ethics, humor, oversimplify, philosophy, politics

Green Grass and Golden Rules

Like overeating, oversimplifying is something we should always try to avoid. Oops, that’s an oversimplification.

Is grass green? Not if it’s Japanese blood grass in autumn.  Does a bear shit in the woods? Not if it’s a polar bear.  Is the sky blue?  Not at 1:00 AM.  Something important is hiding in plain sight here.  Everybody and their uncle have always known counterexamples to the claim that the sky is blue, and some of them have been celebrated with striking photos.  On the other hand, when cartoonist Garry Trudeau wanted to poke fun at reflexive Republican opposition to anything proposed by President Obama, he used this same claim in the Doonesbury strip that appeared 2015-05-24 in my local paper.  Clinging to his tattered hope for bipartisanship, Obama responds to an aide’s disillusionment by announcing something he thinks will be utterly uncontroversial: that the sky is blue.  The last panel shows a subsequent press conference held by the Senate’s Republican majority leader.

Leader McConnell, is the sky blue?
I am not a meteorologist.

Whether or not U agree with Trudeau’s take on the attitudes of those who pass for Republicans nowadays (and whether or not U found the strip funny), I trust that U did recognize the question about the sky’s color as a more polite version of the question about ursine defecation.  Even tho U know about sunsets.  Even tho U know that everybody else knows about them too. What is going on here?

1. Everything Is Oversimplified

Well, not everything.  The black and white cattle living on the farm near my house are not oversimplified.  They just are what they are.  Much of what I might say about them is oversimplified.  Indeed, it is hard to find anything nontrivial to say about them that is just plain true (like 2+3 = 5), w/o any qualifications or exceptions.  From a distance, they are black and white cattle, lounging on green grass under a partly blue sky.  Look more closely, and a few of them have brown instead of black.  Does it matter? Not to me.  Maybe it would matter to somebody who breeds Belted Galway cattle.  I just admire the bu-cow-lic scene and stay upwind.  Does a cow shit in the pasture?

Overeating is something people often do.  They should always try not to, and many of us can succeed most of the time.  Oversimplifying is more complicated.  Sometimes it is harmless (or even helpful as a temporary expedient); sometimes it is hardly better than lying.  Trying not to oversimplify is generally good, but the cure can be worse than the disease.  It may be better to oversimplify, be honest about it, and remain open to working on a more accurate formulation as the the need arises.  A more accurate formulation may well be good enough for a long time, but not forever.  Scientific theories and engineering calculations are like that.  Guess what?  So are ethical principles.

2. Why Is “Golden Rules” Plural in the Title?

What we call “the” Golden Rule has been formulated in various ways by various cultures.  A nice discussion appears on pages 83-86 in the book Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar by Cathcart and Klein.  (The book is a great read, even if U aced Philosophy 101 and have already heard many of the jokes.)  They use an old joke to illustrate how seriously oversimplified the rule is:

A sadist is a masochist who follows the Golden Rule.

It gets worse.  Even when how people like to be treated is pretty much the same thruout a group, the Golden Rule stumbles.  I was both amused and disturbed when cartoonist Scott Adams showed how badly it stumbles in a Dilbert strip I should have saved.  The boss proclaims that company policy will henceforth be to follow the Golden Rule.  Dilbert objects; the boss asks why.  The resulting exchange goes something like this:

Would U like me to give U $100?
Um, yes.
OK, follow the Golden Rule and give me $100.

The boss is reduced to sputtering indignation.  Dilbert is clearly taking the rule too literally and ignoring an implicit consensus about exceptions.  But what are they?  I could not say where Dilbert errs.

Most of the formulations discussed by Cathcart and Klein are somewhat clunkier than our culture’s usual

Do unto others as U would have others do unto U.

They amount to saying

Do not do unto others as U would not have others do unto U.

Maybe people thought of the Dilbert objection and tried to get avoid it by prohibiting X rather than mandating Y.  This does help, but there is still a problem.

Would U be disappointed if I refused your request to give U $100?
Um, yes.
Please give me $100.
 I see.  U are just as hypocritical about the Confucian version of the Golden Rule as U are about our usual version.

If U fall off a boat and I hear U shout a request to be thrown a life preserver, I will try to do just that.  Just don’t walk up to me and request to be given $100.  What is the difference?  People can start with our usual formulation of the Golden Rule, admit that it is grossly oversimplified, consider what seems reasonable in thought experiments like this, try for a more explicit consensus about exceptions, and remain open to considering more adjustments as more situations arise, either in practice or in thought experiments.  Can we do better?

Immanuel Kant tried valiantly to do better with his Supreme Categorical Imperative, which is a fun read if U like reading tax laws or patents.  Cathcart and Klein have the details.

