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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Liveblogging The Origins of Political Order

Discussing the same era as mentioned in my previous post, Fukuyama writes, "All of these [casualty] figures are regarded by historians as wildly inflated and unverifiable, but it is still remarkable that the Chinese ones are a full order of magnitude higher than their Western counterparts" (p. 111).

Well, it may be remarkable, but it doesn't tell us anything about the real casualty rate, does it? I mean, if these figures are "wildly inflated and unverifiable," what does it matter if they are a trillion times higher than their Western counterparts? Perhaps the Chinese had thought in terms of larger numbers than Europeans? Perhaps when they exaggerated, they really liked to exaggerate?

If two fisherman who are renowned liars tell you fish tales, and one says his fish that got away was 10-feet long, while the other says 20-feet, you are not justified in saying, "Well, even given that we know they are both liars, it is remarkable how much longer the second fellow's fish was than the first!"

UPDATE: And your are really getting the hang of how to think like an historian when you realize that the fact you can't conclude a two-to-one ratio in the fish tales above does not mean that an historian can't use them because they are not "reliable" accounts. All accounts of an event -- in fact, any remnant of an event at all -- can be used by the historian because they are all evidence. The question is not whether or not certain accounts are reliable, it is of what are those accounts evidence? So, the liar said he had caught a 20-foot fish -- why would he say 20, rather than some other number? Perhaps he is from an area (A) where the fish were generally bigger than in the area (B) from which the guy who said 10 feet was from? Now we have a hypothesis! We can examine the records: hmm, consistently we find that fish tales from A report bigger fish than fish tales from B. Now we have some more evidence for our hypothesis. So we ask the archaeologists about the nets and fishing boats from areas A and B: Those found in A are consistently larger! At this point, we would be justified in saying, "The residents of A, as far as we can tell at the present, fished for larger catch than those of B." Despite the fact our "accounts" are all lies, they still tell us something, if we know how to interrogate them.

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