Good Sentences

By Sean Carroll | May 10, 2010 8:13 am

Timothy Ferris, in The Science of Liberty:

In 1900 there was not a single liberal democracy in the world (since none yet had universal suffrage); by 1950 there were twenty-two.

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution has an ongoing series of posts in which he highlights “good sentences.” At first the conceit bugged me a bit, as how good can a single sentence be? It’s not like you have space to develop a sensible argument or anything.

But that’s the point, of course. A really good sentence packs a wallop because it fits an enormous amount into very few words. One technique for doing that is to exhibit an underlying assumption that is a remarkable claim in its own right. If I were to have tried to make the point that Ferris makes above, it would have been something like this:

Liberal democracies were established in fits and starts over a period of hundreds of years. The first major steps happened in countries like Britain, the United States, and France, where aristocratic systems were replaced (with different amounts of violence) by rule by popular vote. But I would argue that a true liberal democracy is one that features universal suffrage — every adult citizen has a right to participate. By that standard, there weren’t any liberal democracies in existence in the year 1900; but fifty years later, there were twenty-two.

Makes the point, but it’s a somewhat ponderous collection of mediocre sentences, rather than a single one of immense power. That’s the difference between someone who writes things, like me, and a true writer. I’m trying to learn.

Ferris’s book seems excellent, although I’ve just started reading it. It has a provocative thesis: the Enlightenment values of liberal democracy and scientific reasoning didn’t simply arise together. The emergence of science is rightfully understood as the cause of the democratic revolution. That’s the kind of thing I’d be happy to believe is true, so I’m especially skeptical, but I’m looking forward to the argument.

  • http://toomanytribbles.blogspot.com/ toomanytribbles

    it takes a highly intelligent mind to fully understand a good sentence.

  • John

    Since when was the United States a democracy?

  • Mantis

    Frankly democracy is pathetic, yes, it might be the best system attempted so far but it is still pathetic.

    Is it really so hard to come with something better? Something that can retain benefits of public oversight but prevent strong interest groups from buying/voting themselves benefits that bankrupt the society? We need a system which can select for strong, capable leaders not corrupt politicians.

    The important question is not whether science was the cause of democratic revolution but whether it can come up with something better.

  • Sam Gralla

    Here’s a nice sentence I encountered last week.

    “The orgy of multilinear algebra in standard treatises [on differential forms] arises from an unnecessary double dualization and the abusive use of the tensor product”

    Serge Lang

  • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com/ Norwegian Shooter

    That sentence is good, but it seems better for the non-traditional sentence structure and judicious use of punctuation, especially the oh-so-erudite semi-colon. Can you really describe:

    “Since no country had universal suffrage in 1900, there was not a single liberal democracy in the world at that time. However, there were twenty-two by 1950.”

    as packing a wallop? For me, even as a non-believer, this still takes the cake:

    “Jesus wept.”

    Of course, it assumes certain cultural knowledge, but that’s alright with me.

  • Michael Albert

    Great sentence, but it’s factually inaccurate (hint: New Zealand).

  • Felix

    “The emergence of science is rightfully understood as the cause of the democratic revolution.”

    AC Grayling makes the same argument in his book “Towards the Light”

  • Toiski

    “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”
    -Edmund Burke

  • A. Pedant

    It’s not a very good sentence at all — the “yet” is misplaced.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    I was reminded of this comic about the best sentence in the English Language. “We have cured all diseases!” is a way better sentence than the one about democracies. :)

  • T.

    I wonder how on earth that sentence got past his editors. New Zealand, 1893, universal suffrage. It would be a better example of a good sentence if it didn’t immediately make me slightly angry at having a significant part of history completely written out of existence.

  • http://astronomyquest.blogspot.com/ Andy Fleming

    We may be making headway towards a more democratic system here in the UK, after the General Election delivered a ‘hung parliament’ with no party in overall charge. I just hope that the Liberal Democrats ensure that whichever party they work with (Labour or Conservative) they insist on a referendum on proportional representation.

    Up until now with ‘first past the post’ we have had centuries of elected dictatorships, often with less than 35% of the popular vote!

  • http://www.spaceandgames.com Peter de Blanc

    I wonder which countries Timothy Ferris thinks have universal suffrage. Certainly not the US, in which the right to vote is denied to prisoners, illegal immigrants, and minors.

  • michael vassar

    Sentences like “That’s the kind of thing I’d be happy to believe is true, so I’m especially skeptical, but I’m looking forward to the argument.” just warm my heart. I bet that you would love http://www.lesswrong.com, http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Sequences, and other SIAI work aimed at promoting an awareness of better techniques for critical thinking.

    Good point Peter, BTW.

  • spyder

    The emergence of science is rightfully understood as the cause of the democratic revolution.

    I often mentioned this thesis to my students; it is also linked directly to philosophical development Each substantive change in philosophy was prefaced by significant changes in the scientific overview. This goes back millennia.

  • Kees

    I agree with (14). That is an good sentence in itself.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    No one-liner can ever be optimal.

    —Stephen Jay Gould

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    We may be making headway towards a more democratic system here in the UK, after the General Election delivered a ‘hung parliament’ with no party in overall charge. I just hope that the Liberal Democrats ensure that whichever party they work with (Labour or Conservative) they insist on a referendum on proportional representation.

    Of course PR is a much better system. However, what you write is full of non-sequiturs. Yes, the “hung parliament” left no party in overall charge. However, the reason that PR might be coming is that the LibDems want it, and now are in a position to force it. (Labour had promised a referendum during the last government but broke its promise.) Also, one of the problems with lack of PR was, as you say, one party in overall charge even though they had much less than an absolute majority of the popular vote. In most (but not all) cases, PR leads to a coalition government, with no party in overall charge, but that is a good thing.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    …idiots, imbeciles, aliens, the insane and women…

    —A law standing in Texas until 1918 regulating who could not vote

    Certainly not the US, in which the right to vote is denied to prisoners, illegal immigrants, and minors.

