An epistemology of speed

In Karl Popper’s magisterial book The Poverty of Historicism, the philosopher warns about extrapolating the future from the present; given that we are unable to adequately describe the present, even the future will be elusive to us. “It is not possible for us to observe or to describe a whole piece of the world, or a whole piece of nature,” he wrote. “In fact, not even the smallest whole piece may be so described, since all description is necessarily selective.”

Popper was talking about the great sweep of human history and criticizing the idea that there are laws of development in history and that these laws are evolving towards some sort of ideal end point. But even on a smaller scale, Popper was wary about relying on certain ‘truths’. In his epistemology, we accumulate knowledge of the world through the process of deduction. We put forward hypotheses and test these with appropriate observations. The rules or laws that we discover are at all times subject to falsification through further testing. Some laws withstand a substantial amount of testing, and are therefore more robust than others, but are – in a philosophical sense at least – still falsifiable. Overall, we must always be critical. “For if we are uncritical, we shall always find what we want,” Popper said. “We shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories.”

This post will look at the question of speed on a bicycle, and how we achieve it, with these two approaches in mind: the difficulty of accurately describing the present situation, and hence the difficulty of predicting the future; and a critical approach to established theories of going faster. As such, I argue for a much less obvious epistemology of speed.

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Climb like a badger

In the bucolic British children’s fable, ‘Wind in the Willows’, the character of Mr. Badger is a rather gruff fellow, a no-nonsense practical type, rather solitary in the winter off-season and sticks close to home, but generous – if not somewhat paternal – to his friends, but sometimes prone to outburst. “Now the very next time this happens,” he scolds. “I shall be exceedingly angry.”

In the somewhat more recent French version the Badger, le blaireau, is not an entirely different character.

“I’ll be the badger forever,” Bernard Hinault wrote after his retirement. “It doesn’t bother me.” Hinault was at a loss to explain the nickname and suggested that it was a commonly-used nickname that seemed to suit him and stuck to him somewhere around 1977.

“Very little is known about badgers,” he said. “And that suits me.”

What people did seem to know about badgers, however, was their ferocity. “As long as I live and breathe, I attack” was Hinault’s most famous quote.

Hinault 1
Le blaireau proved to be an apt nickname

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