After Ian appeared on Laurie Taylor’s Thinking Allowed to talk about Science’s First Mistake, BBC Radio 4 received a number of comments from listeners – surprisingly the majority was supportive of our position. However, some of Laurie’s humanist contacts objected to our take on numbers, particularly Ian’s throwaway line “numbers are absurd”. Consequently, Laurie asked to interview Ian so he could write a column on these ideas for the New Humanist magazine. They met up on the afternoon of Friday, November 12, and spent a jolly hour bouncing the ideas around. You’ll have to read Laurie’s column to find out what was said. However, during that conversation it suddenly dawned on Ian that his skeptical attitude towards numbers did not emerge while writing the book. Ask any of the students who, for the past two decades, have attended his lectures on Information Systems Management as part of the LSE Masters programme in Analysis Design and Management Systems.
Oscar on the absurdity of numbers
The students on that course are very familiar with Ian’s cat Oscar. Oscar is special; he can talk. When some friends visited his home, Ian mentioned his cat’s talent. Totally disbelieving, they gave Ian odds of ten-to-one that Oscar couldn’t talk. Ian called his cat over; but he just sat there, … miaow … he didn’t say a word. The friends took Ian’s money and left. Ian was furious, and glared at Oscar; “no fish for you tonight”. Then in a very superior voice, because Oscar is a very superior cat, he purred: “call yourself a professor! Tomorrow night we’ll get a hundred-to-one.”
Oscar is saying that in statistics there is no such thing as independent variables whenever people are involved. As far as the friends were concerned there was just one bet, but for Oscar he deliberately threw today’s bet to win at far better odds more tomorrow. So here we realize that by bringing time into the equation, and the fact that one party has inside information, the notion of a numerical probability bears absolutely no relation to what is actually happening.
Counting on what might have been
Add in the idea of counting ‘what might have been’, and the whole notion of number gets really screwed up. Ian commutes by train, and the railway station is four bus stops from his home. Returning from work, he just missed a bus. So he ran after it. It came to a halt at the next stop further down the street. Just before he reached that stop, the bus took off again. Exactly the same thing happened at the next stop, and the next. Only one stop away from home, Ian decided to walk. Once home he kissed the cats, and told his wife how he had run home. But very pleased with himself, Ian said, in running home he had saved £1.20. Oscar was listening. As cynical as ever he butted in: “Call yourself a professor! If you had chased a taxi you would have saved £5.”
One plus one is … thirteen hundred and forty two.
Talk to Oscar and you learn that he has a very unusual and variable understanding of arithmetic. Ask him the big question “what is one plus one”, he is more than likely to ask “are we buying or selling?” On another occasion Oscar responded “thirteen hundred and forty two”.
A local farmer had a field of water melons – thirteen hundred and forty four of them. Oscar knows that Ian loves watermelons, and to please him two weeks ago he stole one from the field. The farmer was very annoyed – thirteen hundred and forty three left. Last week Oscar stole another – thirteen hundred and forty two. The furious farmer put up a sign saying “One of these water melons has been injected with cyanide.” In injecting one melon he had lost one melon, but that still left thirteen hundred and forty one, so it was a price worth paying.
When this week Oscar went to steal another, he saw the sign. Oscar came straight home, picked up a red felt-tip pen, and went straight back to the field. After scrawling over the sign, he crossed out the word ‘one’, so it now read “Two of these water melons have been injected with cyanide.”
With the farmer injecting cyanide into one melon plus Oscar inject one melon, the farmer had lost not two but thirteen hundred and forty-two melons.