Friday, May 4, 2007

The Overrated Middle - My First Oprahism

Here I was minding my own business watching an old UFC fight when one of my favorite announcers, Mike Goldberg, hits me with this bit of popular pap:

"There are two sides to every story, and the truth is somewhere in the middle."

This is one of those catch phrases that we've all heard chanted like a self-evident mantra for so long that we don't stop to see just how inaccurate it is. It's the kind of thing people who want to appear smart, but who don't care to do the hard work to become so, like to say. I call them "Oprahisms", and the overrated middle is one of my least favorite. One doesn't need to play many games, or watch foreign policy, or run a business, to see tons of counterexamples.

Anyone who has played games knows there are lots of situations where the reasonable options are the extremes, and the middle is the last thing you want to do. In poker, in many situations with a weak hand, checking or folding (not betting) is reasonable, to minimize your risk, or betting big to try to buy the pot (bluff) is also reasonable, but making a small bet is not reasonable. In battles, whether in a board game or the real thing (think Iraq), avoiding the battle altogether, or attacking with everything you've got, might both be pretty reasonable, whereas going in half-assed is not. And when pricing a product in business, say you have some people who will buy your product for $10, and the rest will pay up to $15. Depending on the distribution curve, you would either price at $10, or $15. But you would never price between $10 and $15, because every person willing to pay that would also pay $15, so you are losing money to the $15 option.

Consider a legal case. If I claim your dog bit me, and you claim he didn't, the answer is certainly NOT somewhere in the middle. He either bit me or he didn't. Medicine isn't too kind to the middle either. If we have two unmarked glasses, one with lethal poison, and one with water, but we don't know which, and we are going to die without water right now, drinking either glass entirely is far more reasonable than drinking a mixture of the two.

I harp on the overrated middle for another reason. It is intellectual laziness dressed up as wisdom. Anyone can take the rough average of opposing views. That takes no effort, no risk, and no thought. Life is not that simple. Finding the answers requires evaluating the particular facts in evidence. Sometimes the answer is in the middle, sometimes it is towards one extreme or another. The Overrated Middle also implicitly assumes opinions dictate reality - want the "truth" to be further to the left? Move the extreme position on the left further out! This is a reality in our political life known as The Overton Window and is one reason extremist views are so commonly pandered to. Want your moderately wacky view to get more acceptance? Get your buddy to push a position that is even more wacky, and you'll look reasonable by comparison.

Dispense with this claptrap. Reality doesn't care what we think, and there are no simple puzzles for unraveling its mysteries. You can't find the truth by taking polls, and that is essentially what that commentator was saying. But then, don't get me started on the idiocy that comes out of sportscasters mouths. Thats a blog in the future.

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