Monday, December 2, 2013
David Hackett Fischer's Historians' Fallacies is one of my favorite books. It is insightful, witty, and humorous. In one such fallacy, one he labels "The Fallacy of Statistical Sampling" Fischer provides several examples of the error, including a 1936 Literary Digest prediction that Kansas Governor Alf Landon would defeat the incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt in the upcoming presidential election. Of course, Landon did not win. In fact, he suffered the biggest defeat in our nation's history, with FDR capturing 98.5% of the electoral college. Fischer argues that the Literary Digest poll was not an accurate barometer of the electorate at large because its sample drew disproportionately from wealthier Americans. In hindsight this seems so obvious as to be silly to miss. Far away on the other side of the globe, in the Philippines, a forty-five year old Lieutenant Colonel named Dwight D. Eisenhower couldn't believe the results of the Literary Digest poll. However, his boss, General Douglas MacArthur gave great credence to the poll. Partially this resulted from wishful thinking on the general's part. He despised the FDR and hoped to see him ousted from the White House. The other issue is that, according to Eisenhower's Diaries (edited by Robert H. Ferrell, 1981) MacArthur bet 1,000 pesos on the Kansas governor winning the election. Eisenhower tried to dissuade his chief from this delusion and showed evidence that Landon could not even carry his (both Alf's and Ike's) home state let alone carrying the country. Although Eisenhower did not pinpoint the specific flaw of the Literary Digest poll, he knew that the survey lacked a "proper index." (p 22) MacArthur would have none of it and called Ike and another staff officer who ridiculed the Literary Digest poll results as, "fearful and small-minded people who are afraid to express judgements that are obvious from the evidence at hand." (p.22) Eisenhower's reaction in his diary was to scrawl, "Oh hell." (p.22) Six weeks later, on November 15, 1936, the subject came up again. This time MacArthur felt cheated by Literary Digest. Not only was he out 1,000 pesos, but he became fearful that the administration would discover that he had bet against them, quite literally.
Monday, November 18, 2013
In my last posting I mentioned how Professor Henry Fairfield Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History, Columbia University, and the New York Zoological Society named tyrannosaurus rex, perhaps the most famous dinosaur. What I neglected to mention is the role William Temple Hornaday played in this paleontological development. It was one of the little stories that never made it into The Most Defiant Devil due to word count and a desire to keep the narrative fluid and focused. Tangents about dinosaurs and other trimmings found their way to the cutting room floor. On a hunting trip along Hell Creek in Montana, Hornaday came across a field of dinosaur bones. Among other things, he recognized the distinct skull of a Triceratops. Although the skull itself was badly damaged and fractured, Hornaday brought one of its horns to New York City to demonstrated the potential of this unknown fossil cache. Henry Fairfield Osborn sent one of his men, who unearthed the remains of what Hornaday described in a magazine article reprinted in A Wild-Animal Round-Up as, "predatory, and carnivorous to the utmost." He continued the story. "A skull, four feet long, and set with frightful teeth, was unearthed and sent to New York; and in due time the world was introduced to Tyrranosaurus [sic.] Rex, the Tyrant Dinosaur, late of Hell Creek." (emphasis in the original, both quotes are on page 80).
Friday, November 15, 2013
During the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in 1925 Henry Fairfield Osborn, President of the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Zoological Society, wrote The Earth Speaks to Bryan. It was slim addition to his awe-inspiring canon of published material. Over his scholarly career, the prolific Osborn published over 1,000 items, including books, articles in both popular magazines and scholarly journals, reviews, introductions, prefaces, lectures, addresses, etc. As a professor at Columbia University, president of the American Museum of Natural History, and one of the foremost experts on evolution and paleontology Osborn possessed the scientific authority to speak definitely on the topic. He had the best education money could afford the scion of an elite New York family, and he had studied in England with the disciples of Charles Darwin. You can read his observations of these notable men of science in his memoir, Impressions of Great Naturalists (1924). After obtaining his doctorate in 1880 he taught at Princeton University before moving to Columbia. In 1906 he declined his childhood friend’s, President Theodore Roosevelt’s offer to be secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Begging Congress for money was not his style and leaving his comfortable Hudson River estate for the swampy national capital was not to his taste. Over the next twenty years Osborn ascended to the very pinnacle of scientific authority in the United States. Among other things he discovered and named a new species of dinosaur, Tyrannosaurus Rex. Attacking William Jennings Bryan came naturally to Osborn, a conservative Republican who viewed the Great Commoner’s version of populism as dangerous demagoguery and a genuine threat to the socio-economic order. Citing the book of Job, Osborn asked that the Earth be allowed to speak for itself, thus the title of his exposition. The story the Earth told went much further back than 4,000 years, and Osborn chastised Bryan for not allowing Scopes to speak this truth. Osborn provided a detailed (and very dry) discussion of geological evidence and of tooth and toe fossils over time to demonstrate that the planet had to be much older than the literal interpretation of the Bible implied and that that species evolved in form. If the Bible was not literal science, however, Osborn still maintained it was rightly the foundation of morality. Nor did he view evolution as antithetical to the existence of God. Instead, he argued that God used evolution as His mechanism to bring about change. We might call this “intelligent design” today, but it was common among the first generation of evolutionists to make this argument. They saw no contradiction between a liberal interpretation of Christianity and Darwin’s theory. Oddly, Osborn put the locus of man’s evolution in Central Asia, where he had travelled in the 1920s to collect specimens, not Africa. But this is where the ugly side of Osborn’s evolutionary theory rears its disgusting head. Like most of the men of science in his generation, he allowed evolution to underwrite a very nasty form of racism. There are more than a few specimens of this thought in his vast canon of writings, including the preface for his friend Madison Grant’s “scientific” racist diatribe, The Passing of the Great Race (1916). In addition, Osborn supported the display of an African pygmy named Ota Benga with the chimpanzees at the Bronx Zoo in 1906, and created the Hall of Man display at the American Museum of Natural History to connect his racial and scientific views of human evolution to development.
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
William T. Hornaday and The Most Defiant Devil got something of a nice write up here and I thank the author Forrest Whitman and the poster Aaron Storms for doing so. Still to correct two minor points. First, Hornaday could be most welcome in the halls of power, especially Congress. He testified on several occasions, and never failed to find sponsors for his bills, or powerful allies in the House or Senate. Second, while Hornaday could be abrasive and downright rude with those whom he disagreed, he was also a very affable, charming, and gregarious person with a ready smile and great sense of humor. He formed many friendships that lasted for decades, but these were mostly with individuals outside the conservation movement. Those inside the conservation movement, on the other hand, felt the sting of his frequent loyalty tests and demands for policy purity.