Category Archives: Current Affairs

Policing by consent?

It took me completely by surprise to see two men armed with semi-automatic weapons heading straight towards me.

Of course that opening sentence – although true – is a deliberate attempt to grab your attention. I hope I don’t lose you by revealing further details: the two men were Authorised Firearms Officers of the Hampshire Constabulary on patrol in Winchester city centre. It was just by chance that I happened to be walking towards them with my family on a sunny summer Sunday afternoon.

Photograph of armed police officersSo it would seem that there ends the story, except… as our paths crossed I took a closer look at the gun of the nearest officer. The weapon’s magazine was made of a translucent material, and I could see the individual rounds within. And it struck me that it was possible that one or more of those bullets could be shot into me or my wife or my son, probably causing fatal damage. In the short time it took before my slow-thinking processes dismissed the idea as totally far-fetched, I felt my blood run cold.

Anyway, this short experience at the weekend led to certain lines of thinking: How flimsy is the barrier that separates the living me from the horror of a sudden, violent, mechanised death? How it has come to pass that some people can walk down Winchester high street on a Sunday afternoon carrying semi-automatic rifles, and others can’t? And, of course, what has all this got to do with the Middle Way?

I can supply a little more background information here, especially for any readers from outside the UK. In Great Britain police officers are not routinely armed and the public are, with a few exceptions, not permitted to carry firearms. I have seen British police officers armed with similar weapons before, but this was in high security locations such as Whitehall in London, or at Heathrow Airport. In contrast, the city of Winchester, where I crossed paths with these armed officers, was last year proclaimed ‘the best place to live in the UK’ due to its high employment, good wages, low crime and above average health and life expectancy. I assume they were patrolling as a kind of reassurance to locals and tourists that any acts of terrorism would not go unchecked, in the wake of recent atrocities in Manchester and London.

This paragraph from Chapter 6 of Robert M. Ellis’s book “Middle Way Philosophy 2: The Integration of Desire” helps set the tone for any discussion of policing in terms of the Middle Way:

The state’s responsibility, then, is to support the integration of desires by preventing the grossest expressions of conflict – those which would create an environment in which further integration is impossible. [… O]ur environment needs to strike a balance between security and challenge in order to prevent the arising of unintegrated desires, but that means that a basic level of security needs to be created by government. In order to do this it is obliged to use force to suppress those who would perpetrate conflict by violence or other coercion.

18815853363_c91b9befb4_oSo these armed police officers were one of the means by which the government ensures a basic level of security, so that I can, for example, feel free to walk up Winchester high street (pictured on the right) on a Sunday afternoon without needing to carry arms myself. If there were any people in the city centre who intended to perpetrate conflict by violence, or the threat of violence, then I would reasonably assume that these armed officers would use (possibly lethal) force in order to suppress them. In this way I am able to continue my business of becoming a more integrated human being.

I have little appetite for physical violence. I actively avoid it, and I certainly don’t have the physique or the weaponry to excel at it. I’m sufficiently appalled by the violence inherent in the food industry that I choose to eat a strict vegetarian diet. But if I tried to make the principle of non-harm an absolute – thou shalt not kill, ever (even if you’re a police officer) – then it isn’t workable, it doesn’t address conditions in which there are people who are willing to perpetrate conflict by use of lethal force.

A very similar sentiment was expressed (perhaps more bluntly) by Brad Warner in a blog post in March this year. He put it like this:

Human beings are fair and inclusive, when we have the resources to be. This ability to be fair and inclusive has a high price. A society that values fairness and inclusivity also has to be able to defend fairness and inclusivity. It has to be able to kick the shit out of those who threaten fairness and inclusivity.

I’m not saying this is a good thing. But it is a fact. I hope this is not always the case. I believe that someday, in the distant future, when neither I nor anyone else alive here in the year 2017 is around any longer, it is possible that this will not be the case.

But we will never get to that point unless we understand the real situation right now. Which is that if we want a fair and inclusive society (and I do), we need to employ people whose job it is to kill — or at least have the capacity and willingness to kill — other human beings who threaten fairness and inclusivity.

In short, monks need soldiers.“

So who are these people who have the capacity and willingness to kill on my behalf? I don’t mean this personally, I’m not questioning the virtue of individual officers – in fact two of my good friends from teenage years are now police officers, one of them a firearms officer, and I’m satisfied that both are competent and ethical individuals. I ask what is their status, and what do we have in common and what separates us?

