2021v24, Monday: Reified abstracts.

More on thingification. This time with reference to the Big C. And something truly magical for watch wearers.

https://xkcd.com/881/

Short thought: A little over eight years ago, when I found out my dad had bladder cancer, it wasn’t God I turned to first. It was Gould.

Stephen Jay Gould, that is. Specifically a beautiful, life-affirming book of his that – in fact! – my dad had given me many years earlier, called Life’s Grandeur. In it, amongst stories on baseball and a number of other things, he described the shock of being diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer at the age of 40: one with a median mortality of just eight months.

Eight months! A death sentence, surely. But Gould being the statistician and evolutionary biologist that he was, he dug below the numbers – and realised that this single number hid, of course, a huge variation in actual outcomes.

A median, after all, is only a species of average: the precise middle of a distribution, with half the cases lower and half the cases higher. So in fact, almost 50% of sufferers lived longer than eight months – and, inevitably given that one end of the distribution (the short end) had a tragically hard limit, the other end was likely to have a long tail. Looking into what factors seemed to predominate in the longer-lived, he was able to emulate them – and in fact lived 20 years beyond the diagnosis, dying at the age of 60 in 2002.

Why do I mention this? Why drag myself back to a tough time (my father lived less than two years after his diagnosis, leaving us in September 2014)?

Because this is one example of thingification, and a really important one at that. That eight-month figure is an abstract. A simplification of reality, to aid us in understanding it.

It’s not a thing in itself. Yet, in something some call reification and Gould referred to as “the fallacy of the reified abstract”, how many times have you come across people talking of averages – particularly, perhaps, means, which are the total of all values in a set divided by the number of items in the set – as though they have some independent, normative life of their own? Almost as if a divergence from the mean is wrong, bad, improper? 

Or – still worse – someone getting the same figures as Gould got, but without the advantage of his background; and reading them with despair?

As Gould found, if one can approach a situation like his with a positive, can-do attitude, there’s a real and measurable improvement in the odds (although, as he pointed out, there was an “unintended cruelty of the ‘positive attitude’ movement – insidious slippage into a rhetoric of blame for those who cannot overcome their personal despair and call up positivity from some internal depth”). Leaving someone without the tools to interpret a number like a median mortality rate can, in a genuine sense, make their nightmares come true.

Even for those of us who love numbers, and particularly probability, this kind of thing scares us witless, as the peerless Randall Munroe expressed better than I’ve ever seen in an XKCD cartoon which still makes me cry more than a decade after I first saw it.

The good news is, Randall’s then-partner, later wife, is still with us.

Hope exists. Probabilities are just that. Odds aren’t pre-ordained. Thank goodness.


Someone is right on the internet: Wow. Just wow.

I know I’m a bit of an Apple fanboi. Have been for years. And I’m sure someone will tell me that this is in fact old news, that Android or Windows had it years ago or some such.

But seriously. Just watch the video embedded in this press announcement. Controlling your watch with hand movements, rather than having to touch the screen. Yes, it’s principally for folks whose upper limbs aren’t optimised for prodding at a tiny screen on their wrist – and it’s a fabulous and necessary idea as a result. But it promises to be good for us all. Answering a phone simply by clenching your fist twice? Good lord. Magic at work.


(If you’d like to read more like this, and would prefer it simply landing in your inbox three or so times a week, please go ahead and subscribe at https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com/.)

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