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Thursday, January 3, 2008

Two Corrolaries to Sturgeon's Revelation

  1. 90% of observers are crap at telling which 90% is the crap.
  2. There is a 90% chance that you are one of these observers.
Posted by benrosen at January 3, 2008 05:35 PM | Up to blog

It is astonishing how true that is, and how hard it is to remember.


Posted by: Vardibidian at January 3, 2008 07:32 PM

#2 is only true if it's a game of chance.

Posted by: David Moles at January 4, 2008 02:46 AM

This sort of reminds me of the saying, "Half of the money spent on advertising is wasted, but no one knows which half."

Posted by: Ted at January 4, 2008 08:03 AM

David, can you elaborate? I mean this from an epistemological or heuristic perspective. Like, how would you know if you were in the non-crap 10%? Wouldn't your information necessarily come from other observers who are also, a priori, 90% likely to be crap at telling who is crap? And so on?

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 4, 2008 10:19 AM

Do you think there's a 90% chance that what you write is crap?

Posted by: David Moles at January 4, 2008 04:08 PM

Well, really, of course, I am lampooning the absolutism of Sturgeon's definition. *I* don't think it's crap, but then, I wouldn't, would I?

I do expect that if you picked an average English speaker out of the phone book and asked them what they thought of what I write, there is a 90% chance they wouldn't like it.

That may not be quite the same thing as "crap". I think there probably is *not* a 90% chance that they would call it crap, but that is mostly because the educational system acts as a standardizing and stabilizing force, unifying people's definition of crap. That is, they can tell that the sentences are constructed the way they were told to construct sentences in school, the characters seem to talk in ways that, however alienating, resemble the ways characters talked in books they remember being told in school were good... and thus they will guess that it's probably not crap, and that the problem is with them. They will suspect that it is they who are crap.

Is that what you mean by "not a game of chance"?

I am, however, suspicious of this standardization process, since there is a 90% chance that whoever made the decisions about what would be lionized in school was crap at making such decisions...

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 4, 2008 04:23 PM

I think David is objecting to the lack of weighting... i.e., as a published writer the odds of your stories being crap is lower than if you were unpublished. Of course, it could be that 90% of published writing is crap--but then based on your reprints in "best of" anthologies, again... you odds are bettered.

Perhaps there needs to be a standard deviation corollary... Statisticians like to say a guy with his feet in an oven and his head in a freezer feels, on average, pretty ok. :)

Posted by: Ethan at January 4, 2008 04:48 PM

May I play?

  • Only about 90% of crap is actually crap.

  • 90% of non-crap turns out to be crap after all.

Posted by: Dan Percival at January 6, 2008 05:40 AM

I suppose "objecting to the lack of weighting" is one way to put it, Ethan, though I wouldn't necessarily be so concrete about it as "published/unpublished", esp. because IIRC Sturgeon's original ratio was only looking at the published stuff anyway.

Ben, "90% of randomly selected readers will think any given piece of published fiction is crap" may or may not be true, and if true might or might not be interesting, but in any case would make a hash out of both your corollaries.

Maybe that's your point.

I would submit, though, that most of us as writers behave as though we believe that there is some not-entirely-subjective (albeit difficult to measure -- perhaps unattainably so) quality of un-crappiness, and as though there are things we can do to make both individual works and our output overall less crappy.

Assuming such a quality exists, the result of such effort would, presumably, be to give our work a better-than-random chance of falling into the un-crappy 10%.

I see no reason why the same should not be true for critics.

Posted by: David Moles at January 6, 2008 11:47 AM

Though, actually, I'd tend to believe that any apparent single crappiness quotient is a statistical artifact, c.f. IQ (or, more specifically, Spearman's g).

Posted by: David Moles at January 6, 2008 11:51 AM

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "not-entirely-subjective". I think that I, as a writer, believe there is a vital, important, deeply meaningful, entirely subjective quality of non-crappiness for which I strive every day with every fiber of my being, etc etc. At least, it's in principle entirely subjective. It has to do with effects that take place entirely within someone -- namely, a reader's -- subjectivity.

That's really the only kind of non-crappiness I'm interested in attaining, as a writer. Any objective standard of non-crappiness which can be measured without reference to a reader's subjective experience -- say, adherence to various formal criteria ("show don't tell", anyone?) I'm extremely suspicious of. What use do I have for objective criteria?

Now if by "not entirely subjective" you don't mean something like "not entirely rooted in personal experience", but instead mean something like "about which we expect there to be some agreement in the circles in which we travel", then sure, of course, I expect there to be some degree of agreement around -- otherwise you and I wouldn't have so many conversations of the form "but how could you have liked what he did in X? It lacked virtues Y and Z, and while it attained a certain degree of virtue Q, that's hardly..." There's obviously a basis for discussion, certainly with people whose tastes you share... and of course, a lot of our time (at cons, in the blogosphere, etc) is spent sussing out people whose tastes we share and enjoying the opportunity for collaborative identification of non-crappiness that this affords.

At the end of the day, though, even for people as overlapping in tastes as you and me (and I would say that I've done, and had done for me by the systems of culture, a rough but effective sort of the planet's nine billion inhabitants in terms of cultural and esthetic overlap, which informs that judgement), a whole lot of those conversations tend to end "(shrug) Well, I'm a sucker for virtue Q."

I'm bemused why there being little agreement on quality (on crapolocativity?) would make a hash of my corrolaries.

