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‘It’s what I call common sense, properly understood,’ replied Father Brown. ’It really is more natural to believe a preternatural story, that deals with things we don’t understand, than a natural story that contradicts things we do understand. Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing-room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible. But I’m much more certain it didn’t happen than that Parnell’s ghost didn’t appear; because it violates the laws of the world I do understand.
Much as I enjoy reading G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, perhaps they’re best taken one at a time. There’s a certain uniformity to them, and I don’t just mean that the murderer never turns out to be Catholic. There are always sound, practical, men of the world who are deceived by some sort of supernatural occurrence, and Father Brown solves the mystery by disbelieving in old curses or modern magicians. While allowing for the vagaries of fiction there are things well worth learning in those stories.
When a man presents to me a funny idea I find that I’m often able to grasp the essentials and dismiss it because of what I already know. If you were to try and sell me a perpetual motion machine then I’d mark you down as a con man right away. Not because I’ve sussed out the particular con you’re using, but because I know enough about energy to know that the con must be in there somewhere.
Let’s say that someone is proposing a plan to optimize our elementary schools. They’ll collect continuous data on the students while they’re learning and feed that data into powerful machine learning engines to plot out an optimized curriculum for each individual student. Lay aside for the moment privacy concerns, it sounds like a neat plan, right? It won’t work. I know a little about data collection and about machine learning so maybe it’s plausible according to the laws of that world. I know enough about the ability of central planners to organize people’s lives from a century of socialism to tell you that, however they optimize this curriculum, it won’t be.Published in