Why the Spherical Cow

To escape a life filled with sorrows, the one thing we are all, always longing for are certainties. We desperately need them to reassure ourselves that we took the right decisions, that we are on the correct path. We so desperately need them that, most of the time, we delegate the burden of thinking for ourselves to external “trusted” entities.

That is why we are so prone to adhere to collectivist and totalitarian ideas; they provide us with both a clear vision of what is wrong in our lives and societies, usually by pointing fingers towards some “misbehaved” subgroups of the population, and with a solution which, very often, is not so kind with these subgroups. Naturally, this process requires a series of compelling straw man arguments that everyone is ready to believe, as well as an unchallenged and trusted central authority, thus capable of realizing the implementation.

Now, paradoxically, it is way less known that science itself, widely considered as an infinite well of truths, relies a lot on straw men. They are usually referred to as “models” and are actually invaluable in the process of rationalizing the world we live in.
Indeed, the latter is of such complexity that, in order to engage in its study, we have to divide it in smaller chunks that we hope can be understood. Then, and this is the trickiest part, in order to rationalize how a given chunk works, one tries to simplify it as much as possible, but not more. This is the process of medelling, by which one could end up representing cows as spheres. Spherical cows, are famously set forth as a joke making fun of the process of modelling reality:

Milk production at a dairy farm was low, so the farmer wrote to the local university, asking for help from academia. A multidisciplinary team of professors was assembled, headed by a theoretical physicist, and two weeks of intensive on-site investigation took place. The scholars then returned to the university, notebooks crammed with data, where the task of writing the report was left to the team leader. Shortly thereafter the physicist returned to the farm, saying to the farmer, “I have the solution, but it works only in the case of spherical cows in a vacuum.

While ridiculed here, the process of “skimming” the real world to only keep its quintessential nature requires a lot of devotion, efforts and questioning, and clearly is the most beautiful endeavor that mankind has ever undertaken. On this, I strongly suggest you to watch Laurence Krauss brilliantly explaining the process.
But, and most importantly, as any model has limits that are too often swept under the rug by shameless scientists, it tells us that science does not provide us with absolute truths, but only with spherical cows, that we are nonetheless so keen on relying on to guide us.

Spherical cows are deceptive, and present everywhere you look

As hinted at the beginning, straw men, also known as spherical cows are not just present in science, they are everywhere a model the world is provided. This especially includes all forms of ideologies on which rests our social organization. The latter carry a lot of different names, generally ending in -ism and have proven to be the most deadly ones. Tens, if not hundreds of millions of men perished in their names, either by engaging voluntarily or by force in the most dreadful acts of violence, or simply by belonging to the wrong subgroups. That’s how badly we want to believe in our spherical cows.

So, clearly, spherical cows are dangerous. This is true in “hard science”, in that they oftentimes provide us with simple but misleading explanations that, as scientists victim of confirmation bias, we are well too ready to believe, but it is especially true for all of the -isms. Indeed, the advocate of such ideologies will, if they are in a position to do so, impose their spherical cow to the rest of the world, as they deem it to be the only real cow, thus leading to the totalitarian horrors that we know of.

I am a firm believer that the only remedy to this phenomenon is to have strong individuals, thus capable of resisting both the natural appeal to confound such simplistic views with reality, i.e. are capable of nuance, and, if need be, to resist to the assaults made on their individual liberties.

For such a process to occur, freedom of speech has to be preserved, such that spherical cows can be debated and thus continuously improved, while still acknowledging the possibility that even a reached consensus can be wrong. In other words, we still need to fully embrace action under uncertainty, and claim back the responsibility for it. Acknowledging this fact is an act of courage and wisdom, and allows us to stare at the unknown with curiosity rather than fear. As Carl Jung puts it:

When one lives one’s own life, one must take mistakes into the bargain; life would not be complete without them. There is no guarantee- not for a single moment-that we will not fall into error or stumble into deadly peril. We may think there is a sure road. But that would be the road of death. Then nothing happens any longer -at any rate, not the right things. Anyone who takes the sure road is as good as dead.

Carl Jung - Memories, Dreams, Reflections

The corollary of this statement is that, as nobody is omniscient, nobody should ever try to gain enough power to be able to constrain others in any way, shape of form, and it should be the responsibility of each individual to insure this fact.

This is precisely why this website emerged. I won’t let my freedom to express such nuances be impaired by guidelines I do not endorse, and nowadays it is the case for most social media platforms. Doing so, I hope to provide a place where anyone is free to participate to the discourse without being “deplatformed”. I did not set any “rules of engagement” yet, as I suspect that I am going to write mostly for myself for a long while.

What this is not

What if we were all, always wrong does not imply the kind of postmedernist crap that has recently become fashionable by claiming that since we cannot reach a perfect understanding of anything, we can discard all our spherical cows altogether.

Once again, even if they are approximate models, and have even proven to be dangerous, spherical cows are invaluable. An individual capable of holding several of them simultaneously, while still questioning each of the latter can develop a very high resolution view of the world, both scientifically and ideologically and may end up with a very accurate cow. I am of the opinion that it is one of the noblest endeavors one can undertake.

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