The idea (in the UK, and many other nations) is that these people are citizens in uniform, rather than soldiers: their primary principle is to prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment. The soldiers mentioned above by Brad Warner are probably more relevant to conflicts between nation states. Note that the capacity and willingness to kill is part of a preventative process, which, if it is effective, is far preferable to resorting to repression by military force. The ideal is that in the act of prevention all citizens (uniformed and un-uniformed) are better able to maintain their integrity than would be the case during any after-the-fact violence.

439px-Robert_Peel_PortraitWhen I say that this is their primary principle, I’m referring to the so-called Peelian Principles which were set out in the ‘General Instructions’ that were issued to every new police officer from 1829. [N.B. The Peelian Principles were named after Sir Robert Peel (illustrated on the right) but apparently there is no evidence of any link to Robert Peel and the principles were likely devised by the first Commissioners of Police of the Metropolis, Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne]. This kind of policing is known as ‘policing by consent’ because the power of the police is supposed to come from the common consent of the public, as opposed to the power of the state. However there is the important corollary that no individual can chose to withdraw his or her consent from the police, or from a law.

If you’ve not come across them before, I recommend that you make the effort to find out more about them. I hadn’t heard of them until earlier this year, but when I started looking into them they made a lot of sense and helped to make more concrete the vague ideas I’d developed about the principles of policing in the UK.  It has also changed they way in which I relate to police officers – which has been increasingly helpful as I’ve continued to get older and the police officers get ever younger.

The issue of public consent is elaborated further in principles 2, 3 and 4. Specifically, the fourth stated principle is

To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.“

So in my Sunday afternoon example, if I (a member of the public) see police officers carrying lethal weaponry, but refraining from using it because the situation does not call for it, then I am more likely to approve of their presence. It is not just for safety’s sake that they carry their weapons with the muzzle pointing towards the ground. The authority of the armed officers is not supposed to stem from the fact that they are armed, but because the public approves of the way that they conduct themselves whilst armed in the broader context of preventing crime and maintaining order.

There’s another issue involved in police officers being armed so that the rest of us don’t have to be: armed officers put themselves at greater risk of being harmed in the course of their duty of protecting other citizens from harm. This ‘ready offering of individual sacrifice’ is also mentioned in the fifth Peelian principle.

The sixth principle involves addressing conditions in an incremental way:

To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.

Again, the idea being that public consent will be maintained if police officers do their duty in an even-handed and proportionate fashion – and their duty does not extend to avenging individuals or the State, nor does it include judging guilt and issuing punishments (as it says in the eighth principle). The sixth principle urges the use of physical force only to the extent that it is necessary to address the specific conditions of a situation.

In conclusion, then, I’m reasonably satisfied that the Peelian Principles of ‘policing by consent’ are compatible with the Middle Way, and that only political extremists are likely to reject them as being a sound ethical foundation on which to organise the maintenance of civil society. The big issue, as ever, is to what extent the Peelian Principles are actually realised in the way that policing is carried out in practice. In my privileged (and compliant) position in society I’m pretty unlikely to find myself on the wrong end of an armed officer’s gun, so perhaps my role is more as a protector of the standing of the Peelian Principles. As I see the Principles as a valuable working system then I should speak out if I see them being flouted by corrupt individuals or being undermined or perverted or otherwise absolutised by political figures. What do you think?

Image credits

Further fodder for consideration

The trouble with toilets

As soon as I spotted the headline in the paper I felt a flush of vindication: I was right! I knew it all along! At the bottom of page six of the Times, the environment editor Ben Webster topped his short article with the following: ‘Water-efficient’ loos leak millions of litres every day.

File_000My prejudice against the so-called water-efficient toilets was seeded about two years ago when we moved from a one-lavatory house to a three-lavatory house – yes, that meant one lavatory per occupant. The big surprise on moving in was that the small outhouse on the back of the building contained a functioning old-style high-cistern pull-chain siphon-flush toilet, with panoramic views of the garden. This WC remains a little-used curiosity, and the outhouse is mainly used for storage now (or for posing in – see the photo on the right).

However, inside the house the other two lavatories were identical modern drop-valve dual-flush models, and both of them had the same problem: they leaked. It wasn’t really something that I noticed during the busy-ness of the moving-in process, but when I was lying in my new bedroom at night I could definitely hear the slow plink-plink-plink of dripping into the toilet bowl coming from both the upstairs and downstairs toilets. At frequent intervals this was drowned out by the sound of the partially drained cistern re-filling. Best of all the downstairs toilet featured a small sticker that said ‘Leak tested’ to which the previous tenant had added (in biro) NOT!

