Not a huge insight, to be fair

Her first chapter, “A Brief History of the Normal”, makes her central point succinctly by examining the term’s shifts in meaning. Before the 19th century, normal meant “regular”, “governed by a rule”: a right angle was “normal”, while the French Ecoles Normales trained model teachers for a new rational era. It came to its modern sense via astronomy, in what would come to be known as “normal distribution”. The characteristic symmetrical bell curve emerged from Carl Friedrich Gauss’s plotting of errors in astronomical measurements in 1801: large errors occurred infrequently, generating the low, long tails; smaller errors occurred very frequently, generating the rounded peak around the most likely actual value of the phenomenon itself.

Largely a restatement of statistical variation. And given the number of different ways that we can measure a human we’re all at the extremes for one thing or another and therefore abnormal. So, normal doesn’t exist.

In one of the Tom Clancey’s, the one where the Iranians weaponise Ebola, one of the subjects they test (ie, infect and thereby try to kill) upon seems likely to survive the experience until they actively kill him. Some muttering about the depth of the human gene pool – meaning variance is so high that some would indeed survive even Ebola.

And let’s be honest about this, if something is an aside in a Tom Clancy novel it’s not exactly an unknown now, is it?

9 thoughts on “Not a huge insight, to be fair”

  1. Isn’t the “normal” of normal distribution also “regular”, “governed by a rule”, “at a right angle”? A normal line is the opposite to a parallel line, the peak in a bell distribution is bulging upwards at a normal to the data line. Maybe it should be written norm-al for the hard of thinking.

  2. There seems to be a huge market among the chattering classes for the populariser books. Stuff which specialists already know, but which is written up with an appealing angle or narrative so people have something to say at dinner parties. Longitude, Wittgenstein’s Poker, Dominion, etc, etc.

  3. “‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings ”

    Or about 26 in the case of SET. We can handle different meanings of normal, just like we do for gay, pride and such.

  4. “And given the number of different ways that we can measure a human we’re all at the extremes for one thing or another and therefore abnormal. So, normal doesn’t exist.”

    I think you’ll find that our hardware, and to a large extent our firmware, are built to very narrow specifications. We’d rapidly cease to exist if it weren’t thus, and as such the extremely vast majority of us are Normal.

    Our software is another matter, because it’s developed to be as flexible as possible, so that we can cope with as many different circumstances as possible. This leads to an extremely wide distribution, and our necessity to have either consensus or war.
    So in that respect none of us are Normal. Because we aren’t supposed to be.

    The weird bit about our modern age is that for some reason people are obsessed with the very few outliers in the hardware/firmware department, while actively trying to suppress the flexibility and creativity of the software department.
    If there’s one clear sign the world has gone bonkers….

  5. Careful teachers of statistics used to distinguish Normal from normal. The intention was to remind the student that Normal was a technical term. I don’t remember anyone doing the same for Significant but I went to stats lectures before the use of “significant” had become commonplace on the lips of self-important prats.

    Chemistry lecturers should ideally have written Ideal for an Ideal gas but their habits were slacker. If only physics lecturers had known that the same sort of self-important prats would start gassing about “impact” those lecturers might have started referring to Impacts.

    Maybe nowadays we could use “race” to mean those things that really, really don’t exist and “Race” for the varieties of mankind.

  6. Come to think of it, now that The Young band about “random” as an everyday word perhaps stats lecturers should write “Random” for the technical meaning.

    It’s a separate point that random/Random has at least two quite distinct technical meanings in stats – as the more careless lecturer will fail to emphasise. Maybe the careful lecturer should use Random/randoM.

    (Why is the teaching of statistics and probability often so thoughtless? Maybe it’s pursued by people who are not good enough at maths to be mathematicians, and insufficiently practical to be physicists or engineers.)

  7. Wasn’t this one of the gripes penned by that trumped up nurse in the egregious hit piece masquerading as the obituary of E.O. Wilson in Scientific American.

    First, the so-called normal distribution of statistics assumes that there are default humans who serve as the standard that the rest of us can be accurately measured against.

    Now, one asinine dimwit bringing it up is happenstance, a second one may be coincidence. I am not holding my breath that there won’t be a third showing that this is indeed enemy action

  8. One saw an article from a sports psychologist that all goalies can be considered abnormal as evolution has trained us to avoid hard/fast moving objects as a matter of survival instinct, but a goalie does the opposite and attempts to get in the way.

  9. @gunker

    It was that sort of trash in SA that caused me to cancel my subscription of over 40 years (and I’d read it for over a decade before that).

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