“Similarity serves as a basis for the classification of objects,” wrote the noted psychologist Amos Tversky, “but it is also influenced by the adopted classification.” The flip side holds: Things we might have viewed as more similar become, when placed into two distinct categories, more different.
Genre is also the way we most commonly make sense of music. But here, too, a form of categorical perception reigns.
There are some countries so vast and diverse that any attempt to summarise them feels insulting: such is Indonesia. With a population of 258 million, it is the world’s fourth most populous nation and the largest formed by an archipelago. When it was guest of honour at the Frankfurt book fair last year, it appeared under the banner “17,000 islands of imagination”, a phrase describing its geography but also encapsulating the complexities of representation. Indonesia is home to hundreds of different ethnicities speaking as many languages, and, along with Hindus, Christians and Buddhists, has a majority Muslim population that is the largest in the world. But, as yet, little of its literature has been translated into English.
That ambition explains why my heart leapt when, among the shabby titles in the Cornell store’s alcove, I noticed 29 leather-bound volumes of what turned out to be the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The set was marked $25 and, after a quick count to be sure it was complete, I raced to the cashier to hand over my money, fearful that the price might suddenly be raised or that someone else would swoop down and carry off my new-found treasure. I then borrowed a grocery store cart to wheel the oversized volumes back to my room. I still own those books, even though their spines have slowly crumbled away, such deterioration — called red rot — being sadly typical of the Eleventh’s aging leather.
Denis Boyles doesn’t mention red rot or, for that matter, the minuscule type of the smaller-sized cloth-bound edition of the Eleventh, but “Everything Explained That Is Explainable” doesn’t overlook much else. Boyles’s account of how this classic reference work came to be published in 1910-1911 makes for enthralling business history.
We can wish and wish and wish for someone to change. We can think that by using this word, and not that... they can make things better or easier for themselves — and by extension, us. But all that wishing won't matter if the rest of the world refuses to bend.
The original researchers and the replicators both have a stake in cooperation. Even if a replication attempt fails, the field will find the failure far more informative because both parties agreed on the process in the first place. Then they can set their sights on understanding why the replication results differed from the original study. The lesson here is not that context is too hard to study, but rather that context is too important to ignore.