At what was a particularly stressful time of my life, the problem of the toilets that needed attention seemed significant and insurmountable. Of course eventually I just got to it and googled the problem, wrestled with the contents of the cisterns to determine what needed doing, ordered the replacement parts online and then spent even longer wrestling with the flush mechanisms to fix them. And through it all the thought was in my head: “These new style dual flush toilets are crap. The old siphon toilets never had this problem. I hate dual-flush toilets.

File_000 (9)That wasn’t the end of it though. When we moved in we were told by the letting agent that the house was not on a water meter – ‘Great!‘ I thought, ‘it won’t cost us if the toilets keep leaking‘. That turned out to be wrong, a letter arrived from the water company telling us that we did in fact have a water meter. Not long after that the flush mechanism in the upstairs toilet malfunctioned and I replaced it. A few months later the dripping began again and, much more quickly this time, I ordered the new washers and sorted it out. And this pattern has repeated, the toilets requiring regular minor maintenance leaving me wondering if I could bulk-order the replacement washers (see the photo on the right).

So, when this week I saw the headline in the paper I felt a sense of ‘I told you so!’ The dual-flush toilets are a false water economy! We were better off with the old siphon mechanisms! The only person nearby to tell was my son, but he didn’t care… and so this blog post started to take shape in my mind. It started with recognising the rush that accompanies Being Right (confirmation bias: I wouldn’t have paid the article much attention if I didn’t already think that dual-flush toilets were a false economy), was fed by the desire to explain the mechanics of toilet flush mechanisms (remember, I’m a physics teacher too) but ended up with me considering the complicated tangle of trying to make a difference for the better in the world.

Now that I’ve declared my interest (or prejudice) I can outline the shape of the rest of this article. In it I describe the difference between the old and new toilet flush technologies, with particular reference to their advantages and disadvantages with regards to water efficiency. I then discuss the context in which the old technology was superseded by the new, and why this supposed change for the better may have turned out to be a colossal mistake. I finish by considering where the toilet water-efficiency problem may go from here – what are the possible solutions, what are the ideologies within which the solutions will be conceived, and who is responsible for sorting this problem out?

In this article I will be assuming that improving water efficiency (by reducing wastage and demand) is a desirable thing: that it is morally good. I won’t be providing much justification for this, suffice to say that water is a renewable but finite resource and that here in the UK (where fresh water is rather abundant) we devote a lot of other finite and non-renewable resources to treating water for mains supply. I am also assuming that it is worthwhile to attempt to improve water efficiency by specifically focussing on the issue of flushing toilets – it may be in practice that any savings there are insignificant in comparison to other wastage in the system (for example, leaking supply pipes), and I’ve not investigated the figures for comparison. I do not suggest non-WC alternatives such as composting and ‘wild weeing’.

Right… are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

Toilet technology
It is not completely impossible for a traditional toilet to leak, but due to their design they are very unlikely to leak. In a traditional toilet the water in the cistern must first flow upwards before it can flow downwards into the toilet bowl. Water will not flow uphill without assistance (as I’m sure you’re aware!) and your push on the handle provides the necessary lift to get the flush going. Once the flow has started the water will continue to siphon out until the cistern is empty.

This explains why siphon-based flush mechanisms are considered to be wasteful of water – every flush completely drains the cistern, whether or not that much water is actually needed to do the job. It also explains why they are so robust against developing a leak into the toilet bowl, simply because water cannot travel uphill unaided. On the rare occasions when I’ve experienced these toilets leaking it was down to a fault in the re-filling mechanism, and the dripping was from the overflow pipe on the outside of the building.

File_000 (10)In order to achieve variable-volume flushing the designers of modern ‘dual flush’ toilets have done away with the cistern-emptying siphon mechanism. Instead, in the common ‘drop valve’ design, when the flush buttons are pressed a plug is yanked out of a plughole in the bottom of the cistern and the water drains down into the toilet bowl. One of the flush buttons yanks the plug a long way out of the plug hole, so that the entire cistern drains before it falls back in to seal it up again. However, the other flush button only yanks the plug out a little way, and it drops back in when only a fraction of the water in the cistern has escaped.

