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The Emperor’s method February 3, 2013

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.

New clothesOnce upon a time there lived a vain Emperor, who loved to dress in elegant clothes. One day, two tailors presented themselves before the Emperor with an unusual offer:

“We are two highly skilled tailors, and after many years of research we have invented an extraordinary method to weave a cloth of exquisite beauty — which is invisible to anyone who is too stupid to appreciate its quality.”

“Your proposition sounds very interesting,” said the Emperor, “and I would very much like to own a suit made of such an amazing fabric.”

The tailors rubbed their hands and smiled.

“But before I commission your services,” continued the Emperor, “I’m sure you wouldn’t mind taking a little time to demonstrate your product’s extraordinary properties.”

“Of course,” replied the tailors. “It would be our privilege to help your Highness try on our—”

“That’s not what I had in mind,” the Emperor interrupted. “I have a method that I employ in such situations, and it has served me well. Here is what you must do: We shall summon one hundred of my wisest subjects, and divide them into two groups of equal size. (We shall let chance determine who joins which group, by the flipping of a golden coin.) One group shall be presented with a steward clothed in your fabulous fabric; while the other group shall be presented with a steward wearing nothing at all. We shall then see how many members of each group claim to have seen any clothes.”

The tailors exchanged glances, dismayed. “We would love to oblige your Highness,” they said, “but we fear the proposed method is flawed: in our experience, true wisdom is very rare; so it is quite possible that none of the summoned subjects will be capable of seeing our wondrous fabric.”

“I see,” said the Emperor coldly. “Tell me, then: Is there some set of questions, some test we can administer, in order to determine in advance whether a person is wise enough to be able to detect your amazing cloth?”

“Actually, your Highness,” replied the tailors, “we’ve found that the only reliable indicator that a person is wise enough to see our material is that he does, in fact, see it.”

“That is quite unfortunate,” said the Emperor. “I wonder, then, how one could ever possibly tell the difference between your fine product and that of a scoundrel, who offered the same story but no actual fabric at all?”

The tailors looked insulted. “Begging your forgiveness; we are but poor, humble craftsmen, and cannot match your Highness’s intellect. But if your Highness — who is wise indeed — would only be willing to try on our clothes for himself, I’m sure we could demonstrate the quality of our wares to his utmost satisfaction. Surely your Highness would trust the testimony of his own eyes, and the word of his closest advisers? Surely one should follow one’s personal intuitions on such matters, rather than sterile methods and tests?”

The Emperor raised his eyebrows ever so slightly.

No one knows what became of the two tailors, but they were never heard from again.



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