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,

Tuesday 29 December 2015

Jar Jar Abrahams Wants To Kill My Childhood And This Is Odd Because I Never Did Anything To Him As Far As I Know

OK, that's enough of the "virtues of critical thinking" and "oh isn't moderation just wonderful" posts. Nope, I'm going on a merciless ad hominem attack rant that will achieve precisely nothing but I don't care, you can't stop me, and it's Christmas. So there.

J. J. Abrams knows diddly-squat about good storytelling. He has no more grasp of the ethos of a show than Michael "ADD MORE EXPLOSIONS" Bay, and he couldn't tell a morality tale if his sick grandmother's injured cat's life depended on it. Watching an Abrams movie is like watching a train crash, except instead of a train what I'm watching is everything I value in good storytelling being slowly and inexorably crushed and violated and the train is derailed so slowly that until it bursts into flames and people start screaming I'm not quite sure what the hell is going on. The Hindenburg might be a better analogy.

There goes my childhood, betrayed and murdered by a young director known as Darth J. J.
Take the Star Trek movies. No-one would accuse the original ten of being masterpieces of realistic science fiction or high drama. They aren't exactly subtle either. For their time they were big, flashy effects films... but the characters and their actions are firmly rooted in the left-wing liberal ideology of the show. The films are generally well-paced, if anything verging on the slow side. Action sequences only happen at climatic moments - most of the time the characters are doing what you'd expect : exploring. They might get into scrapes and japes but there's usually a good narrative reason for it. Nothing explodes unless it's supposed to.

And no-one gets off with anyone unless they're supposed to. Take note of that, young Spock.
Then along comes J. J. with all the subtle wit and sophistication of Billie Piper's mercifully short-lived singing career, or possibly a glacier except that this glacier is somehow on fire and travelling at 900 mph. Nothing about it makes any sense. All the characters are now aged fifteen and everything explodes at random. Kirk has been replaced with Zapp Brannigan - if you've ever watched the original show you'll know that the man is a worrisome bureaucrat and very far from the gung-ho womanising oaf of legend. And yes, the original series relies heavily on technomancy, but it was not stupid enough to ever have claimed that replacing a supernova with a black hole in any way improves the situation.

Don't even get me started on the sheer vastness of the Trek universe and the total non-necessity of revisiting the Kirk era. It's over. It took three seasons and six and half movies - it's done. Then there were three and a half incredibly successful spin-off T.V. series. To say, "No, let's start over" is about as intelligent as hacking off one's foot with a lawnmower. No. Just no. There are just too many things wrong with that to bother giving a sensible response, so here's a kitty instead.

Please JJ, no more ! Pleeeease !
But there was one saving grace to the Abrams, "let's crap all over Rhys' childhood inspiration" movies : they were somewhat similar to the Star Wars prequels. Trek is very much science fiction, even when it gets the science badly wrong or just makes stuff up; Star Wars is a fairy tale in space. So it doesn't bother me when physics is treated with all the respect I'd normally reserve for Donald Trump's codpiece. I accept the need for random explosions and action sequences in Star Wars. I want Obi-Wan Kenobe to solve his problems with a lightsabre instead of a tricorder. The Enterprise hiding in a lake ? No. The Millenium Falcon ? Possibly.

So, even though I spit upon Abrams Star Trek, burn it, scatter the ashes to the four winds, collect the ashes, eat them, then violently regurgitate them on his face, I did have some hope that he might make a decent director for Star Wars. And it did have a very good trailer.

Abrams doesn't fail with episode VII as heroically as he did with Trek. I'm biased though, because Star Wars didn't play any role in my career choice. So I didn't emerge from the cinema in a tremendous nerd-rage and go and buy the box set of all of the original movies like I (really) did with Trek. I just left feeling empty inside and with the very distinct feeling that even the Star Wars Holiday Special felt more like it belonged in the Star Wars universe than The Force Falls Flat. And that's got twenty minutes of Wookies watching a cookery show without any subtitles.

No really, I wasn't kidding. Don't watch it. I'm just putting this
here for the sake of completeness.

I didn't get on with TFA from the word go. Even the opening text felt somehow forced. The rest of the film suffers heavily from what I call the Babylon 5 syndrome : you're dropped into the story with insufficient explanation of what the hell is going on. None of the other SW films feel anything like that - you always know who everyone is, what they're doing and why. Even with the original episode 4, all the essentials are instantly clear. It's not actually that simple a story : the downfall of a democracy, the rise of a rebellion, the moral ambiguity of the central character (Vader, not Luke), an enormous range of characters and environments, the power of fear and hate to control a population... but it's told in a very simple way.

As far as I can tell, TFA has no moral messages, not really any underlying story (except for something superficial that could have come from the Jeremy Kyle show) to speak of and certainly nothing that logically follows from Return of the Jedi. It is at best a very simple story told in a very complicated way. It is not in the least a fairy tale, it's just a bunch of people doing stuff in a highly derivative way from the originals which doesn't advance the story at all. Things seem to happen because the writers wanted them to happen, not because one thing follows another naturally.

It's not all bad by any means. It's just not anywhere near good enough. Even The Phantom Menace feels like it's in the SW universe. Some of the characters in TFA feel like they've been dropped into a completely different society and had a lobotomy, or at least a nasty blow to the head.

The villains are probably the worst problem. They do villainous things, but again it feels like they're only doing what the writers told them to do - they utterly lack menace even when they're doing menacing things. Kylo Ren wears a mask, but for no particular reason. Underneath he looks for all the world like he's a member of Slytherin House. His boss is some guy named Snook, or Snookie, or Sookie, or something - who is a CGI character only ever seen as a giant hologram (ah, but is he really a giant ?). Somehow that seems to completely sap any sense of threat.