The dual-flush design has the flexibility for toilet-users to choose to use an amount of water that is appropriate to the job. However, in order for the water to remain in the cistern between flushes the fit of the plug into the plughole must be perfect – if there is the slightest imperfection in this seal then the pressure from the water in the cistern will force water to leak down into the toilet bowl. Under the real-life conditions of bargain-basement manufacturing, inexpert installation and frequent flushing the flush valves rarely work perfectly for long, and as a consequence millions of litres of treated fresh water quietly leak uselessly through the toilet when it isn’t in use.

Lavatory legislation
The leak-proof design of the traditional toilet siphon was the primary reason why they were the only legally permitted style of lavatory design in the UK. However, in the early 1990s – against a backdrop of water industry privatisation, greater awareness of environmental issues and a spate of hotter, drier summers – public concern about water efficiency grew. Simple measures to reduce flush volumes were suggested, such as putting a brick into one’s toilet cistern, but this approach was limited by the fact that the siphon mechanism allowed a relatively low flow rate and so a large volumes of water was needed for a flush to shift solids into the sewers.

The law was changed in 2001 to allow non-siphon lavatories to be installed in the UK. To politicians in the late 1990s this must have seemed like a ‘no-brainer’. The dual-flush design promised huge improvements in water efficiency: they had a higher flow rate than siphon toilets, so less water was needed to shift solids from the bowl, and they also gave toilet users an obvious option of using a shorter flush when they were disposing of urine. Toilet users were able to feel environmentally virtuous every time they opted for the short flush – which would be many times per day –  and it’s not like they were doing it in order to save money, as few households at the time were on a water meter.

gabor-monori-2199So 16 years later, and the traditional siphon flush lavatory is an endangered beast. The dual-flush design is now far more popular, having been the installation of choice in new-builds since 2001. This is a long enough time for the drawbacks of this new technology to become apparent, and for not-for-profit bodies like Waterwise to investigate and report on the false economy of switching from siphon flushers to valve mechanisms. It makes for a satisfyingly ironic headline in the news: “So-called water-efficient toilets leak millions of litres every day”, but perhaps it is better seen as a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of introducing what seemed like common-sense changes.

To use a particularly inappropriate metaphor, it seems as if the baby was thrown out with the bathwater in the aftermath of the change of legislation in 2001. In the name of ‘water efficiency’ leak-less siphon toilets have been displaced by the leak-prone dual-flush toilets. The problem is not insignificant: Waterwise claims that 4% of UK toilets leak from the cistern, and the average one leaks 215 litres a day. Total UK toilet leakage amounts to 400 million litres per day, which accounts for 5% of clean water consumption.

What went wrong?
So, were the benefits of the siphon flush mechanism under-rated when the changes to toilet legislation were being made in the late 1990s? The leak-proof design perhaps was not fully appreciated by those who had grown up with it in the background of their lives because it was just so good at invisibly and silently doing its primary job (from a water-efficiency perspective): not wastefully leaking water between flushes. The billions of litres of water per week that were not leaked by siphon toilets over the century or so of their prevalence could not be seen, or easily appreciated.

When dual-flush toilets were first introduced they made the siphon toilets look, by comparison, poor at performing their secondary job of flushing waste into the sewer using the minimum amount of water.  The key thing to note here is that the major benefit of the siphon toilet was inobvious to toilet users, but the major drawback was completely obvious: in a more water-efficiency conscious time the toilet user potentially had to face up to their guilt about wasting water every time they flushed a siphon toilet. Switching to a dual-flush was a noticeable change for the better – the cisterns were significantly smaller, and one now had the ability to easily choose a short or long flush, appropriate to the occasion.

The problem that cancelled out the gains in water efficiency only became obvious once the change-over was well under way. Presumably the early models were of sufficiently high quality that their drop valves did maintain their integrity for the required 200 000 flushes under laboratory conditions. In real-life conditions though, the drop valve toilets did not perform as well. Poor installation of the toilet could result in leaks. Debris introduced to the cistern during installation could get stuck in the valve, resulting in leaks. In hard-water areas limescale could similarly affect the valve, resulting in leaks. And when the leaks happened at first they would have been very hard to spot, with the water quietly and continuously seeping into the toilet bowl.

Perhaps, most significantly, the nature of the free market in bathroom supplies meant that consumers would opt for the cheaper models – especially landlords of rented properties and businesses – and in the race to produce the cheapest flush mechanisms the quality of the early models was not maintained. In order to keep my own dual-flush toilets in leak-free order I have to replace the rubber washer on the drop valve every six months or so. That’s not a problem for me, but then I’ve got the money to buy the spare parts and the skills and confidence to do the maintenance myself – but I don’t think I’m particularly representative of a typical toilet-owner, and the old siphon toilets didn’t require such regular servicing.

