Sunday, January 8, 2012

More Folly, Less Idiocy

I had the good fortune to travel to Kyōto this past week where I made a pilgrimage to an out-of-the-way bookstore called Keibunsha in a district called Ichijoji on the Eizan line.

It's a used bookstore, mostly, heavy on art, but it doesn't feel or smell so much like one. I'm guessing most of the titles are remaindered or otherwise out of print, though there is also a selection of new magazines and children's books classics. It seems like a lot of thought has gone into the selection of the books.

One book which caught my eye was one called 百年の愚行, translated as One Hundred Years of Idiocy, a fetching title for sure. My curiosity didn't, however, extend to going so far as actually opening the book to see which human endeavors were being ridiculed.

Later, when I brought my photograph home, I did notice a couple of the names mentioned on the jacket — Claude Levi-Strauss and Freemon Dyson — not exactly what one would call idiots.

Not being familiar with the term 愚行 (gukou) I looked it up to find that my dictionary defined it as folly, or a foolish move, making me wonder if folly and idiocy were in fact synonyms. My gut told me they were not.

I looked them up to find that the latter, as a psychological term, meaning severe mental retardation, has fallen into desuetude due to its offensive tinge. In its normal everyday usage, when one just wants to call an idiot and idiot, it does mean extreme folly or stupidity, so I guess the question then becomes one of degree. An idiotic utterance or act implies that the person either had no brains or didn't bother to use them, whereas the person committing a folly may have blundered into a mistake through inattention or an insufficient grasp of the facts.

The reason all of this matters is that I could see Freemon Dyson be accused of folly, but not of idiocy. Regarding space exploration, particularly the search for life, he has been ridiculed for proposing that "an easy way to look for evidence of life in Europa's ocean is to look for freeze-dried fish in the ring of space debris orbiting Jupiter." (He argues that meteors splashing down on that planet would throw up large quantities of water, some of which would freeze. If there happened to be life swimming in those oceans, logically they would be thrown up and freeze too.)

In the global warming wars, he has taken a lot of criticism for his heretical views, especially his distaste for current climate change models (you can listen to him speaking of them here.) "[M]y objections to the global warming propaganda are not so much over the technical facts, about which I do not know much, but it’s rather against the way those people behave and the kind of intolerance to criticism that a lot of them have." (Hello Al Gore?)

Anyway, not having opened the book, I have no idea into what service poor Freeman has been called. I do know that my Tangorin translator gives me this as an example sentence for gukou: "Who lives without folly is not so wise as he thinks."

Speaking on the architecture of Wikipedia, Dyson has this to say: "Even in the noisiest system, errors can be reliably corrected and accurate information transmitted, provided that the transmission is sufficiently redundant. That is, in a nutshell, how Wikipedia works. ... Science is the sum total of a great multitude of mysteries. It is an unending argument between a great multitude of voices. It resembles Wikipedia much more than it resembles the Encyclopaedia Britannica."

So, more folly, less idiocy shall heretofore be our rallying cry.

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