Straight and Crooked Thinking: the Eccentricity of Hilarity

old-men-south-beachSo there were these three elderly retired gentlemen, sitting on a park bench on a warm afternoon. Lifelong friends, they were just passing the time of day; and they had already thrashed out matters of sport, politics, the activities of family and friends. What next?

After a time of drowsy silence one of them said: “Let’s talk individually about what part of one’s anatomy one would least like to be without”.

After momentary surprise, one of them said: “Well, I could least well do without my ears, because I like to read – and I need my ears to hold my spectacles in place.”

The second said: “I love mathematics, so I could not do without my fingers that I use to count and calculate.”

Turning to the third, they said: “And what about you?”

“Ah,” he responded, “I just couldn’t do without my navel.”

“What on earth ……”

“Well, you see,” he said, “I love to eat celery in bed – and my navel is such a useful place to keep the salt.”

Eccentric, you may think!

The late Professor Robert Thouless (of Cambridge University), in his book Straight and Crooked Thinking, pointed out that the idea that truth lies always in the mean position between two extremes is of no practical use as a criterion for discovering where the truth lies, because every view can be represented as the mean between two extremes. He points out that “when we have two extreme positions and a middle one between them, the truth is just as likely to lie on one extreme as in the middle position.”

Thouless may well have overheard a further conversation between our three elderly and leisurely gentlemen. The first of them had firmly asserted that two and two make four, but the other two wanted to debate this. One said: “No, two and two make five.” “You are both wrong,” said the third: “I have counted it out on my fingers – and two and two make six.”

Thouless concluded that if he wished to convince us that two and two makes five, he might commend it to us as the safe middle position between the exaggerations on the one hand of the extremist, who asserts that two and two makes four, and on the other of the one who holds the equally extreme view that two and two makes six. “I should appeal to you as moderate men and women not to be led away by either of these extreme parties, but to follow with me the safe middle path of asserting that two and two makes five. As moderate men and women, perhaps you would believe me — but you and I would alike be wrong because the truth would lie with one part of the extremists.”

We are currently engaged in a Presidential electoral campaign that pits the eccentric against the crooked. One of these campaigns has just described the Vice-Presidential nominee on the other side as the “most extreme pick in a generation.” Crooked and hilarious, you might think!

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