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Sheffield '11: Mediocrity of the middle

Enough with fake reasonableness. The idea that the position in the center is always the right one and the one we should always take is as pervasive as it is wrong. The mediocrity of the middle pervades in news, politics and everyday life. It is bad enough when we are discussing value judgments — he says murder is wrong, she says it is fine, let's split the difference and just maim the victim. But it is worse when the issue is about facts — facts are very rude things that fail to shift when we ask them.

We even have a presidency built around the idea of moderation in all policies. I would not have a problem if this were just what President Obama believed. My issue is that he tried to make this into a virtue. The president is a less-religious version of Ned Flanders — he is even left-handed.

It is one thing to expect to negotiate and come to some centrist agreement. If both sides can block anything, what else can one expect? But it is wholly another thing to always choose the middle ground beforehand as if it were an honorable practice. There are times when the reasonable position is actually in the middle, but it is not reasonable because it happens to be in the middle.

The media are even worse — particularly when it comes to science. They all too often report science in one of two ways: Either there is a new tentative study, whose importance is blown out of proportion — often when there are better studies that contradict it — or well-established facts are reported as tentative guesses. Scientists are uncertain about many things, but too many journalists treat well-established theories as if they were just the musings of a guy in a lab coat.

This is the major flaw of news organizations — they seem to believe that objectivity means uncritically letting each side make their point. I wonder why they do not just replace journalists with computer programs that aggregate press releases. Never mind that objectivity is about conforming to the way the world is, independently of one's biases. If someone says something that is nonsense, a reporter should treat it as such.

Evolution, climate change and stem cells have all been pummeled in the press this last decade by ideologues who lack any real knowledge about the issues. Journalists have been too willing to highlight differing views on scientific theories, even when these views are espoused by non-scientists. I am sorry, but your musings about how Jesus lizards — i.e. dinosaurs — lived happily among humans a few thousand years ago are wrong and stupid. They should not be presented on par with scientific theories, as if some reasonable middle ground exists between reality and fantasy. The Earth's climate does not decide to hold steady, and diseases are not mitigated by people agreeing to split the difference. Half measures might be better than nothing, but they are still worse than a full effort.

Misrepresenting climate change might be extremely harmful, but misrepresenting medicine produces more immediate effects. Representing the argument as being between two equal sides leads to harm, as unsuspecting victims of this silly dichotomy take quack remedies rather than real medicine. Ear candling — lighting a candle in your ear canal — does not work any better and is no less dangerous because its proponents are presented as respectable people with an interesting product. Yes, I kid you not, as stupid as this sounds, people do actually shove candles in their ears as an alternative to real medicine.

The same goes for homeopathy (magic water), acupuncture (magic needles), chiropractic (magic manipulation), therapeutic touch (magic waving of the hands without touching — it holds the distinction among quackery of being wrong twice in its name alone) and hundreds of other bizarre nostrums and odd practices. If there is one fact about the world that everyone should know, it is that for the entire history of science, every answer has been something other than magic. Magic is the perennial failure, and yet those of us who care to point out this fact get branded as intolerant and closed-minded. I am not the intolerant one — nature is.

I have no problem with people who happen to lie in the middle other than to the extent that I disagree with them. My issue is with compromising values and reality as if it were a positive thing to do. I can say this no better than Thomas Paine: "A thing moderately good is not so good as it ought to be. Moderation in temper is always a virtue, but moderation in principle is always a vice."

David Sheffield '11 is a mathematical physics concentrator because it is interesting, not because we need to bridge the divide been physicists and mathematicians. His intolerant tone can be criticized at david_sheffield@brown.edu.




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