You might think Sookie Stackhouse is from completely the wrong franchise, and you'd be right, but it isn't anywhere near as wrong as choosing JJ to direct.... well, anything.
Perhaps it's the lack of the superlative aspect that makes them feel like such a damp squib. Palpatine was always at the top of the pile in the SW universe and he planned his attack over a very long time. It was clear that this guy was as evil as you could ever get - there's an almost pantomime quality about him and Darth Vader. You imagine that in their spare time they probably torture badgers or something. Ren probably just sits in his room being emo and painting everything black, while his boss most likely broods pitifully about wishing he wasn't made of CGI.

Ren has bursts of rage because his lightsabre clearly isn't working properly. Was anyone else bothered by the fiery edge to the sabre blades ? All the others are clearly energy, so why is this one a flamethrower sword ? Not saying it isn't cool, just odd in context.
Even the villain's organisation - the First Order - just doesn't feel right. The Empire was set up by the cunning machinations of a single individual over a period of around fifty years or so, but by smoothly manipulating the existing systems into something new : a very careful master plan that was brought to completion. The Order just turned up. Opportunists who took advantage of the Empire's downfall are just never going to be as threatening as the original Empire. What's their underlying goal ? Do they even have one ? How are they different from the Sith ?

Like the movie itself, they're trying to be the bad guys but don't really quite get it - even when we see them doing much more evil things than what we saw in the original movies. In fairness, they are much more real than the Sith - but in the fairy tale universe of SW this is not a good thing. It's a bit like what would happen if Gandalf the Grey had turned up in Apollo 13. Adding more realism isn't necessarily a good thing if the established world isn't the slightest bit realistic.

Then there's the new Death Star. It's much bigger and more powerful than the last one, but how the Order managed to construct it given the inevitable chaos and financial crisis resulting from the Empire's defeat is anyone's guess.

The visuals. It must be said that some of these are very nice. The Falcon flying through a wrecked Star Destroyer is well done, as is (in particular) the scene where a tethered TIE fighter escapes from a hangar. Both the Order's and the Alliance's equipment look the way it's supposed to. The spaceships fly the way you expect them to. Nothing happens that's more outlandish than what's already been established is possible in the SW universe... except possibly the Big Star Sucker (aka the Death Star III) which just doesn't look convincing to me. Might have to do a science write-up on that one. Still, I would praise Abrams on the small scale stuff.

It does look cool, I have to concede that.
The characters. These too (villains aside) are not without merit. BB8 is obviously the star of the show, because he's cute and... umm... he can roll ? Yes. Rey is also cute and provides a much-needed strong female character without the need for a love interest. Fin may or may not be cute, you'll have to ask someone who's not me for that, but he seems solid enough (his continuous heavy breathing is presumably to continue SW long tradition of helping asthmatics feel important). But like the First Order, he's missing a serious amount of backstory. You don't really need this for archetypes like Luke and Leia, but it's not something you can just skip for characters like Fin and Ren.

I want one as a pet.
As for the regulars, C3PO also feels like he's been forced into the role - though I couldn't for the life of me say why. Chewie is always Chewie, so that's good. Leia seems to have been smoking about twenty a day for the last few decades, although since the actress did have serious problems I can't hold that against her. Han has flashes of the old Solo magic, but a lot of the time he feels more like Harrison Ford. Again I can't really explain why.

The music, unfortunately, is a firm no. Every previous SW film has included at least one wonderful new hummable theme, but not this one. With the exception of the original SW music (which is not really used to its full potential), all the new stuff is minimalist and boring. I like minimalist, but it doesn't work here at all. You don't want tinkly piano music with a sweeping desert vista, it's just wrong. It further saps the fairy tale vibe and just makes me think, "oh look, more emos in space again, damn those pesky angsty goths always trying to be miserable hipsters". Like Casino Royale, it feels like sucking the fun out of what should fundamentally be a fun movie.

I really wanted to like this film. I thought, surely this time Abrams must be due for a film I actually enjoy. Nope, not a bit of it. It's not the worst film ever made by any stretch, but it doesn't feel like a Star Wars movie to me. There's no magic in it, no joy. What good moments it does have are destroyed by the overarching crappy storytelling - a bunch of miserable people in space with a dull soundtrack trying to stop some boring villains from being sort-of threatening, in a way that feels every bit as forced as I always though a sequel would. There's no rhyme or reason to anything that happens. Like Star Trek, the soul of the original films has died.

You have failed me for the last time, Abrams. Next time someone tries to get me to watch one of your stupid movies I'm going to cut myself with a spoon instead.

Sunday 20 December 2015

A Grand Unified Theory Of Stupidity

One particular common thread running through recent posts that deserves more attention is the deceptively simple topic of stupidity. What exactly do we mean by stupidity ? What causes it ? Does having some stupid ideas mean you're a stupid person, or is there more to it than that ? Why is it that apparently very intelligent people can believe ridiculously stupid things ? Can you be a clever idiot ?

It might help to begin with a quick read of Brian Koberlein's excellent piece, "You Are Not Stupid". As a response I was tempted to call this post, "You Are Stupid" or at least "You Might Be Stupid", but I resisted. Make no mistake : genuinely, irredeemably stupid people most certainly do exist - but that is far from a complete picture of stupidity. My intention with this post is to present a thorough overview of this fascinating topic. I decided to limit myself to dealing with what people think about the world around them - although some behaviours, like hatred, are also stupid, that would make the topic far too big to tackle.

