(Roughly) Daily

“Don’t let us forget that the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them”*…

Further, in a fashion, to yesterday’s post: Patricia Fara explains how the tension between religion and science as arbiters of knowledge came to head in the French Revolution, and how that inspired Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet, a Belgian astronomer, mathematician, statistician, and sociologist, to introduce a radically new way of thinking about human beings:

… God had been forcefully excluded from astronomy during the French Revolution, when Pierre-Simon Laplace rewrote Newton’s ideas to create his deterministic cosmos, in which scientific laws govern every movement of every planet with no need for divine intervention. Inspired by this success, a Belgian astronomer called Alphonse Queteler decided that human societies are also controlled by laws. Each country has its own statistical patterns that remain constant from year to year–suicide and crime rates, for instance–and so Quetelet suggested that an ‘average man’ can consistently encapsulate a nation’s characteristics. Politicians should, Quetelet prescribed, operate like social physicists and try to improve average behaviour rather than worry about extreme anomalies. For him, variations from the statistical mean were–like planetary wobbles–imperfections to be smoothed out so that overall progress could be ensured.

Quetelet had introduced a radically new way of thinking about human beings. As one of his admirers put it, ‘Man is seen to be an enigma only as an individual, in mass, he is a mathematical problem.’ Quetelet’s successors took his ideas in many different directions. For one thing, his work was valuable politically because it could be interpreted in different ways. While conservatives insisted that little could be done to alter the current system, radicals accused governments of impeding the natural course of progress, and Utopians–such as Karl Marx–envisaged harmonious societies governed by nature’s own laws guaranteeing improvement. Data collection projects proliferated, and statisticians searched for laws governing every aspect of life, ranging from the weather to the growth of civilization, from stock market fluctuations to the incidence of disease. Many scientists took their ideas from Quetelet rather than from abstract textbooks–but they added their own twist. Whereas Quetelet regarded individual deviations from the norm as errors to be eliminated, scientists set out to study how variations occur…

An excerpt from Fara’s Science: A Four Thousand Year History, via the invaluable Delanceyplace.com (@delanceyplace): “God, Science, and Data.”

* Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot


As we focus on frames, we might spare a thought for a man who kept his eye on the individual, Wilhelm Reich. A medical doctor and psychoanalyst, he was a member of the second generation of analysts after Sigmund Freud. Reich developed a system of psychoanalysis concentrating on overall character structure, rather than on individual neurotic symptoms. His early work on psychoanalytic technique was overshadowed by his involvement in the sexual-politics movement and by “orgonomy,” a pseudoscientific system he developed. He also built a device he called a cloud buster, with which he claimed he could manipulate the weather by manipulating the “orgone” in the atmosphere. Reich’s claims aroused much controversy; and he was taken to court for fraud by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The court ordered his books and research burned and his equipment destroyed. Reich was sentenced to prison where he died of heart failure on this date in 1957.


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