The Propaganda of Numbers

Readers of The Chronicle who took their general-education requirements to heart may recall that Ishmael, Melville's persistent narrator in Moby-Dick, spends much of his 600-page allotment on an epistemological voyage. Driven by the conviction of infinite mind and by the belief that descriptions of reality matter, he struggles mightily to know the whale through the principal 19th-century avenues of knowledge — empirical, rational, and existential. Ultimately he alone is saved from