John Tukey and Aristotle

I just ran across a quote from Aristotle that seemed right in line with the quotes from John Tukey I posted the other day.

It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits.

I think Tukey and Aristotle may have gotten along well.

I believe Tukey said “There is no point in being precise when you don’t know what you’re talking about.” I’m going from memory, and that quote may not be verbatim. (I did a Google search on “john tukey quotes” and came up with maybe 20 pages that have the exact same three quotes from Tukey. I can’t imagine that 20 independent editors came up with the same three quotes. It’s not as if the man only said three memorable lines. I imagine there’s a great deal of copying going on.)

Here are a couple quotes from Tukey that Aristotle may have appreciated.

Finding the question is often more important than finding the answer.

The test of a good procedure is how well it works, not how well it is understood.

I have mixed feelings about the second quote. Sometimes you do have use things that work well even if you don’t understand why. For example, no one completely understands how anesthesia works. But Tukey was speaking in the context of statistical methods, and there I do see some virtue in using what you understand well even when something you don’t understand appears to work better. Maybe the poorly understood technique on appears to do better on a handful of examples and could fail on your data. But I believe Tukey was referring to techniques that many people have used successfully on a wide variety of problems even though the theoretical foundations haven’t been completely explored.

2 thoughts on “John Tukey and Aristotle

  1. Tukey is often quoted as saying that it’s “better to be approximately right than exactly wrong.”

  2. I was looking for a Tukey quote which from memory is along the lines of … “… that grotesque phenonomen that is mathematical statistics… “. Does that ring any bells? Would anyone know where I could find that?

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