The corrolaries are intended to be bubble-bursting. I felt the need of them in the comments thread of the last post, where I was pontificating on contemporary art. The pitfall of Sturgeon's Law is the implicit assumption that the speaker is clearly in the 10% (or knows where it lies, anyway). The corrolaries are intended to restore humility by pointing out that in the final analysis, one probably speaks for some rather small slice of humanity in one's pronouncements of what is crap.

And where one doesn't just speak for the 10% who accord with one's natural inclinations -- where non-subjective criteria intrude on the determination of crap -- I narrow my eyes at a whiff of hegemony.

Of course, everyone's subjectivity overlaps to some extent, so that perhaps it's not that hard to find some example of something that almost everyone would agree is crap, not because they've been trained to by a centralizing tradition, but because it just happens to occur to everyone as crap. Theoretically seems obvious: shouldn't there be some things we're just hardwired to find beautiful, and others we're hardwired to find crappy?

But it's surprisingly hard for me to think of an actual concrete example. Extreme things like a tape full of static or a blank wall could be apprehended as witty conceptual art in the right context. Maudlin, out of tune singing can attract a cult following for comic or ironic reasons or even because, as with some early punk bands, lack of technical skill can appear as a hallmark of authenticity and a rebellion against slick but soulless virtuosity. Bad stories offered from a slushpile, like the one with the beachball alien which Delany takes apart in one of the essays in About Writing, seem to me to be clearly crap, yet respected editors publish stories that have all their faults and must therefore have compensating virtues invisible to me. The Universally Crapulous Artwork, like the Holy Grail, reveals itself, perhaps, only to the few...

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 6, 2008 03:15 PM

If the only measure of crap is what observers think of it -- and if any given piece is identified as crap by 90% of observers -- then it doesn't make sense to talk about whether those observers are right or wrong.

Posted by: David Moles at January 6, 2008 05:06 PM

Except from your perspective. There's no reason you can't say "you're wrong, this is not crap", even knowing that there is no absolute standard of Truth About Crap, veiled from your limited mortal perspective, which you hope to mirror in your judgements. You can just say it is or isn't crap, and say why, even if the buck stops at your subjectivity.

You need two pieces of paper, one in each pocket; the piece of paper in your right pocket says "My Subjectivity Is The Final Arbiter" and the one in your left pocket says "There Is A 90% Chance That My Judgement Is Crap"

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 6, 2008 05:13 PM

I'm sorry, why? If your own subjectivity is the final arbiter, then by definition your subjective judgement is not crap. If the average of the subjectivities of the group is the final arbiter, and whatever you think of a piece, 90% of the group will think the piece is crap, that doesn't say anything about your judgement. There's no grounds anywhere in there for making any kind of statement about your judgement. If you say it's crap, 90% of observers will agree. If you say it's not crap, only 10% will. Neither has any more validity than the other.

Posted by: David Moles at January 6, 2008 05:34 PM

No, I take that back. If your judgement fails to find exactly 90% crap and 10% non-crap, we can say that your judgement is crap. It's possible that, given a certain sample size and a certain estimated crap/non-crap ratio on your part, one might determine that there's a 90% chance of your judgement being crap. But that 90% is unrelated to the general 90/10 crap/non-crap ratio in the population.

Posted by: David Moles at January 6, 2008 05:38 PM

The reason you need two pieces of paper is so you can frame-shift. Looking from within your own perspective, your subjectivity is the supreme arbiter and by definition non-crap. That's the podium from which you make all your aesthetic pronouncements.

This perspective in isolation, however, is limiting. Hence my itch of unease while I was making pronouncements about contemporary art. There's no objective position from which I can find the Ultimate Truth About Crapness; nonetheless, it's a matter of mere sanity to realize that my own opinions, from my own subjectivity, have validity of limited scope.

The second piece of paper is required for the cultivation of humility. At issue is not an average of the subjectiveness of the group (I don't know how you would perform such an average, or what it would represent), but springing from your perspective to someone else's perspective. The second paper is from the perspective of, let us say, the next random passerby.

If your judgement does not yield a 90%/10% breakdown, that does not prove your judgement is crap, since there's a 90% (or whatever) chance that Sturgeon was crap at discovering crap/noncrap breakdowns when he had his Revelation. (Pareto's guess, after all, was 80/20).

(I have the fear that our wires are crossing slightly here and that I'm in danger of irritating you -- I'm elaborating on a zany, playful koan which actually does, I think, capture the truth of how I see esthetic judgements. But if you're taking this as a more analytical statement than I mean it as, the last paragraph above is going to seem like a bait-and-switch ["but you *said* it was 90-10!"])

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at January 6, 2008 05:52 PM

Let's just say that I don't think the language of mathematical proof lends itself well to koans. On the whole I think I'm fairly sympathetic to your underlying call for humility and perspective, but as presented, it's not playfully paradoxical, it's just broken. (And, I might add, broken in a way that has a strong flavor of more common annoying misuses of math and/or science by the innumerate and/or scientifically illiterate, neither a category in which I would ordinarily count you.)

Posted by: David Moles at January 6, 2008 09:07 PM

Good one, Dan.

Posted by: Jackie M. at January 7, 2008 12:38 AM

Serendipity: this, I'm convinced, is applicable, though I'm not entirely clear how.

Posted by: David Moles at January 7, 2008 10:56 AM

Your proof will be fun if you take these into account :-

Everything is crap to someone.

90% (at least) of people who think they can write, can't.

90% (at least) of people do not understand probability and statistics.

Or if you want to talk about 'published' stuff and be more generous, then 75% of stuff isn't worth looking at again. Or 95% of stuff is not really good.

Posted by: Blue Tyson at January 11, 2008 09:51 AM
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