If artificial intelligence is so difficult to program, presumably artificial stupidity should be much easier. Perhaps Google will be able to benefit from this post and design the stupidest program possible, which could easily pass the Turing Test because no-one would believe a computer would ever be capable of such sheer, unmitigated lunacy.


We aren't going to get very far without some basic definitions. Let's start with the very basics : facts. My definition of a fact is something that has been observed and measured (or is mathematically certain), preferably repeatedly and under controlled conditions by different observers. You cannot disprove a fact. Arguably though, there are no true certainties. Maybe the Universe is all a simulation or controlled by a capricious deity. We'll get back to that idea later, but for now, I am making the standard scientific assumption that reality exists, is objective, and measurable.

Secondly, theories. Theories are models which explain how the observed facts come to be. In the strict scientific definition, a theory must make testable predictions distinct from other theories which have been verified many times*. You can disprove a theory, but it's very hard. It is distinct from a hypothesis, which is a model that is consistent with very limited data. It's fine to say, "it's only a hypothesis" but it's ridiculous to say, "it's only a very-well tested model [i.e. a theory]". Disproving a theory is not something you can do in an afternoon.

* Thus making "string theory" not a theory at all. Lordy, no wonder the public are confused about the word !

Thirdly : evidence. It might be useful to briefly consult my plausibility index at this point. While facts are plentiful, it's very rare that we have a complete understanding of how they occur. Science is built on facts, but it also needs models. If the models lack proof, which would make them certain, they change according to the current evidence. Cutting-edge research is where those models are changing the most rapidly. Theories and hypotheses are not the end of the story - the reality is that there's a spectrum of probability ranging from things we know are definitely not true right up to things which are certain. Many people's beliefs, however, do not correlate well with this.

What Is A Stupid Idea ?

It's very important to bear in mind that we seldom have all the facts - we observe the Universe through a very limited set of sensors. But we do have some facts, and some ideas are indeed truly impossible. The Moon isn't made of cheese : that's a stupid idea. The Universe isn't 300 million km across and bounded by a huge mirror : that's a stupid idea too. The Earth isn't flat and it isn't held up on the back of a giant turtle. We have proof of these things, not merely evidence - they are facts.

However, in some cases we do not have such perfect, irrefutable proof, but we do have lots of very good evidence against many ideas. A "stupidity index" would be the exact reverse of the "plausibility index". So a good working definition might be that a stupid idea is one that is much more likely to be wrong given the available evidence, and a clever idea is one that's much more likely to be correct given the available evidence.

It's important to remember that the evidence will almost certainly change over time, and that there are degrees of both stupidity and intelligence. For example, the idea that the Moon is made of cheese (which is utterly impossible and will never ever become even slightly less stupid) is considerably more stupid than the prospect that the Yeti exists (which merely has little good evidence right now).

Do Stupid Ideas Mean That You Are Stupid ?

No. Since absolute proof is rare, and since people aren't robots, they come to different conclusions regarding different ideas. It's possible to mostly believe in very good ideas (Einstein was right, dark matter is real, ghosts are not real) but simultaneously believe a few really stupid thing (dragons exist !*). If you insist that everyone else shares your exact opinions on everything, you're no better than Homer Simpson.

* Personal example but I won't name names.

We might think that a stupid person is one who believes mostly in stupid ideas, and an intelligent person is one who believes mostly in intelligent ideas. Alas, it is not that simple. As we shall see, intelligent people can believe stupid things for entirely rational reasons. So what a person thinks isn't nearly as important as why they think it. Stupid ideas are quite distinct from stupid behaviour.

Stupid Thinking

If we are to understand stupid behaviour, we should first look at some of the reasons why people believe in stupid things. As I see it, there are two categories : primary and secondary causes. A primary cause is the underlying reason why someone initially reaches a highly unlikely or impossible conclusion in defiance of the evidence (or even proof). They are modes of thinking which do not depend on any specific belief. Why people have those ways of thinking in the first place - the root cause of stupidity itself - I shall leave aside for now.

A secondary cause is what prevents them from changing their mind afterwards, and may not only reinforce their view but also cause them to think other stupid things as well. Secondary causes can arise from one or more primary causes. They may be stupid actions in and of themselves, but they also perpetuate further stupidity.

As with all things subjective, these categories are intended as useful labels but don't think of them as being absolutes. And of course, if you can think of any more, let me know. Note that "why do people believe in stupid things ?" is quite a different question from, "why are people stupid ?". But if we are lucky, answering the first might give us clues to the second.


Misinformation : It doesn't matter how rational and objective you are, if you've been told nothing but lies or errors, or lack vital information, you won't be able to reach the correct conclusion : garbage in, garbage out. Thus you can believe a stupid idea for entirely rational reasons and you may even be a very intelligent person indeed.

Conspiracy theories exploit this prospect to the hilt. It is possible, just about, that everyone is either lying or has been told a lie so perfectly that they've never stopped to question it. You're not stupid, they say, you've just been lied to. The problem is that whenever one does stop to question it, and finds the "theory" is wrong, believers can still say, "you're lying !".

Preferences : Or, emotions, putting theory before fact, thinking you already know how the Universe works. Winchell Chung adds the important point that people don't like being told what they can and can't do, especially by strangers.

As I've said before many times, all you are is a warm blood-soaked kilo or so of goop sitting inside a skull. You have absolutely no right to tell the Universe how to behave. Your theory may be more beautiful than Scarlet Johansson covered in honey, but if it disagrees with observation (see also next point) it is wrong. Conversely, it may be as ugly as a swollen pustule on the proboscis of a housefly, but it could still be correct.