Where do we go from here?
The conservative lament that “we should never have messed with it!” is not particularly helpful, and if rejection of innovation was absolutely applied we’d still be squatting in the bushes when nature called. “If it ain’t broke then don’t try to fix it” is a slightly more refined argument, but it is only with hindsight that the siphon toilet doesn’t appear to be broken. There is some wisdom in being aware of our tendency towards neophilia, the love of new things simply for the sake of their newness: expect it, and challenge it – especially when it is coupled with the desire to be seen to be doing something rather than nothing.

Another point to be taken from this story is it that it is wise to accept the results of laboratory testing provisionally, and with caution: lab testing is unlikely to reveal the flaws that become apparent when the technology is used in the messy, complex real world. This also reminds me of the precautionary principle: when a new technology is proposed then the burden of proof that the technology will not cause more harm than good is on those proposing the change to the status quo. Simple arguments (like ‘dual-flush toilets use less water than siphon toilets, therefore we ought to replace siphons with dual-flushers’) are usually deceptively simple, masking the complexity of the issue. Our desire for straightforwardness and certainty when making decisions means that we are reluctant to think critically about what is being proposed.

In trying to improve the water-efficiency situation there is the danger of adopting an absolute scientistic view: that the sustained use of science and its application (technology) will fix the problem. I’ve already mentioned above the problem with over-reliance on the results of laboratory testing, and another aspect of this is the belief that the technological problem will be solved only by more technology – better toilets, more efficient flushing mechanisms, the integration of computer processors, sensors and actuators into the lavatorial arena. In this way we can end up overlooking simpler, more obvious, more universally applicable solutions (remember the large proportion of humans that don’t have access to even the most basic toilet technology).

school-toilet-209058_1920There are cultural factors at play here too, ones that are often difficult for us to appreciate because they are part of our own conditioning. One very simple innovation that greatly improves water-efficiency is the urinal, especially the waterless variety. However, when was the last time that you saw a urinal in a domestic setting? And, ladies, when was the last time you saw an (appropriately designed) urinal in a public lavatory? There are not really any material barriers to installing urinals in homes, or to widespread installation of female urinals in public toilets, so what’s stopping us? With the increased technology surrounding the business of urinating and defecating the subject has become closer to taboo in society – I don’t know how exaggerated the reports are, but consider the technological lengths employed in urban Japan to cover up the embarrassment that comes with the fact that humans need to urinate (musical toilets and so on).

Finally, there is the question of responsibility: who will take responsibility for improving water efficiency? We have to be careful of polarising the issue here: it is not entirely the responsibility of the government, neither is it entirely the responsibility of individual toilet-users. The government has and can play a part: regulating the manufacture and installation of lavatory technology, and legislating for increased use of water metering by the (privatised!) water supply companies – metering and creative tariffs are a way of introducing a financial incentive for end-users to improve their water efficiency. Personal responsibility could be as simple as applying this lavatorial heuristic: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.” Good luck discussing that with your co-habitants.

Further reading and resources

Image credits

  • Photograph of me sitting on the outhouse toilet: own work (c) Jim Champion
  • Photographs of dual flush button and drop valve washers: own work, licence CC0 Public Domain
  • Photograph of happy WC: downloaded from
  • Photograph of urinals: licence CC0 Public Domain, downloaded from

How I nearly succumbed to apophenia: the case of the The Good Friday conspiracy

What psychologists call apophenia—the human tendency to see connections and patterns that are not really there—gives rise to conspiracy theories.

–George Johnson

Maître_de_la_Légende_de_sainte_Ursule_-_Crucifixion_avec_CalvaireToday I learned a new term: apophenia, the tendency for humans to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things. I was already familiar with this particular cognitive bias from reading the work of Taleb and a number of different popular psychology books, but I didn’t know that there was a specific term for it. The neologism was coined in the 1950s by the psychologist Klaus Conrad, who considered this aberration in cognition to be a symptom of the onset of psychosis, but more recently apophenia has been recognised as a universal human tendency. In this blog post I will take you on the journey that led me to encounter this term, and I will also grapple with what I’ve learned from the experience, and what it might have to do with the Middle Way.

