Some quotes and lines too long to fit in a .signature

Created: July 17, 1996
Last Modified: Fri Dec 6 15:44:14 GMT 1996

A .signature file is the typical name for the file that contains material appended to every Email or Usenet news posting by an individual. Of course the name of the file depends on, among other things, one's mailer and newsreader. There are even some operating system on which a file named .signature couldn't exist. None-the-less the name has stuck.

Why are some sigs here and not in my .signature?

There are many reasons why it is difficult to decide what should go into such a file. Here are some of the constraints:

  1. Length

    Signature files should not normally exceed four lines, but usually should contain identification and contact information. That usually limits the cute quote or saying portion to one line.

  2. Different readership

    I send mail to many different sorts of people, and a quote in a message to members of my family may not be appropriate as what I would use when communicating with clients, colleagues or superiors. This leads to a somewhat more bland quote. I shouldn't send anything to the world that might reflect poorly on Cranfield University, but on the other hand, I want to use the opportunity to state something about myself.

  3. Obscurity

    Something that requires no explanation for one person may be very obscure in another. This can also force either confusion or blandness.

Some potential sigs and commentary

I am much fonder of my critics than I am of my fans.
--Thomas Kuhn

Thomas Kuhn was the author of The Structure of Scientific Revolution in which he coined the term "paradigm shift" and proposed the relativist notion of "incommensurability". It is for the latter that I strongly sympathize with his critics. His work has been seized upon by the worst kind of relativists who have sought to argue that all paradigms are equally good because there is no way to judge between incommensurable systems. Kuhn's important contribution to the understanding that scientific investigation is a human and social process has been taken by his more ardent fans to say that epistemologically science and a scientific way of looking at things is no more correct than fashions in popular culture.

Kuhn did bring this upon himself by failing to define (or even use) his word paradigm consistently or coherently and by treating "incommensurable" in an absolute way. Yet he does have my sympathy.

While it is true that "ideas are not responsible for the people who hold them" a search on the web for "Thomas Kuhn" or "alternative paradigm" will show that his fans range from Astrologers and Creationists near the beginning of the alphabet to UFO promoters near the end, with Holocaust revisionists along the way.

No doubt I'll be getting some nasty mail messages from X's who don't like me associating them with Y's. But since I don't trust web statistics very much, one way to find out if people read my stuff is to say something controversial.

Mért legyek én tisztességes? Kiterítenek úgyis.
Mért ne legyek tisztességes? Kiterítenek úgyis.
--Attila József

A couplet by Attila József which roughly translates to

Why should I be honorable? I will be laid out all the same.
Why shouldn't I be honorable? I'l be laid out all the same.
but in the original the pun on "laid out" is less contrived than in English, it sounds perfect, and there is even an orthographic symmetry.

Mért legyek én tisztasegges? Kiterítenek úgyis.
Mért ne legyek tisztasegges? Kiterítenek úgyis.
(with apologies to Attila József)

Compare with official version of this quote above. I actually think that what is here is correct and that Attila József has been misunderstood and misreported by the scholars. Recall that his mother was a laundry women and treat the couplet as a dialogue with his mother: He starts by responding to her motherly advice to wear clean under-pants because he might be in an accident and would be taken to the hospital. He responds with the first line, which in this form, translates to

Why should I be clean bottomed? I will be laid out all the same.
And his mother responds with (oddly in the first person)
Why shouldn't I be clean bottomed? I'll be laid out all the same.

An "alternative paradigm" is the first refuge of the incompetent
--Jeff Goldberg and Lívia Markóczy

Many will have heard the line "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent", which I know of as coming from a character in an Isaac Asimov novel. The present line is in reference to the increasing habit of scholars in particularly the social sciences to claim that their new theory or approach is a new paradigm and thus incommensurable, so should only be judged by its own internal standards. It is not inevitable that shoddy work lies behind most "alternative paradigms", but it is a safe bet. As you may gather from this and the quote from Thomas Kuhn I am not a relativist. Unlike Jerry Fodor who is reported to have said that he hates relativism more than anything in the world except for fiberglass power boats, I hate relativism even more. However: Some of my best friends are relativists.

What people are missing is the rather simple notion that just because science is a social process with real live human being conducting it does not make it completely arbitrary. Lets take another example: Airplane designers are humans and are deeply embedded in the society in which they live. This may strongly determine some aspects of the design, but surely more aspects are determined by what will and won't fly. Science is a social process, and scientists are driven by ordinary social things, but theories are not just fashions. They are not entirely (or even largely) arbitrary.

Worse, of course, than an "alternative paradigm" is an "alternative rationality", which I have been hearing a lot about lately.

The particular formation of our line developed out of a conversation between myself and Lívia Markóczy.

Justifying space exploration because we get non-stick frying pans is like justifying music because it is good exercise for the violinists right arm.
--Richard Dawkins

Naturally useful products of science are useful and should be valued, and the ability to produce practical results over the long run is one of the important ways we have of checking that we are on the right track. But science and scientists must be driven, fundamentally, by deep intellectual curiosity. Of course curiosity isn't enough, but it is a necessary condition.

I certainly don't expect that most people will or should have the sometimes fanatical intellectual curiosity of a scientist, but I do expect it in academia where people slave away for years to compete fiercely for jobs that pay much lower than those they could get outside of academics.

Relativism is the triumph of authority over truth, convention over justice.
--me (or did I just unintentionally crib it from somewhere?)

It is sad, but not surprising, that the left and in general liberals have come to identify themselves with relativism. However, relativism is an authoritarian's dream and a liberal's nightmare. For much more on this theme see some of the work of Alan Sokal.

For those who are fortunate enough to not know what I am talking about, relativism is the initially appealing doctrine that since no individual or institution is qualified to identify truth absolutely then there must be no absolute truth. So all truth (whether moral or scientific) is relative to the system of customs/beliefs/meanings in which that claim of truth is asserted.

Typical defenders of relativism make two mistakes:

  1. They fail to distinguish between states of mind and states of the world. They forget that just because something may be unknowable, doesn't mean that it doesn't exist. There is a certain arrogance in their fallacy: "If I can't determine facts about the state of the world, then there aren't any facts about the state of the world."
  2. They, like skeptics, demand certainty. They seem to insist (of others) that all their claims must either be absolutely certain or arbitrary (and usually conventional or learned) tastes. Degrees of certainty are not allowed.
There is, of course, much more to it than these two points. And the more sophisticate relativists avoid making these errors in obvious manners.

Just because I am an anti-relativist doesn't make me a fundamentalist. The late philosopher/anthropologist Ernst Gellner makes a three way distinction between Relativist, Fundamentalist, and us. (There isn't really a good term for anti-fundamentalist and anti-relativist people. Terms involving "enlightenment" come to mind and have been suggested, but they bias the game before-hand.)

Jeff Goldberg

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Copyright © 1996, Jeffrey Goldberg