it on the last morning on the boat, then my wife and I shared it during the final days of our summer vacation…

This book is very fast to read, but very very enjoyable and not only as a summer book. It describes the beginning of fossil hunting at Lyme Regis on the Southern Coast of England and the consequences on science, (pre-)Victorian society [the story starts in 1810], religion, and the life of two remarkable women. (The title is thus ambiguous, describing both the remarkable specimens of extinct reptiles found there and the two women, given the lower status (pre-)Victorians accorded to women [despite being ruled by one of the greatest English monarchs!], as illustrated by the book. Some of the situations showing second-rate intelligences getting the better of those women simply for being male are indeed remarkable!) The book should appeal to scientific minds, as it describes how “discoverers”—Mary Anning who made the major fossil discoveries on Lyme Regis beach and managed to see the structure in them—get the better of theoreticians—like Buckland from Oxford and Cuvier from le Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. Mary Anning and her friend Elizabeth Philpot drew inference from their observations, on their own, as for instance about coprolites (the name was coined by Buckland). Scientists like Cuvier and more clearly Buckland were hindered by the very classifications they had designed and by the religious constraints of a literal reading of the Bible. (This is oversimplifying as Cuvier was arguing from the 1790’s, i.e. before Mary Anning’s discovery, that fossils were the results of past extinctions, leading to a theory he called catastrophism.) The book is accompanied by a website that gives entries into those topics. My only reservation is that the dialogues often appear too modern, but this does not get annoying, quite the opposite. (The book got positive reviews from all passengers on the boat!) I had read a few years ago the Girl with the pearl earing and found the same pleasure in reading about the novelisation of historical events and this Dutch master of light…

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