Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Sunday 13 December 2015

Moderation Squared, Again

A little while ago I wrote about my general philosophy on life, which is simply : all things in moderation, including moderation itself. That post somewhat got away from me, so this time I'd like to focus more on the actual philosophy. Since my last post was all about why extreme positions are popular, I want to make the strongest, most violent case I possibly can for the virtues of being moderate. Yeah, I like irony. If being extreme is more popular than being a moderate, what about being extremely moderate ?

First, what do I mean by moderation squared ? Simply that most of the time, a moderate position is a good one to adopt as a default, or if the evidence isn't decisive, but not always. Moderate your moderation, dawg. There are times when you've got to say :

Or, as Richard Dawkins (he did use to say useful things before some moron taught him how to use twitter) eloquently put it :
When two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly halfway between them. It is possible for one side simply to be wrong.
Being moderate about everything is silly. You wouldn't go around saying, "I suppose a little bit of slavery is OK", or, "Maybe the occasional brutal murder can be forgiven." Sometimes the extremist positions are morally and intellectually the only valid ones... but not usually. Dawkins was absolutely right, I just think that usually the middle ground is correct.

Being Critical

I've covered this one in detail here, but a short summary is useful. Criticising ideas is an essential part of the scientific method, but you can go too far. You could attack the semantics of someone's every single sentence if you really wanted to, but that wouldn't actually be constructive. If you destroy an idea in its infancy, you'll never know whether it could have grown into something better.

A moderate level of criticism, however, is very valuable. You shouldn't let people get away with falsehoods or misleading information. Honest mistakes need to be pointed out, and it's usually safer to assume the mistake is an honest one. If you can suggest an improvement as well as/instead of pointing out the problem, then so much the better.

Criticism and doubt (see below) are not supposed to become denial. When that happens, progress is lost. Legitimate suspicion has given way to rampant paranoia, and, perversely, usually seems to be because of a pre-existing certainty (in my purely anecdotal experience). You can use denialism to justify anything : my theory is clearly correct, so yours can't be, your "evidence" must be a fabrication !


Similar but not quite the same as being critical. Observational facts are the only true certainties - anything else is an idea. So, it's perfectly fine to question theories, but to say, "we can't be certain of this, so it's not useful" is monumentally unhelpful. You may as well just give up and go home, because if you don't explore uncertain ideas you'll never get anywhere. We'd still be bashing rocks together if everyone had had that attitude.

What you need to have is a moderate level of "back of the mind" doubt. Believe (almost) nothing with absolute certainty. Accept the best theory as true, but be prepared to surrender that belief if sufficient evidence comes along. This kind of provisional acceptance is very, very powerful. It's the force that's shattered cities and sent us into space.

Being Open-Minded

A final example on the whole critical thinking approach : you don't need to question your entire existence all of the time. Treating all possibilities as though they were equally likely when the evidence heavily favours one of them is just being really stupid, not rational. It isn't closed-minded to favour what the evidence suggests, no matter how wacky the idea might seem.

In comparison, giving equal weight to ideas with equal levels of supporting evidence is eminently sensible. Having a slight preference for one over the other isn't going to do you any harm, and may encourage you to investigate things in detail. Being convinced of something when the evidence is lacking, now that's a problem.

On the very closely related issue of listening, I discovered some months back that my Google+ stream was becoming schizophrenic. I was simultaneously getting automated recommendations to join communities like "Jesus loves you" and "God is dead", because I follow a few devout theists and atheists. I saw people blaming Israel for everything that's wrong with the world and those who thought Israel was nothing but a hapless victim. I saw bitter cynicism next to hopelessly naive "everything happens for a reason" gibberish. Eventually I re-organized my stream to prioritize what I was really interested in, unfollowed people who were saying more crap than good, and learned (to some extent) to mentally filter out a lot of the rest. While not listening at all is an awful, all too common vice, too much listening is a also not good for mental health.