The background story
So, yesterday the UK (and many other Western countries) observed the Good Friday bank holiday, which traditionally is a Christian holiday commemorating the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. Accordingly the day has—for those who adhere to traditional Christian religious beliefs—a rather solemn nature. On the day before Good Friday the largest supermarket chain in the UK, Tesco, ran an advertisement in some of the print versions of the national newspapers that featured the text “Great offers on beer and cider. Good Friday just got better.” Amusing or offensive? Or something else entirely? Of course it depends very much on your personal perspective.

C9RiKbcXgAAz-PSBy lunch-time on Thursday this advert, unlike most other newspaper adverts, had become a national news story in its own right. The BBC website published a story entitled “Tesco sorry for Good Friday beer advert“, featuring a quote from a Tesco spokesperson who said “We know that Easter is an important time of year for our customers. It is never our intention to offend and we are sorry if any has been caused by this advert.[sic]” This story was then widely shared and commented on in the usual social media channels, and it was on my Facebook feed that this story popped up after a friend had ‘reacted’ it. If you’ve got this far and are still not sure why anyone might have taken offence, follow the above link to the BBC news story and read it.

Or course, I had to see what all the fuss was about and clicked on the link myself in order to read the details. It took no time at all for the following idea to take shape in my mind:  this isn’t an issue of Tesco employees with a poor grasp of religious sensibilities in the UK making a goofy gaffe, this is a deliberate conspiracy from within Tesco to grab free publicity by pushing the ‘controversy’ button in the run up to Easter! [Note that we’ve also recently had a media “storm in an egg-cup” involving the Prime Minister, the National Trust and accusations of manufactured controversy.]

A conspiracy built up, and knocked down again
It all seemed so obvious. This is how the conspiracy stacked up in my mind: Someone deep within the Tesco advertising machine had struck upon a fiendishly clever plan. (1) Run a weakly controversial advert in the Holy Week national newspapers where only a minority of the nation will see it. (2) The initial reaction to the ad on social media is picked up by the BBC and other national news agencies, who report it through their own channels. (3) The story goes viral on social media, fueled by parties on both sides of the conventionally religious/secular split making comments like “I’m outraged by Tesco’s insensitivity!” and “Get over yourself, its supposed to be funny!” (4) Issue an official apology, saying that no offense was ever intended (and it wasn’t… it was the public expression of that offense that was intended) (5) Sit back and watch the extra customers pile into Tesco stores to take advantage of the beer and cider offers that they’d seen mentioned on Facebook and Twitter.

Thankfully, after the few seconds that it took me to concoct this conspiracy story I paused to think things through before blurting it out in any public forum.  During that pause I could tell that I felt quite pleased with myself for ‘seeing through’ this particular story, that I had taken it a step beyond the knee-jerk reactions of the commentators on social media. Noticing that feeling produced the suspicion that I had fallen for the classic move of fooling myself. I told myself I’d come back to it in the morning, even if it wasn’t such a hot news item then.

This morning, then, I did return to my Good Friday conspiracy. And having let it lie overnight, I felt less possessed by the idea. In fact I outlined my conspiracy privately to a friend, one who I respect deeply for his ability to think critically… although honestly I think I’d chosen to communicate with him because I thought he would agree with me, and be amused at our mutual cleverness and superiority. His point of view was measured, reasonable, and stopped just short of being in total disagreement with me.

My friend made some good points that I’d swept away in my excitement to nail a conspiracy: it is unlikely that Tesco could predict human behaviour that well, so it would be too much of a gamble for them in case it back-fired. And for it to be a corporate strategy it would have to be sustained for a number of instances, without being leaked to the public, and without causing considerable damage to the company’s reputation. Remember Occam’s razor! He also opined that the same people who come up with these conspiracies (which require extraordinary competence from the alleged perpetrators) simultaneously criticise the alleged perpetrators for being incompetent in most other aspects of their business.

Only a fool learns from his own mistakes…
So what have I learned from this (largely inconsequential) affair? With hindsight there shouldn’t be any surprise that it’s the perennial moral of the story: It’s Not All About Me. It seems to be a very very hard lesson for me to learn, and I presume I will never be able to entirely avoid it as it’s something deeply built into the way that we self-aware humans operate.

Firstly, as I’ve already confessed above, there was a sense of self-satisfaction of being clever enough to concoct this conspiracy. In short: aren’t I special? Secondly, I saw myself as being above all the bickering fools reacting to the news story. Again, in short: aren’t I a superior specimen amongst my peers? Thirdly, I saw this as vindication of my pre-existing belief that Tesco was an amoral corporation, willing to deceive the public for their own profit. In short: what I believe is correct, and aren’t I an altogether more ethical entity? In summary, the episode confirms to myself that I’m the super-great guy that I already thought that I was. And this feeling persists, even though day after day I recognise that I was a fool yesterday – but never today!