That said,  some theories just don't smell right. For example, singularities are points of infinite density where mathematics breaks down. Since we think the Universe obeys certain mathematical principles (more on that later), one of the major challenges of contemporary physics is to solve this problem. Maybe the Universe isn't really mathematically harmonious. However, so far the search for better theories has been very successful, so we haven't hit the limits of logic just yet.

Deciding what makes a theory better on purely philosophical grounds is far from easy. A generally sensible approach is to refrain from saying, "YOU TOTAL TWERP THIS THEORY IS OBVIOUSLY WRONG BECAUSE IT'S RIDICULOUS !" and instead say, "Hmm, I don't like this theory very much, let's see if we can do better." Be moderate.

A desire for quick, clear, definitive answers : Some people fail to consider the full picture. They see a correlation and they assume the most obvious conclusion. This is not always because they are stupid, but because some elements of rational thinking (particularly statistics) do not come naturally - they must be taught. Similarly, people do not always think through the full implications of an idea. Sure, the pyramids could have held grain, but that would be a (literally) monumental undertaking to store a fantastically small amount of grain.

A little knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing, particularly when it's coupled with a very little amount of thought. You have to try and consider not just what your idea gets right or explains well, but also what it has problems with. And no, "problems" do not mean, "is definitely wrong". There might be other factors at work which explain small discrepancies. You only chuck a model out completely when it can be shown to have failed absolutely, i.e. repeated major failures that simply can't be resolved without essentially inventing an entirely new theory. Even then, you might still be able to use it in certain circumstances.

Misunderstanding intelligence : Being an expert in nuclear missile design doesn't mean you have the slightest clue about French cheese making, yet people professing knowledge far outside their specialist area (in which they really do know a lot) is a problem which has been well-known since ancient times. Apparently, they think that because they know a lot about one subject, they must be automatically capable of forming a respectable opinion on all matters. Recently a study has even found that some experts profess knowledge of things which don't even exist.

Another way of saying this would be, "because they're arrogant little buggers". Perhaps there's a deeper underlying cause to this one, I don't know.

Fear : All strong emotions can overwhelm our rational thinking, particularly fear. Sometimes a crazy idea can arise because people are literally not thinking straight. It's not just a heat of the moment issue either : keep people afraid or angry all the time, and their capacity for rational judgement diminishes. Perhaps most dangerous of all is an underlying fear of change - not any specific change, just anything new. When one understands the existing system, anything new becomes a threat. Or as Paul Kriwaczek put it in his book Babylon :
Those societies in which seriousness, tradition, conformity and adherence to long-established - often god-prescribed - ways of doing things are the strictly enforced rule, have always been the majority across time and throughout the world.... To them, change is always suspect and usually damnable, and they hardly ever contribute to human development. By contrast, social, artistic and scientific progress as well as technological advance are most evident where the ruling culture and ideology give men and women permission to play, whether with ideas, beliefs, principles or materials. And where playful science changes people's understanding of the way the physical world works, political change, even revolution, is rarely far behind.
Such a fear is a major (but not exclusive) component in mistrusting science, which is by its very nature a process of constant change and development.

The thing about fear is that knowledge is not a perfect defence against it. It certainly does help, and it's good to have knowledge sooner rather than later. But human beings are more complicated than that - emotions rarely have simple on/off switches : "don't worry about the sharks, I'll save you !" will not cause fear to stop instantly. Fear can also lead to some of the self-propagating modes of stupid thinking discussed below, making it extremely hard to break.

Ultra-conservatives fear anything new, conspiracy theorists and that ilk fear anything old. Both are trying to assert control over things they don't understand. The end result appears very different, with conservatives wanting to stop all change and the conspiracy theorists wanting far more change, but they may actually be two halves of the same coin.

Limited intellectual capacity : I deliberately put this one last on the list because it's the least pleasant. All of the others can apply to reasonably intelligent people and simply prevent them from thinking. But it seems to me very unlikely that everyone has an equal innate ability to think, just as our abilities to climb or sing are different. Training can only take you so far. I could probably become a competent pianist with enough dedication, but never a virtuoso - and I couldn't manage to play any kind of sports at any professional level whatsoever.

On the other hand if I wasn't taught anything at all, I would certainly be much more stupid than I am now. You can probably only teach people to be as intelligent as their nature allows, but there's no lower limit on how stupid they can become.

Some people really are, through no fault of their own, just stupid. Maybe we should consider the phrase, "You're stupid !" to be the intellectual equivalent of, "You're crap at basketball !". OK, yes I am. Utterly and forever crap. What of it ? I have no wish to pick on those who are genuinely mentally deficient - rather, I'd like to see if we can correct stupid behaviours in those who have the capacity to be better.

They say you should never attribute to malevolence what you can attribute to stupidity. We might extend this to say that you should never attribute to mental deficiency what you can attribute to inadequate teaching or the other causes of stupidity (otherwise you won't even try to teach them anything). Still, the difficult question should be asked : how much natural variation in terms of thinking ability is there in the population at large, and how big a factor is this in the sheer depressing ridiculousness that the world is so full of ?


Refusing to consider contrary evidence : When you come to a stupid conclusion, if you don't look at the evidence against it, you doom yourself to persisting in a stupid belief. This usually happens when someone is certain of their position : looking at the counter-evidence would be a waste of time (this is very similar though not quite the same as bias, discussed below, which is when you actively dislike the alternative or its proponents rather than simply believing you've already got the right answer). The same could be said for a correct conclusion though. If you've got a mountain of evidence in favour of something, when should you look at the alternatives ?