As a former wannabe mathematician, I would very much like to see a nice crisp formulation of the Golden Rule (or of any other important general principle) that just nails it, w/o exceptions or vagueness.  Nice work if U can get it.  If I ever get stuck with trying to help socialize a child, I will give the kid our usual version of the Golden Rule, say that it is a great starting point for thinking about how to behave, admit that real life is messier, and offer to talk about it more as the need arises.  I will not mention Kant.

haiku, history, humor, photography, science

Moving the Earth

Sometimes the Earth moves, quite apart from the constant motion in orbit around the Sun.  No, I am not using hyperbole to describe a big, screaming orgasm.  I am considering an even rarer event.  Sometimes a really big idea challenges and ultimately transforms deeply held beliefs about the fundamental nature of human life.  Centuries ago, the idea that the Earth does indeed move around the Sun was such an idea.  Oh shit, we may not be at the center of the universe!  Astronomical humble pie from Copernicus has been pretty well digested; some people still cannot swallow humble pie that was pulled from the oven in 1858.

Already know what happened in 1858?  Please don’t leave.  I will keep it brief, keep it light, and put my own eccentric spin on the story.  (Honestly now, when was the last time U saw the phrase “big, screaming orgasm” in the 2nd sentence of a note on the history of science?)  Sources are thanked at the end of this post.

Back in 1858, there were no search boxes.  No Google.  No Wikipedia.  No e-mail!  Anything called a “manuscript” really was a collection of sheets of paper on which letters and symbols had been written by hand.  Want to show it to somebody U cannot visit?  Put it in the mail and hope it eventually arrives intact.  Want to have a backup copy in case it gets lost or damaged?  Write it out all over again before mailing.  No scanners.  No soft copy.  Yuck.

I am old enough to have lived and worked in a hard copy world, albeit with gadgets like electric typewriters that made it less painful than in 1858.  Collaborating with somebody several time zones away was agony in my early days and impossible in 1858.  In some important ways, doing science in my early days was more like it was in 1858 than it is now.  So I can imagine how Charles Darwin felt when he read the mail on 1858-06-18.

Correctly anticipating that his concept of evolution by natural selection would ignite a firestorm of controversy when published, Darwin had spent some of his time over the previous 20 years thinking about possible objections or misunderstandings, devising ways to answer or avoid them, and organizing a mountain of evidence.  Already an A-list biologist, Darwin was in no hurry and wanted to dot more i-s and cross more t-s before the firestorm.  Naturally, he wanted to wait a while before publishing his big idea.

The letter and manuscript that Darwin received on 1858-06-18 came from Alfred Wallace, a younger colleague then roughing it somewhere in one of the places that would now be called Indonesia or Malaysia or New Guinea.  Wallace sought advice about how to publish a new idea: evolution by natural selection.  Tho Wallace did not have a mountain of evidence, his pile was plenty high enough to justify publication.

Wallace earned his living by collecting natural history specimens for sale and was being hassled for the amount of time he devoted to nerdy “theorizing” when he should be killing things.  Naturally, he wanted to publish his big idea soon.  Naturally, he sought the opinion of a senior colleague with whom he had already exchanged a few letters on smaller matters.  He did not know (and could not know for months) that he had independently come up with the same big idea that Darwin had been quietly refining and supporting for years.

How could the differing priorities of Darwin and Wallace be reconciled?  How could Darwin respond to Wallace in a way that was fair to both of them and feasible in 1858?  No e-mail.  No conference calls.  Darwin consulted a few friends.  More than a century before the exhortation to

Let it all hang out!

enjoyed a vogue, they decided to do exactly that.  Those who attended the meeting of the Linnean Society of London on 1858-07-01 were treated to an explanation of the unusual situation, a reading of a summary of Darwin’s work, and a reading of Wallace’s paper.  Wallace was still in the boondocks and did not even know that his work (presented for him in his absence by one of Darwin’s friends) was sharing the spotlight on equal terms with Darwin’s.

Wallace did eventually return to England, make further contributions to biology, and enjoy a long friendship with Darwin.  Yes, they disagreed on some points.  Yes, creationists took such disagreements at the frontiers as an excuse to claim that the whole enterprise was “just a theory” with no greater plausibility than an extremely literal reading of Genesis as translated from a translation of the original ancient Hebrew.  But the Earth had begun to move again.  Oh shit, we may not be descendants of idle nudists who took advice from a snake!

Archimedes in 1858

Darwin and Wallace
found a lever long enough
and a place to stand.


    • The brief biography of Wallace by Andrew Berry in the September 2015 issue of Natural History is very readable and provides some details I had not known.  No access to that issue of the magazine?  Pasting a few phrases into search boxes will compensate nowadays.  I have zoomed in on June/July of 1858 to elaborate on collaboration technologies (then and now), Darwin’s fairness predicament,  and why I applaud the way he resolved it.

    • Tim Laman’s many bird of paradise photos are featured in the September 2015 issue of Natural History.  The photos that appear here have been cropped and resized to fit well on this page.  The originals (and many other splendid photos) can be seen on Tim Laman’s website.  Prints can be bought.

  • The concluding zinger about Adam and Eve is believed to be original; it is inspired by the edgy absurdist humor in Eric Wong’s blog.