Saturday, July 16, 2011

Stephen Fry and Irony

I recently came across this clip in which Stephen Fry repeats the canard that Aristotle thought that flies only had 4 legs. And then Fry basically claims that the Western intellectual world was so unscientific at one point that no one bothered to count flies' legs and prove Aristotle wrong.

To anyone with an even weak b.s. detector, this claim about Aristotle and his followers is clearly very unlikely, and as it turns out, it is indeed untrue. The irony is that Fry is well-educated and probably considers himself pro-science and pro-empirical knowledge, yet when he comes across a ridiculous claim he seems not to have bothered to perform adequate fact-checking.

I don't want to pick on Fry too much. I think this is a common problem: even educated, enlightened people seem to rarely question the things they hear and attempt to think critically about things. I've long thought our supposedly "skeptical" society to be perhaps just as gullible as the "superstitious" society of the Middle Ages.

You might notice that famous scientists or economists or other intellectuals will routinely say crazy or outrageous things when they leave their own narrow specialization. Or perhaps they will be empiricists from 9 to 5, but when it comes to leisure time and their personal lives loose thinking sets in.

Instead of just ranting, I'll attempt an explanation:
a) Knowledge has become so technical and detailed that it is just too costly for us to be generally educated. We specialize more and, on most subjects, we leave the thinking to the experts. E.g. The scientist or historian or journalist will likely get his economics from his favorite newspaper columnist, assuming that this columnist will not lead him astray.
b) Government has become large and so it basically concerns itself with everything. Hence, almost any subject can be regarded as a political subject. This or that economist is defined by whether he is on the left or right, not by whether or not he is sensible. Even popes are described in this way.


  1. This is interesting. I agree with (b). (a) seems right too, though it's interesting that the problem is sometimes not too much deference to supposed experts in other fields, but not enough deference. E.g. someone like Hawking saying completely uninformed things about philosophy.

    While Aristotle did spend a lot of time doing what we might now call field biology, I think there are times in which he arguably wasn't empirical enough. (Though this was probably also true of pretty much everyone before the 'scientific revolution.') Bertrand Russell has a famous line that "Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives' mouths." One wonders if this is right, or maybe the historians can tell us whether or not women might actually have had fewer teeth on average than men in Aristotle's day.

  2. Re: Aristotle and teeth, I've heard that claim as well. I don't know the answer, but it sounds a bit too much like the quotation from The Princess Bride: "Have you heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates?...Morons." I think anyone who comes to that conclusion must have made a wrong turn somewhere.

    I agree that people were often quite unscientific before the 1600s or so. But one of my points is that modern man is often unscientific as well, even often the scientists.

  3. Just passing through to point out that Mr. Fry is of course reading a script which is supposed to have been scrupulously fact checked by a team of researchers. However this is sometimes not the case and the extras on the DVD's have a section dedicated to retractions and corrections.