Occam's Razor is a useful tool here - if your explanation is more complicated than the alternative, you might want to reconsider it. It's true that there's no compulsion for the Universe to be simple, however, simpler explanations are usually easier to test. It's good practise to start as simple as you can and add in complexity only as needed. As a rule, the more complex your theory, the more you can adjust it to fit whatever data comes your way. "With four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk." as von Neumann reportedly put it.

Another good rule of thumb is that if you want to promote your theory, that would be a good time to consider the evidence - especially when the opposition is strong. How do you know that rabbit on Mars isn't just a rock ?

Biased : Similar to the above, if you only trust certain sources, you basically rule out whole swathes of evidence. This can happen for precisely the above reason - you don't believe another alternative is possible or likely, so a source that promotes that idea must be biased, therefore you never listen to them (importantly, it can also be the other way around - you start off thinking they're biased because they act like a jerk, and only later realise that they don't agree with you). You end up in an echo chamber. It's circular reasoning : this is true, so this cannot be true, without admitting the possibility of error.

The thing is that bias is real. In this regard, people who believe fringe ideas and mainstream scientists both see the other as biased. So bias can enforce a belief in correct and wrong ideas. Even if you can acknowledge your own bias, it's not easy to decide which is the case. You might want to ask yourself what it is you're biased against : a person, an institute, an idea, anyone who believes that idea ? Check the basis of that idea thoroughly. If it's supported by a large number of people in different institutes in different countries and has multiple, independent lines of supporting evidence, you might want to go home and rethink your life. Or at least read my article on the notion of a false consensus.

Misunderstanding evidence : Absence of evidence is not proof of absence. But, absence of evidence is not proof of existence either, which is what some people seem to think. No, I can't prove Bigfoot doesn't exist, but that doesn't make it the slightest bit more likely that Bigfoot does exist.

Regular reader may perhaps say at this point : "Ahah ! So why do you insist on being an agnostic if you're so sure Bigfoot doesn't exist ? You're being a big fat hypocrite, and also you smell." Wow, you guys are rude. For one thing I just don't care in the slightest about Bigfoot, but keep reading, you silly goose. Anyway, more attentive regular readers will remember that I already covered a similar objection to this one extensively.

Misunderstanding intelligence : Different from the primary cause listed above, intelligence is sometimes confused with knowledge. So if you already "know" a stupid idea, believing that intelligence = knowledge means that admitting an idea is not true makes you more stupid. Of course, in actuality the exact opposite is true. Admitting you were wrong is a sign of intelligence !

The difficulty with this one is that the idea is so widespread that it's like a self-fulfilling prophecy. So many people think that if you got something wrong and admit it it's a sign of weakness, it's often not an intelligent thing to admit that you were wrong - unless you enjoy being cut to pieces by the tabloids. The worst problem is that sometimes politicians do u-turns not because they've genuinely learned anything but simply to curry favour with the voters or, much worse, with rich individuals and big businesses.

Mistrusting intelligence : If you can't understand an idea, that does not mean it isn't true (see "preferences" above). "It doesn't make sense to me" - well so what ? I don't understand the first thing about brain surgery, but you don't see me going round saying, "brain surgery is a hoax !". If it demonstrably works, then your lack of understanding means nothing. It's possible the fault lies with your teacher, or you could, perhaps, just be plain old stupid. The trouble is that stupid people sometimes aren't able to detect their own stupidity.

Insistence on certainty : Although there are a few things of which we can be certain, these are extremely rare. If you insist on absolute proof, you'll get nowhere. You won't believe the Earth is round until you're orbiting it yourself in a spaceship ? Tough. You'd only say the whole thing was a simulation anyway. Your senses aren't foolproof. That's why we have to define certainty - but keep reading.

Insistence on uncertainty : Even the agnostic position can be taken too far. If you think things are unknown, that's one thing. But if you are certain we can never know them, even when the evidence is staring you in the face and spitting in your eye, that's quite another. Whether we can ever be truly certain of anything is a question philosophers have been wrestling with for millennia.

My own stance is no, technically we cannot (for reasons discussed below), but this isn't helpful. We have to approximate some things as certain, because if we don't we'll never get anywhere. The way I reconcile this dilemma is to say that all things are done under the assumption of an objective, measurable reality. If this assumption is flawed then science falls apart - and you can use the excuses I describe below to believe arbitrarily stupid things. It is safer and vastly more productive to assume that reality is real - within this assumption, a small measure of certainty can be restored.

Belief that the Universe is a simulation : Or is governed entirely by the whim of a capricious deity. In that case, there's no point in logic. Anything could happen at any moment for no reason. The fact that things have remained pretty darn consistent up until now doesn't mean anything. This sort of belief essentially says, "we can't know anything". And maybe we can't, but that invalidates the whole scientific approach. We may as well all give up and cry.

There are various ways one could restore logic in these scenarios : maybe the simulation is utterly and perfectly consistent, maybe the deity isn't entirely capricious or doesn't control everything all of the time. You probably only run into real trouble when you insist that these possibilities are the only explanation,

Belief that the Universe is infinite or eternal : The problem with this one is that it nukes probability. If your theory requires a fantastically unlikely event to have happened, that's perfectly fine. In an infinite Universe, everything that can happen does happen, an infinite number of times. The fact that when you roll a dice it doesn't turn into a large carnivorous duck and eat everybody no longer proves that that won't happen. Probability doesn't mean anything in an infinite Universe. This is seldom acknowledged - people prefer to concentrate on the notion of their being an infinite number of mes* - and ironically enough people sometimes argue that a finite, mortal Universe is not scientific because of the religious implications.

* Literally only me. Not you. You suck.

