And this is a good opportunity to note that Helen DeWitt had a characteristically delightful and incisive series of observations recently as to why novelists might benefit from knowing a little bit of statistics. I am going to paste in some paragraphs, because I was so struck by them, only I am too lazy to really plunge into the conversation properly now--another time!
Here's some of what Helen has to say, at any rate:
Most fiction does nothing to make us aware of the gulf between cases where intution serves us well and those (surely far more common) where it does not. It does nothing to show where we should be wary, or how to think through tough cases. Most fiction is confined to the realm of false intuition; it offers us no viewpoint with a better understanding of chance. Which is simply to say that, because we live in a culture with a profound hostility to mathematics, the type of person who writes fiction is likely to be the type of person who shares that hostility and can rely on a large audience which also shares it. Among other things, this means that someone like my friend Rafe Donahue, a biostatistician at Vanderbilt, tends to be both underrepresented and misrepresented among fictional characters. Once upon a time persons of color could only get parts in films playing servants, often with amusing eccentricities which confirmed the supposed preconceptions of the audience; the sort of person who grapples with data analysis is either not seen in fiction or appears as some sort of eccentric.I have been obsessed this last year or two with the questions that arise from the use of free indirect discourse; I like the notion of free indirect discourse as a formal protocol that might yet be joined by some host of unimagined other tools drawn rather directly from the more analytic and mathematical disciplines. Hmmm, there's one to ponder...
As I write the Fed has cut its key interest rate by 75 points, down to 2.25%. The Fed has brokered a deal with Morgan Stanley; Bear Stearns, the fifth largest bank in the country, has been bought by MS at $2 a share, down from $160 a share last year. All this comes as a result of the collapse of the subprime market - a market dependent on financial instruments which were the pride of the finance industry only a couple of years ago. One thing fiction could have been doing all this time was enabling people to see on the page the way those in the risk business think about risk; it could have used the techniques of Edward Tufte's information design, for example, to present data in a way that did not numb the mind of the general reader.
This looks interesting from a formal point of view: fiction has made use for centuries of free indirect discourse, in which narrative is presented in the inner language of a character who is not the author, but has steered clear of the sort of inner language that helps itself to the bag of tricks of Tukey, Mosteller, Bill Cleveland and others too numerous to mention. It looks important simply because the management of risk is integral to our society; if fiction ignores the way this actually works, its view of the world is not much less primitive than one in which storms blow up because Odysseus angered Poseidon.