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12.1.06

Repetitive Academics

Spend enough time reading a specialized segment of the literature on any issue, and you'll start to hit repetition -- people using the same examples, the same illustrations, and even the same jokes. A good example of the latter in the social science of risk is the story of Sydney Smith. As John Adams tells it in his book Risk:

Over 150 years ago the Reverend Sydney Smith was being taken on a conducted tour of an Edinburgh slum. Down a narrow alley between two high-rise tenements he came upon two women shrieking abuse at each other across the alley. Smith stopped, looked up, and listened. He then shook his head and walked on, lamenting "they'll never agree; they're arguing from different premises.


The worst part about this case is that it's the non-punning sense of "arguing from different premises" that's being illustrated when writers tell this story. That is, you have to already understand the concept in order to get the joke that's supposed to illustrate it. I suppose, though, that I should just be grateful I don't have to sit through yet another telling of the story of the blind men and the elephant.

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