Now, these last two secondary causes are probably controversial. Of course, the Universe could be a simulation, or infinite. It's just that those ideas are not helpful. If you say that logic simply doesn't work, then you've basically declared science to be null and void. Is this stupid ? I don't know - that's a pretty deep philosophical question. If you accept that science does work, then yes, it is extremely stupid. On the other hand, it's possible that our mathematics is not yet up to the task of giving sensible answers but a solution does exist, we just have to keep researching to figure it out.

Right now I guess I'd say that these are ideas are very interesting, but stupid. It's possible that they will become less stupid in the future, so some stupid ideas are worth pursuing. You aren't being stupid to ask the question, "Is the Universe infinite ?" but if you say, "Yeah, dragons existed because everything that can exist does exist / it's all a simulation so there are no impossible things" then you are being stupid. Still, it's interesting to consider that merely believing an idea doesn't just indicate that you are stupid, it can actually make you stupid as well.

Natural selection may have helped us become smart enough to create the internet and land on the Moon but it's clear there's still a lot of work left to do.
A final thought on this. For all the usefulness of the objective, measurable reality position, you can't truly prove it. And yet at some point anyone reading is has almost certainly considered the idea that the Universe is a simulation, or infinite - and most of you (I know my audience) have chosen to reject it. That's right, you've chosen to believe in something you can't prove. Like it or not, you've made a leap of faith.

I suspect some people are going to be very angry about that.

Are You Being Stupid ?

As we've seen, you can come to a stupid conclusion even by being completely logical. So, if someone has a single stupid belief, that's no reason to say they must be intrinsically stupid - you need to dig deeper to try and understand their thought processes. They may very well be stupid, but you can't tell based only on what they think. You must also look at how they behave, which is also something that's been discussed above. Stupid thought processes do exist : some of them occur for good reasons, some do not.

A stupid person is someone who displays the above behaviours more often than not. A really stupid person is one who's aware of the causes of stupidity but doesn't recognize them in themselves. An extraordinarily stupid person is one who does recognize their own stupidity but doesn't try and do anything about it.

It's also interesting to ask the reverse question : can you come to an intelligent conclusion by being stupid ? Yes. The classic example is reverse psychology - knowing someone is so biased against you, you can deliberately suggest they do something knowing full well they will do the opposite. You can even do science by completely irrational methods, to some extent - literally dreaming up or guessing the answer to a problem, though you do have to use more objective approaches when testing if your idea is any good or not.

But convincing people isn't easy. In my experience, inherently stupid people are not difficult to manipulate. What you have to remember is that very sophisticated, logical arguments won't work on them, because they are literally not capable of understanding them.

There are also people who are so convinced that the external world is not real and objective that there's very little point arguing with them. Even facts and certainties mean absolutely nothing in this scenario. The tricky thing is, they might be right. But what exactly this viewpoint does to advance our knowledge I'm not sure - in fact it seems to me that such an approach has not produced a single useful discovery in history. If I'm wrong, do let me know.

But such people, I think, are a small minority. The vast majority seem to be otherwise quite intelligent people who are suffering from a combination of the various factors. Perhaps the most important common factor (in my anecdotal experience) is the belief that changing your mind is a sign of weakness. And it's good to defend an idea to a point, otherwise you'd be in such a muddle that you'd never get anywhere with anything. Reaching a stupid conclusion can be done by perfectly rational thinking, but holding on to that conclusion in the face of strong evidence - that's what's really stupid.

You can't ever learn something without first admitting that you don't know the answer or that what you currently think might be wrong.

Clever Idiots

I take very strong issue with the "goodly number" (what on Earth does it mean ?) but agree with the sentiment.
Seemingly intelligent people do stupid things all the time - and not just outside their specialist area. Einstein modified his equations to keep the Universe static, even though they showed it should be expanding. He changed his mind when the evidence showed that this was the wrong thing to do. Fred Hoyle, in contrast, never changed his mind that the Universe was eternal despite overwhelming evidence. Even just a few years ago, a colleague of mine in Cardiff was investigating for his Masters thesis the idea of long "iron whiskers" to explain away evidence for the Big Bang (he found they didn't work, but I don't remember the details).

Testing these radical ideas is not stupid. What would be stupid is to cling to a very contrived explanation when there's a much simpler one available. There's no particular reason to expect the Universe to be full of iron whiskers, and lots of evidence that the Big Bang model is correct. So to say, "I'm sure the Universe MUST be eternal, so I must find a way to disprove that idiotic Big Bang notion once and for all even if that means the Universe must be filled with long bits of iron for some reason" is an example of preferences, even though the Big Bang is not a fact.

Intelligent people behaving stupidly are perhaps the most dangerous of all. Less intelligent people might be forced to admit to changing their mind even if they don't like it, but intelligent people can come up with amazingly contrived solutions that most of us would never think of. Sadly, the ability to understand complicated mathematics appears to be no defence against all of the various sorts of stupid thinking.

Perhaps we should think of the ability to solve specific problems as just an ability, like playing basketball. Being able to understand mathematics or operate a particle accelerator just means you have one specific ability that others lack. You may or may not be generally intelligent as well, and maybe there's a correlation between certain abilities and the ability to solve problems in general. I don't know. My anecdotal experience tells me that if there is a correlation, it probably has a lot of scatter in it.

Personally I think Comic Sans is great, so screw you.
Many people are surprised when experts say something stupid. After all, people who have learned lots of things or solved lots of complicated equations obviously don't start off that way. Apparently, they had the capacity to absorb knowledge but not to loose it, to form their mind but not to change it. Some people seem to have minds like clay : mouldable for a while, but when it's baked there's no going back - they'll be that way forever.

