Avian writing proficiency

“The problem of knowledge is that there are many more books on birds written by ornithologists than books on birds written by birds and books on ornithologists written by birds.”

Nassim Taleb, Bed of Procrustes

When it comes to birds, at least we have an excuse for epistemic blindness: avian writing proficiency has lingered around 0.0% for the bulk of human memory.

Unfortunately, we commit the same error in liberal education. High school history classes use textbooks that summarize events that were only important in hindsight. English classes read authors who were unpopular or unknown in their time. We study the past through the lens of the present far more than we study the past through the lens of the past, or the present through the lens of the past (i.e. old predictions about the future).

In doing so, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to study the types of errors we make in forecasting the future. We declare that Edgar Allen Poe and Franz Kafka were ‘underappreciated’ in their time, implying that we see clearly what our predecessors missed. We forget that we are living in someone else’s past, that we will be summarized and laughed at, that the authors that come to define our generation will likely be those that we’ve never heard of or heartily dismissed.

Like some twisted Greek myth, time turns each generation of ornithologists into birds.