Critical thinking is crucial
How, then, might all this be connected to the Middle Way? Primarily, I think it is a good illustration of the practice of critical thinking in a low-stakes ethical situation. Consider this quote from Robert M Ellis’s “Migglism: A beginner’s guide to Middle Way Philosophy“:

The development of critical thinking is crucial to the practice of the Middle Way. The Middle Way enables us to address conditions by avoiding the interpretation of our experience through metaphysical preconceptions. Very often those preconceptions become apparent through critical thinking as unjustified assumptions. We need a certain amount of awareness to become aware of a critical problem and apply thought to it, but critical thinking skills are then needed to identify what the unhelpful and unjustified assumptions are.

The major metaphysical preconception in my story is that “I must be right because I feel so right.” It’s a position that’s untenable upon closer inspection, but so often that closer inspection never gets a chance to happen! In this instance it was the fact that I paid attention to the tiny end of the wedge of doubt that my conspiracy story might have no justification whatsoever apart from the fact that it felt so right to me. And notice how I drove the wedge in deeper between the foolishness of my thoughts and the eventual outcome of my actions: I noticed the ‘alarm bells’ that come along with a sense of smug self-satisfaction, I counted to ten (actually, I slept on it), and—perhaps most importantly of all—I offered up the justification for my beliefs to be criticised by an honest friend, one that I could be sure of getting an honest appraisal from, and I was open to the possibility that he may change my mind. And he did.

I can only hope that by practicing and reflecting on this kind of examination of my assumptions in a low-risk situation, that I would be more likely to take a similar approach when the stakes are higher.

My brain’s left hemisphere loves a conspiracy
So, to finish, now that I’ve successfully avoided making a fool of myself on social media with regards to this Good Friday story, I’ve become intrigued as to what might lie behind my desire to concoct a conspiracy. And that’s where apophenia comes in, and I suggest it might be understood in terms of the psychological model of brain lateralisation expounded by Iain McGilchrist. This is how he summarises the nature of the attention of the left hemisphere in the 2016 Blake Lecture:

The attention of the left hemisphere is narrow, targeted, piecemeal, isolative, producing a world of tiny discrete fragments, each appearing certain, static and unchanging. Particles which could, so it seems, be put together like bricks building a wall or cogs making a machine to produce something of use. It has designs on the world.

So, when I read that news story on the BBC website, my left hemisphere analysed it into pieces, compared those pieces with the so-called facts I already knew (which perhaps were really prejudices in the form of absolute concepts such as ‘Tesco is an unethical profit-motivated corporation’) and concocted a satisfying, specific, self-consistent theory that fitted with my pre-existing beliefs. The down-side being that, despite its certainty and logical splendour, it had no degree of objectivity whatsoever. Its assumptions had little justification from wider experience.

Contrast this with the attention of the right hemisphere, as described by McGilchrist:

The right hemisphere meanwhile sees the whole breadth of the picture in a sustained and continuous way. This is an entirely different experiential world, one in which we are involved with, affect and are affected by everything through the sheer fact of our relationship with it. It is indeed a world primarily of relationships, in which the things themselves are never wholly separable from the context in which they lie, and the interconnections which exist between everything that is. It is a world that is never fixed, unchanging, certain, but constantly evolving and creating new wholes.

So, in order to avoid being trapped within the delusions of the left hemisphere, I had to find a way of bringing in the right hemisphere to play its role. Simply appealing to rationality would not work, as that would just be more left-hemisphere action. I had to be sensitive to the ambiguity in the situation, to seek out another person’s point of view, to consider the story in its wider context where that context included my own left-hemisphere’s tendency to prefer simple, certain, rational judgments no matter how inaccurate those judgments are. In other words: apophenia may be appealing, but not justified in the messy muddle and complexity of existence.