Part of the reason for this may be that people think in black and white terms : this is right, this is wrong, that's it. So if you've learned something, or even discover something new for yourself, you've increased knowledge, and that knowledge is a certainty. Whether this is innate or a result of the education system I can't say, though I do think the latter is at least a contributing factor. Believing there are only right or wrong answers is a hair's breadth from arrogance, yet this is overwhelmingly the approach taught in schools.

The trouble is that at school level there are topics which do have clear-cut answers. The density of quartz doesn't depend on how much you love quartz and while it might change if you dropped it onto a neutron star, there's absolutely no point considering that in a geology class. The humanities classes offer a natural way out of this, because it's much more obvious that there are only good and bad answers, not right and wrong. But, while teaching science does require starting off with simplifications, would it really be so hard to tell people, "this is a simplification" ?

Appearing Stupid

This works for both mainstream scientists to the great unwashed ("If I travel fast enough I'll go forwards in time ! 95% of the Universe is unknown and invisible ! You could fly like a bird on a moon with a thick atmosphere of cold methane !") and non-mainstream researchers to the main scientific community ("Nessie is real ! Aliens have come to drink the blood of cows ! All world leaders are evil reptiles in disguise !").

Crucial point : the reverse of the meme ("the crazier you sound to ignorant people, the more research you must have done") is not true. It is possible that if you sound crazy, you simply are crazy.

One of many reasons why I don't find non-mainstream ideas appealing is that they are innumerable and contradictory. Depending on who you believe, dark matter doesn't exist because : we've all missed something trivial and obvious in the calculation / it's all due to massive electrical forces coming from nowhere / our theory of gravity is wrong / it's real but it's just ordinary matter that's difficult to detect / astronomers are all involved in a conspiracy / it's actually a life-form / it's real but exists in other dimensions / it's all defects in the spacetime continuum / the Universe is actually only 300 million kilometres across so of course there's no dark matter, you dolt. Far safer, in my view, to research the mainstream option, bearing in mind that trying to falsify that model is a key part of the research process.

This raises an important question : if you are really convinced that the evidence favours an idea that everyone else considers to be stupid, are you automatically an idiot ? The answer is no, not unless you fail to change your mind when things are explained properly to you. OK, you might be right and everyone else is wrong, but this is very, very unlikely.

I mentioned earlier the problem of mistrusting intelligence, that people don't believe things they don't understand even if it demonstrably works. I also mentioned the idea that experts only have a narrow field of expertise. The flip side of this is that within their field, they genuinely do understand more than non-experts. That is the whole point of having experts - you can't just expect to skip years of research and do their job as well as them. Stupid people are reluctant to accept this rather basic and obvious fact.

Summary and Conclusions

If there are any important take-home points from this post, I suppose they would be as follows :
  • You can believe stupid things even if you're very intelligent, especially if you've been misinformed or haven't been taught certain essentials of critical thinking. You might also just be a total dipstick. It's your thought processes which should be used to judge whether you are stupid or not, not your conclusions.
  • Learning requires you to change your mind. That means - shock horror - going from a state of being wrong to, if you're lucky, being less wrong. Guess what ? You're not omniscient ! Saying "I was wrong" should be equivalent to, "I have learned something".
  • The ability to solve problems in a specialist field is not necessarily a sign of overall intelligence. Being an expert just means you understand one particular field more than other people.
  • Certain specific beliefs can actually induce stupidity. If you think that logic is just essentially luck, there's really no hope for you. OK, you might be right, but you're not useful. Go away.
People come to stupid conclusions for all sorts of reasons, and their actually being an idiot is just one explanation. It is, I think, unfair to say that everyone has the same intelligence, and there certainly are some people who are just very, very stupid - if they even have much ability to think, they refuse to use it. While I believe it is possible to teach people to be generally better at problem solving, to think more rationally (since some aspects of critical thinking certainly don't happen naturally), I suspect this is only possible up to a point. Not everyone is capable of understanding certain problems.

Incidentally, I was not great at maths in primary school. It took a huge amount of effort for me to understand the methods of even doing addition and especially subtraction (let alone long division) without a calculator, even if I found the concepts trivial . For me, solving equations is actually easier.
Being very good at solving some specific sorts of problems that most people find difficult does not automatically equate to intelligence. This is why it's possible to be an expert neurosurgeon and simultaneously a blithering idiot on almost every single other topic.

People sometimes believe stupid things are true for entirely logical reasons, but other times they do so because they are guilty of thinking stupidly. Even then it does not necessarily imply that someone is fundamentally stupid, unless they do this persistently and especially if they continue to do so after they've been taught why what they're saying is stupid.

Many of the sorts of stupid thinking probably happen for very good evolutionary reasons. A world in which your only technology is fire and a pointy stick and you might know a hundred other people during your life has very different challenges than today. Is this mushroom safe to eat ? The Stone Age answer would have to have been either yes or no, or more accurately, either it will be tasty, cause an upset stomach, or kill you stone dead. There wasn't much scope to say, "it won't kill you but it might increase your chances of contracting cancer later in life by 3%". The prehistoric world both required easy, definitive answers, and utterly lacked the capacity for statistical analysis.

Essentially, it was far safer to run away from a tiger that wasn't there than not run away from a tiger that was there. So we have hyper-advanced pattern recognition and generalisation abilities, but there hasn't been an evolutionary selection pressure to check which tigers are dangerous : you won't die if you run away from a tiger which is injured or just not hungry, but you very well might if you stopped to check the tiger's physical and mental health before deciding if you should run away. Even if hardly any tigers were naturally man-eaters, it still would have made more sense to run away from all of them.