If you really don't like what I'm saying, then I'll forgive you for not listening. I'm not trying to send anyone insane, and I'd far rather you just think I'm an idiot than drive you to distraction. Though if you profess infinite wisdom on a subject, it sure would be nice of you to at least read my stuff once before dismissing it.


One of the trickier ones. Obviously there are limits to how far we should be tolerant - you can't let people go around killing people. But we do need different ideas and behaviours, otherwise we would never make progress in any field whatsoever : an "always follow the herd" mentality is unproductive. Tolerance with limits (a.k.a. freedom under the law) is incredibly successful.

Of course, where you draw the line isn't easy. Should we allow face veils, ritual slaughter, circumcision, hunting with dogs, smoking in private clubs ? Should we ruthlessly enforce what the evidence says over what people actually want ? I don't think so - for one thing, evidence is rarely so conclusive, and for another, you should at least try to persuade people to accept the evidence first. Sometimes, the only way to deal with irrational people is by being irrational.


If elephant polo is wrong then I don't want to be right.
"Ambition can be a virtue when it drives us to excel," said the fictional Emperor Commodus. He was right. Wanting to impress people can inspire you to things you would otherwise not achieve. It only becomes a vice when you work on crushing the opposition rather than improving yourself (or if you are utterly obsessed). Totally unregulated competition is a terrible idea, because people are capable of extreme selfishness and ruthlessness. But it's silly to say that competition is always bad.

Some naive people say that there is a paradox here : that because people are so bad, they are incapable of setting any rules or governing. This is a nonsense born of taking things too far. Anyone who's lived in the real world knows that some people are better at fairness and decency than others, and it's ridiculous to suggest that people are so awful there's no point in trying to have rules at all.


"Taxation is theft !" No it bloody isn't, it's sharing. It's the reason we have nice things, like roads and  (in many countries) hospitals.

Theft is someone taking something you already have and using it entirely for their own gain. Taxation is part of your money being used to benefit everyone, including yourself. Of course, it would be ridiculous and unjust if everyone was given the same amount of money regardless for the work or the amount of work they did, and I also don't favour having only government run services. But government alongside private business seems to work pretty well, and gives everyone a choice.

Which is of course not to say that taxation is always just or fair, because that's equally moronic. We can discuss specific tax policies till the cows come home. But no taxes at all ? That's just silly.

I discuss why the mix of competitiveness and co-operation works well in science here.


Oh, sure, prevent the richest most powerful person in the kingdom from getting her feet wet, that's really selfless...
It's nice to think of others before yourself, but not all the time. Your time on this planet is limited, and regardless of whether there's a Great Beyond or not, you have the right to pursue your own happiness. There's a difference between help and surrender : you are not committing an injustice by refusing to give someone a huge amount of your time for a small benefit to them. You don't have to go through life as a doormat.

Being Logical

Being logical all the time is boring. Occasionally, you're allowed to run naked through a field singing songs about Merlin the Happy Pig. You are, after all, only human, and it's hugely stupid to treat yourself or others as robots. If you don't account for people's emotional needs, even if they make no dang sense whatsoever, you're not really being fair. That does not mean you have to do whatever they want even when it's really stupid, just that if you want them to see things from your point of view, don't expect a perfectly rational and logical argument to work regardless of how you present it.


Plato considered the idea of a whole society of pure specialists in The Republic. It's a fascinating and thought-provoking read which I can't possibly do justice (hahah ! - if you're read it you'll get it) to in a few sentences. Suffice to say that Plato put forward the idea that everyone functions best if they do just one thing, and that trying to do more things means you do all those things badly. He also regarded ruling as a skill in itself, and that the rulers should be the ones best at ruling. Public opinion as to who should rule should not play any role.

It's very unfair of me to dismiss one of the greatest works of Western philosophy in so short a space, but I don't think this idea really works. Look, for example, at Leonardo da Vinci, whose mechanical designs were inspired by nature, whose art and scientific studies benefited each other. Or Archimedes, who used his mathematical genius to design weapons of war. There are even links between astronomy and medicine, not to mention innumerable spin-offs from pure research.

