PZ Myer's "Mediocrity Principle"


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From the Edge's 2011 World Question "What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit?"

158 Contributors gave answers to the question suggested by Steven Pinker.

Many intriguing answers from thinkers ranging from Brian Eno to Donald Hoffman, from the ascerbicly cynical to the loopy, with much sense in between.

Here is my favourite answer so far . . . from the science blogger PZ Myers.

The Mediocrity Principle

As someone who just spent a term teaching freshman introductory biology, and will be doing it again in the coming months, I have to say that the first thing that leapt to my mind as an essential skill everyone should have was algebra. And elementary probability and statistics. That sure would make my life easier, anyway — there's something terribly depressing about seeing bright students tripped up by a basic math skill that they should have mastered in grade school.

But that isn't enough. Elementary math skills are an essential tool that we ought to be able to take for granted in a scientific and technological society. What idea should people grasp to better understand their place in the universe?

I'm going to recommend the mediocrity principle. It's fundamental to science, and it's also one of the most contentious, difficult concepts for many people to grasp — and opposition to the mediocrity principle is one of the major linchpins of religion and creationism and jingoism and failed social policies. There are a lot of cognitive ills that would be neatly wrapped up and easily disposed of if only everyone understood this one simple idea.

The mediocrity principle simply states that you aren't special. The universe does not revolve around you, this planet isn't privileged in any unique way, your country is not the perfect product of divine destiny, your existence isn't the product of directed, intentional fate, and that tuna sandwich you had for lunch was not plotting to give you indigestion. Most of what happens in the world is just a consequence of natural, universal laws — laws that apply everywhere and to everything, with no special exemptions or amplifications for your benefit — given variety by the input of chance. Everything that you as a human being consider cosmically important is an accident. The rules of inheritance and the nature of biology meant that when your parents had a baby, it was anatomically human and mostly fully functional physiologically, but the unique combination of traits that make you male or female, tall or short, brown-eyed or blue-eyed were the result of a chance shuffle of genetic attributes during meiosis, a few random mutations, and the luck of the draw in the grand sperm race at fertilization.

Don't feel bad about that, though, it's not just you. The stars themselves form as a result of the properties of atoms, the specific features of each star set by the chance distribution of ripples of condensation through clouds of dust and gas. Our sun wasn't required to be where it is, with the luminosity it has — it just happens to be there, and our existence follows from this opportunity. Our species itself is partly shaped by the force of our environment through selection, and partly by fluctuations of chance. If humans had gone extinct 100,000 years ago, the world would go on turning, life would go on thriving, and some other species would be prospering in our place — and most likely not by following the same intelligence-driven technological path we did.

And if you understand the mediocrity principle, that's OK.

The reason this is so essential to science is that it's the beginning of understanding how we came to be here and how everything works. We look for general principles that apply to the universe as a whole first, and those explain much of the story; and then we look for the quirks and exceptions that led to the details. It's a strategy that succeeds and is useful in gaining a deeper knowledge. Starting with a presumption that a subject of interest represents a violation of the properties of the universe, that it was poofed uniquely into existence with a specific purpose, and that the conditions of its existence can no longer apply, means that you have leapt to an unfounded and unusual explanation with no legitimate reason. What the mediocrity principle tells us is that our state is not the product of intent, that the universe lacks both malice and benevolence, but that everything does follow rules — and that grasping those rules should be the goal of science.

Edited by william.scherk
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WSS,

Your link to Myers' blog appears to be broken.

Robert Campbell

Thanks, Robert! Repaired.

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"The first skill everyone should have is algebra".

I agree entirely. I never went beyond high school sciences but my favourites were algebra and inorganic chemistry. I remember the crystal pleasure of the equations working out.

Ayn Rand studied algebra in her old age.

Millay wrote a poem about it: "Euclid alone hath looked on beauty bare."

I still use algebra to work out eveyday things. In fact I used it yesterday because I'd forgotten the answer to "This man's father was my father's son but". etc.

Edited by daunce lynam
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WSS,

I'm not sure why Myers calls this a "mediocrity" principle. It could just as well be called "ordinariness;" ultimately, it's an instance of the uniformity of nature.

Obviously, Myers wants to head off the kind of thinking that insists that human beings constitute exceptions to natural laws; in particular, the laws governing biological evolution.

I'm with him on all of that.

How he relates natural laws to norms I don't know. I need to read more of his stuff to see what's happening there.

Robert Campbell

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WSS,

I'm not sure why Myers calls this a "mediocrity" principle. It could just as well be called "ordinariness;" ultimately, it's an instance of the uniformity of nature.

Mediocre = not especially special. It could also be called the principle of unprivilege. In the Newtonian-Keplarian gravitational model there is only one privileged point in the solar system: the barycenter or center of gravity around which all the planets and asteroids revolve. It was very important that people realized that the earth does not occupy a privileged position in the scheme of things. In the same way it is very important for a young person to learn that the world does not revolved about his head, regardless of appearances to the contrary. We all start out our lives thinking we are at the center of it all, but we must soon learn that it is not the case.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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  • 1 month later...

"Our sun wasn't required to be where it is, with the luminosity it has — it just happens to be there, and our existence follows from this opportunity."

This is a standard case of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy, written from the analytic (rationalist) side.

It is there. Beyond that, what would it mean for it to have been "required" to?

There's no authority to require it. The "rules" (laws of physics) that may require something are based on our observation of what is; what is isn't an implementation of rules, that can have "necessary" and "optional" parts, like the recipe for baking a cake. The sun being there wasn't "optional," nor would it mean anything for it to be.

Edited by Derick
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WSS,

I'm not sure why Myers calls this a "mediocrity" principle. It could just as well be called "ordinariness;" ultimately, it's an instance of the uniformity of nature.

Mediocre = not especially special. It could also be called the principle of unprivilege. In the Newtonian-Keplarian gravitational model there is only one privileged point in the solar system: the barycenter or center of gravity around which all the planets and asteroids revolve. It was very important that people realized that the earth does not occupy a privileged position in the scheme of things. In the same way it is very important for a young person to learn that the world does not revolved about his head, regardless of appearances to the contrary. We all start out our lives thinking we are at the center of it all, but we must soon learn that it is not the case.

Ba'al Chatzaf

Equivocating metaphyics principles, physics principles, and a student's own source of self-importance is only going to confuse him.

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