Though I'm not sure anything can explain this.
In prehistoric times we rarely had the luxury of examining large numbers of other people's experiences, let alone the ability to keep accurate records. Selection pressures work locally : if a neighbouring tribe is, for whatever reason, extremely dangerous, then a fear of foreigners in general does actually make sense. You aren't going to increase your chances of survival massively by teaming up with another group whose resources (fire and a stick) aren't any different to your own (indeed the more people in your group the more difficult it might be to find enough food) - it might be more beneficial to avoid the potential danger of dealing with strangers.

So this most dangerous concept of the other, the notion that people with a different ideology or ethnicity are inferior to us, might have arisen due to evolutionary reasons that made a lot of sense fifty thousand years ago. While there have been tens of thousands of years of evolutionary selection effects to enforce that sort of thinking, it's only in the last few hundred or maybe a few thousand years that co-operation with other groups has become potentially more beneficial than dangerous (plus access to other groups has become much easier through better transportation technologies). There simply hasn't been enough time for us as a species to adapt to this new reality.

This also partially explains why we trust some theories (and people) more than others : it was safer to trust our own local knowledge than that of others. If the snakes here are venomous, it makes a lot of sense to be wary of all snakes. This is why we learn by induction, generalising from specific examples. Inductive reasoning is favoured by evolution if all you've got is a pointy stick, but it makes statistical analysis seem like a very suspicious process. You experience a cold winter and every fibre of your being will tell you that global warming is nonsense, because a few news reports are no match for the deaths of your ancestors over the last million years forcing you to learn by induction. Which means you become very suspicious of science for very good but utterly flawed reasoning. Hence some ideas are not accepted by those who are otherwise diametrically opposed (conservatives versus neophile conspiracy theorists).

Not that this method of learning explains all stupidity by any means - it can't explain why people sometimes hold radically different opinions even within the same family. Another factor is our emotional bias. Evolutionary effects don't really come into play as long as someone survives long enough to rear healthy children who can fend for themselves. Once you've got enough intelligence to do that, the only selection effect is who is able to rear the largest number of healthy children. So unless your emotional needs are so strong that they're actually harmful, there's not necessarily much pressure against your enjoyment of something which has no actual benefit even if it's stupid.

In contrast, confidence is widely known to be, well, sexy - so any pressure against people believing stupid (but not actually dangerous, or at least not very dangerous) things may be offset by them looking darn good when they explain themselves in a self-assured, uncompromising manner. Few people find a brooding, analytical, worrying approach to be particularly romantic.

"On second thoughts, I think I need to go back to the library and do some more careful research for a while. This whole guns-blazing gung-ho attitude just really isn't for me." Not that that would likely count against her because as with peacocks there are, umm, obvious other factors. Evolution may have helped us become smart but it's far more complicated than that.
A preference for confidence probably made a lot of sense in prehistory. If you sounded like you knew what you were talking about and weren't dead, chances are you really did know what you were talking about. In the modern world (unless you take it to extremes) it's possible to be confident about a lot more things without dying. Confidence has become decoupled from the previously required supporting knowledge - there's far less evolutionary pressure to remove over-confident idiots from the gene pool, but the preference for confidence remains.

Taken together, all of this can go a very long way in understanding both why people believe stupid things even if they're not actually of low intelligence, and why an anti-science movement (of sorts) exists in a scientifically-dependent civilization. The methods of thinking employed by these people (only trusting themselves and their friends, being unduly afraid of things of nearly no risk, wanting easy answers) made a lot of sense ten, twenty, a hundred thousand years ago. The timescale over which this thinking has become less valuable is far too short for evolution to have had much effect, and in any case many stupid beliefs aren't stupid enough to prevent you having children - they aren't necessarily selected by evolution, but they aren't selected against either.

The really interesting question is : how much of this natural but now defunct thinking can we avoid through proper teaching ? How many people have minds like clay - bake once and then be careful not to drop it - and how many like metal (reforge it to a hard, razor-sharp point as needed) ? To this I have no real answer. All I can say with certainty is that it does make a difference for some people. I have colleagues who I can clearly see stop themselves from saying things because they've mentally checked themselves - they've realised they were about to, or did, say something that's not justified. There might, perhaps, be a point of critical stupidity - if you're too stupid to understand why you're being stupid, you'll never become more intelligent.

The answer to the question of whether intelligence is determined by nature or nurture seems to me most likely that it's a combination of both. Black and white thinking is taught to us from a very early age, even for good reasons - but if it isn't the root cause of stupidity, then it is at least a contributing factor. Evolutionary effects are undoubtedly important, but surely cannot fully explain why people act against their own interests or against the benefit of their entire population. We are not creatures driven solely by reason or instinct, we are far more complicated than that. Sometimes we push the boundaries of intelligence and launch space probes beyond the edge of the Solar System. And perhaps by the same abilities which allow these impressive feats of creative problem-solving, we also accomplish things which are simply acts of glorious, epic stupidity.

Sunday 13 December 2015

Ask An Astronomer Anything At All About Astronomy (XII)

Some very difficult questions this week. See the Q&A page for the complete list.

1) How tall does a building need to be for you to be weightless on the top of it ?

2) Was Giodarno Bruno a scientist ?

3) Will we ever see a naked-eye supernova ?

4) Will gravitational waves give us advance warning of a supernova ?

5) Would a supernova at the distance of Alpha Centauri be bad ?

6) Are the physical constants really constant ?

7) Does ordinary matter become repulsive at high velocities ?

8) What is white matter ?
Some brain thingy.

9) What would happen if a black hole collided with a white hole ?
They wouldn't.

10) What causes inertia ?
A wizard did it.

11) Could we ever see right back to the Big Bang ?
Probably not.

12) Would we feel the blast from a supernova at the same time as we saw the explosion ?

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.