So, it's good to be a specialist, but you don't want to get so focused that you become trapped and don't see the big picture (i.e. why you're doing what you're doing). And everyone, without exception, needs some level of communications skills, which requires at least a little study of what everyone else does - otherwise the result is like what happened when my two half-deaf grandmothers met up. Two entirely independent conversations carrying on completely in worlds of their own.


Loving your country doesn't make you evil. Thinking your country is better than all the others and can do no wrong is an ideology that's been proven time and time again to be immensely dangerous. American exceptionalism ? Ridiculous, and no more valid than the idea that the English were God's chosen people. Every dog has his day.


The idea that men and women deserve to be treated with equal respect is an entirely sensible one - equal pay for equal work and all that. Equal opportunities too, without prejudice that someone can't do a job because of their gender. If they're qualified, let 'em. It's very simple really. It's about the most moderate position possible.

Where it can go wrong is where it strays from these principles and becomes the idea that all women must behave in a certain way, and that the actions of a few are demeaning to all. Example : I look like an engineer, proving that you can look however you want and still do your job. If you actually want to dress in a classically "girly" way, that's perfectly fine. To go even further, it really isn't for any one person to decide if, say, miniskirts are empowering or demeaning : let people make their own choices.


I'm not religious, though I do have a great deal to say on the subject. But the short version is frighteningly simple. Taking religious texts literally is ridonkulous (technical term). Taking them as figurative interpretations, as moral guides, may or may not be correct, but it isn't going to end civilization and doesn't prevent science. Not believing in a deity doesn't make you an idiot either. Being certain that deities don't exist, that you have all the moral authority in the world to judge who's right and who's wrong, is just as bad as if you insist that the only truths to be found are in some ancient tome that's been translated and re-translated and declares the Earth to have corners.


OK, rant over. Hopefully the above examples largely speak for themselves, so I have just a few general points to make.

Being moderate isn't a vice. I know, the moderate position sometimes lacks the white-hot fire of a clear, uncompromising position. The thing is that that kind of thinking tends to end with people ending up in white-hot fires, and I'm fed up with it. BE FRICKIN' MODERATE YOU BUNCH OF IDIOTS !!! Or to put it more bluntly :

But, don't always be moderate, because that's ridiculous too. You're allowed to have some convictions and do some epically stupid things. Newsflash : the world is complicated !

It's amazing how many people don't get this. Some people really do think in starkly black and white terms :

Examples : I stop people from posting objectively racist comments on my posts, and suddenly I'm worse than Hitler. I remove a post from the Space community, and I'm an unqualified moral arbiter for enforcing the clearly-defined rules. I merely tell people the rules, politely, and I'm a ruthless agent of oppression. I say I think philosophy is beneficial for science, and apparently I'm just plain lying about being a scientist because obviously I don't understand the scientific method.

Sorry people, but it just doesn't work like that. Uncompromising men may be easy admire, but just because you like something doesn't mean it's true. The world isn't that simple.

But the compromising position should be easy to admire. The ability to say,"I was wrong" should be regarded as a strength, not a weakness. The willingness to admit that situations are actually quite complicated and you don't have all the answers isn't a sign of stupidity. Nor - and this is important - is being incredibly confident when you have overwhelming evidence. Whereas extreme doubt can become paranoia, so extreme confidence become arrogance. Both positions fail miserably.

It's very simple to give an inspiring speech with a simple message. It's very much harder to give one that's more complicated. "MORE REGULATIONS ON THE BANKING SECTOR !" doesn't work as well as, "DOWN WITH CAPITALISM !". So what we must focus on are the results, not the processes. A world where wacky ideas can be considered and not instantly shot down, but still rejected in contempt if they just don't work without assuming their instigator is an idiot. A world in which you are encouraged to win, but not punished for losing. A world where you can believe what you want without ramming it down everyone's throat, in which your ideologies are your own and you get to promote them, but not enforce them. Isn't that something worth striving for ?

Oh. Oh well. I tried.

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