    Seriously, let’s not play word games. Should a two-year-old have the right to vote? Give me a break! Prisoners, OK, that is debatable. (In some countries, a possible punishment is having one’s right to vote taken away for a period of time, without imprisonment.) Illegal immigrants? They are, errmm, illegal. The right to vote is the main thing which distinguishes citizens from non-citizens. (This is not to say that I don’t have sympathy with some illegal immigrants, but one should either send them back or make them legal. Keeping them illegal but giving them rights which otherwise citizens have is neither fish nor fowl. And I won’t even touch on the hypocrisy of the US economy depending on illegal immigrants.)

  • http://ill-conceived-rant.blogspot.com/ Bewildered

    Funny, I prefer your version. It is more carefully worded and clearly emphasises that this is your definition of liberal democracies and that you aware that others exis, as well as providing additional background info.

  • spyder

    Well at least this isn’t Switzerland, where in several of the cantons one must have a sword to vote, and only grown men can own swords.

  • http://lablemming.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    So if science enabled universal sufferage, how did it start in NZ? And why is China emerging as a scientific powerhouse today?

    Going back another century, the French Revolution did huge damage to French science; it took a generation to recover.

  • http://www.spaceandgames.com Peter de Blanc

    Philip: I would not be at all surprised if writers in 1900 thought that they had universal suffrage, not even noticing that women are people too. If you think it’s reasonable to say that we have universal suffrage now, then I don’t think you’re looking at the long-term trends. Should two-year-olds be able to vote? I would probably say no, but I’m not at all sure about six-year-olds. Still, I wouldn’t apply the term “universal” to anything less than all humans.

  • diogenes

    It’s not really true that New Zealand has had universal sufferage since 1893. Until quite recently, Maori could only vote for special Maori seats in the government, and those seats SEVERELY underrepresented them in terms of population. Since this was true up until 1996, I’d say the NZ came very late to this idea.

  • Philoponus

    The parallelism in Ferris’ sentence is ruined by the parenthetical remark wedged into the middle of it. Like many writers, he tries to stuff too much into one sentence. If you have two different things to say, clarity and grace are best served by saying them into two sentences.

    Sean, next time you are in one of the eastern cantons of Switzerland, ask a Swiss citizen what his experience of democracy is. Almost all the important legislation in Switzerland is carried by direct popular vote or plebiscites. The people have real power over the laws that govern them, not just in a Tweedle-dee Tweedle-dum election of their rulers. It is an Orwellian irony that the plutocratic oligarchies under which we live are styled “liberal democracies” without scare quotes. There are some very interesting 1780’s letters between Gov Morris and Hamilton and others about daring to call the American Republic a democracy, when plainly it was not. Gov Morris says it does not matter, the common people are not too bright and they will swallow this fraud. It seems he was prescient. I am sorry if these facts complicate your thesis about a link between science and democracy, but perhaps you should give some thought to defining what is a democracy in the modern context. The term is much abused and debased.

  • Ahmad

    This is particularly interesting for anyone involved with information and physical complexity. The interplay between the information in several systems determines how concise Ferris can make his line, and how aesthetically pleasant it comes across..etc.

    For much the same reasons, poetry has always been a subject of fascination of mine. Poetry (particularly in a language like Arabic) transcends grace. It is an art of communication, and was at one time the language of debate. So when you said

    “fits an enormous amount into very few words”

    it rang a few bells. A couple of verses can constitute an argument otherwise spanned by volumes. This is not always because the reader is on the same grounds as the author. It is not a partition of bits of information. The reader simply has the capability to arrive at the meaning being conveyed, even though he may be virulently opposed to it. So the finest poetry, in the domain of debate, is that which convinces the opponent with information he *already* possesses.

    It’s almost like the original paragraph of prejudice is a ciphertext, from which the truth can be deciphered, with the right key.

  • uffe hellum

    That stretches the definition of “good”. I would agree to ambiguous, humorous, thought-provoking, and open-ended. But in some contexts I would rather see honesty, clarity, unambiguity, and up-front.

    The statement is engineered to delay the actual agenda until the punch, and to be unclear enough that even radical opponents may not easily counter with rational arguments. These are not virtues in a debate, only in stand-up comedy and in the art of Spin.

    I strongly agree with the literal statement, that universal suffrage is a metric for democracy, as are respect for human rights. Other stepping stones to a free democracy include free human property, human welfare, human safety, human health, human education.

    Interestingly, most people would agree that slavery is incompatible with our perception of democracy. I can’t lock up my gardener or my carpenter, even though it would be very convenient for me.

    Most people would agree that I can’t chase off competing buyers in the supermarket, just so I can buy all the carrots. Nor can I insist that I have a right to pay less for carrots than the supermarket wishes to sell.

    *** Some fundamental rights are premises without which all talk of democracy is obviously absurd ***

    I would argue that a few fundamentals are missing in US and many other countries:
    – Universal suffrage includes prison inmates. You cannot exclude Jews or blacks or Irish or gays or convicts.
    – Constitutional rights include occupied or dominated territories.
    – Humans are free to migrate regardless of local rules. Just like nobody can stop me from moving from Dallas to Seattle, nobody has the right to prevent somebody from moving from Madras to Copenhagen, or from Lebanon to Jerusalem.
    – Universal suffrage includes long term residents. You cannot arbitrarily define a group without voting rights.
    – Universal suffrage does not include non-residents. Fair terms of residency are very complicated. Tourists and soldiers on short missions should keep the right to vote at home, maybe :-)

    /Uffe

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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