Now, I must wrap this up now as all this typing has made me rather thirsty, and I hear that they’ve got some good deals on at my local supermarket…

There is always hope

In the last few weeks and months, I have sometimes found hope in rather short supply. That’s not particularly due to personal events so much as events in the world at large, particularly those that can be summarised in two evocative words, ‘Brexit’ and ‘Trump’. These are a source of despair primarily because of the bad news they convey about the lack of critical thinking and wider awareness in a large section of the population of the UK and US, together with the apparently disastrous implications of Trump’s election for the already fragile international consensus to act effectively on climate change. Absolutisation appears to rule unchallenged so often in so many minds at crucial times, who are thus paralysed from responding to important conditions by an obsession with straw man targets such as ‘political correctness’, ‘liberal elites’, or the influence of foreign migrants, and apparently animated by an overwhelming nostalgia for past social certainties.

The effects of these obsessions are underlined by George Monbiot in an article called ‘The 13 impossible crises that humanity now faces’, which include not only Trump and climate change, but the possibility of a new financial crisis, the likely collapse of the EU, mass migration, mass unemployment due to automation, a looming food crisis, mass extinctions, (and, added in a comment) antibiotic resistance and the global pensions crisis. To address these kind of conditions, we need every sinew of balanced critical awareness we can gather, yet at the very moment we seem likely to need it most, it seems that the majority of the population is determined to stick its collective head in the sand.

Where is hope at a time like this? Strangely enough, hope always seems to be our default setting, regardless of such bad news. Iain McGilchrist points out that our dominant left hemispheres are subject to a general shallow optimism, ensuring that human beings will always tend to seek a new positive response to their conditions. The shock of bad news is short-lived, and it generally takes us little time before we start seeking alternative positive sides to it. As the Monty Python team memorably sings from their crosses, it’s always possible to ‘look on the bright side of life’.

But is there any justification for this default resurgence of hope? Is it just another aspect of the confirmation bias that makes us so prone to error in the first place? I would argue that there is. There is a shallow source of hope in this default setting, but there is also a deeper source of hope in the wider insights we find whenever we start to move beyond our delusions of the moment. Our embodied nature not only makes us continue to hope, but also helps us respond to frustration by reframing our perspective and gaining a better understanding. Darkness may be followed by a new dawn because, when we are at our most deluded, we are very likely to clash with conditions and be forced towards a more adequate perspective. We will not escape suffering, but we may learn from our suffering. The Middle Way is a way of talking about that capacity for finding new, more adequate perspectives in the face of uncertainty.hope-wojniakowski

Both optimism and pessimism, when adopted as all-encompassing interpretations of the situation, are deluded, and a more adequate position is likely to lie somewhere between them. George Monbiot alerts us to some pressing conditions, but his piece needs to be recognised as a selective interpretation of events. We also have much to be cheerful about. On a personal level, many of us still have enough to eat, comfortable houses, stimulating lives and supportive companions. Worldwide, violence continues to decline (as documented by Steven Pinker); moral attitudes in many countries have transformed so as to respect many groups that were previously oppressed on grounds of race, age, gender, sexuality; human lifespan continues to extend; extreme poverty continues to decline; numbers of people attending school and university worldwide continue to rise. If you raise these points, you may be accused of complacency, just as raising Monbiot’s points may lead to denial or your dismissal as a doom merchant. Nevertheless, questioning both the absolutes of optimism and pessimism remains a crucial aspect of the practice of the Middle Way.

People may associate hope with optimism, but if that optimism is dogmatic or built on little more than our ‘default setting’ it is fragile. A more sustainable hope comes from the Middle Way, because the Middle Way ensures that we are always working towards realism as well as optimism. The best hope is a grounded hope. Rather than being overwhelmed by the perspective of the present, reflection can also help us to take the long view. In the long view, even the impact of Adolf Hitler has eventually faded and been put into perspective, like that of Genghis Khan or the Emperor Nero before him. There is no guarantee that suffering or loss will clear the way for new advances, but mere reflection on the fact that they often do may help us to put things into perspective.

‘There is always hope’ thus seems like a helpful and justified generalisation of human experience. A string of proverbs and truisms (‘Hope springs eternal’ and so on) confirm that it has widely been seen to be so. Our times may be disastrous, but they are still not times for despair.


Picture: Allegory of Hope by Wojniakowski

The MWS Podcast 109: Chuck Klosterman on But What If We’re Wrong?

We are joined today by the author and essayist Chuck Klosterman who has written books and essays focused on American popular culture. He has been a columnist for Esquire and and wrote “The Ethicist” column for The New York Times Magazine. Chuck is the author of eight books including two novels and the essay collection Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto. He talks to us today about his latest book But What If We’re Wrong: Thinking about The Present as if it were the Past as well as other aspects of having a sceptical mind-set.

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