Sunday, May 26, 2013

Pondering a Tavern Tale

I read this old parable a long time ago and have always kept it in mind. I couldn't find the original source material, or the original author, so to paraphrase:

A man walked into a tavern, and found a group of patrons arguing about how many teeth are in a horse's mouth. He suggested they all take a look at the horse in the stable outside to find out …
at which point they promptly beat him and tossed him outside.

Why bother measuring what can be measured when you could just have a contest about who has a bigger ego? Sigh. Take a look at most news 'shows' today and you will likely see glaring evidence of the same bad behavior as the author of this parable was warning about hundreds of years ago. Life is complicated enough without distractions from the cult of personality.

Critiquing the Skeptic
While you might expect salesman types (or news personalities) to be most susceptible to personality-driven, ego-based arguments instead of fact-driven focus, I'd caution for the same vigilance even for the most esteemed in the academic community as well. Most modern academic inquiries seem to be based on skepticism - that is, putting proposed ideas to a rigorous test, then either: finding any crack or failure which would invalidate the idea, or else having found no failure, giving the idea an official stamp of approval. A valiant attempt. But unfortunately, I think this approach ends up discarding too many good ideas, too many true facts, along the way.

If a champion of an idea makes a mistake in their presentation, the ultimate idea may still be right even if the implementation by that particular champion is flawed. How many times have you seen a news clip, video, or read a quote from a random person in the news who's main idea you agreed with, but cringed at their bad choice of words. It's a case where you know the underlying idea is better then how it sounds. All too often you see the result: bad presentations create easy 'straw men' that are easily dismissed or ridiculed. The lesser argument can appear to 'win.' In this way, skepticism can lead to these same personality-based arguments overshadowing truth-based inquiries. The danger is when such criticism deters others from ever looking at that badly framed idea again. It creates a blind side where potentially real truths are left unknown, unmeasured.

Skepticism takes a disastrous turn when questions are intended to destroy rather than to understand. It becomes a vehicle for another top-down, authoritarian system so pervasive in our modern society: Only validated experts are qualified to examine data. It's as if they presume to valiantly eliminate thought viruses from infecting a supposedly childlike population. Destroying ideas that challenge the system becomes like a feather in their cap, and it's 'for your safety'. (Same goes from my experience in the corporate world, where people are also rewarded for killing new proposals 'to meet schedule' just as you might expect they should be rewarded for creating new ones.)

Look for Shreds of Truth, not Cracks of Failure
But what if everyone took on that responsibility for themselves? While it is definitely valuable to understand the best currently accepted theory from the experts, I would caution very strongly from stopping an inquiry there. Now if this latest default position happens to meet your needs, then you're done. But if you are still dissatisfied with limited options, I don't think it's reasonable to despair, thinking the official line is the only reasonable course of action. I think it's reasonable to hear other possible options, regardless of the source. I love this approach; it can be so invigorating and inspiring. The key is to look for shreds of truth, not seek cracks of failure. With this approach, you are not an unsuspecting childlike consumer that must be fed only sanitized options, you are autonomous investigator, looking for glimmers of hope in a motley universe.

For example: rather than reading only approved textbooks or talking only to an approved authorities, you could read fringe books, listen to podcasts, or watch YouTube videos just to find one useful phrase or idea (although hopefully you can prioritize so the odds are better). And you will definitely have to activate your best pattern matching mind filter (serious discrimination skills needed) because there will likely be a lot of misguided tangents to sift through. But for all that, you may find that just one phrase becomes like a key, unlocking a whole new viable approach. That one idea could be life changing, opening up huge opportunities or cost savings. The very approach you stumble upon from random fellow human beings might become lauded by experts in the next 50 years, but has just not been officially recognized yet. It's a common blindside in our society. How often do you hear: "No one could have seen it coming."   … Really? How about taking a look at the people who were thrown out of the tavern, so to speak.

Going back to the parable, if too many useful facts are being ignored due to the tendencies ingrained in modern society, I think one good option is to figure out how to make the best use of that true information. Could be a business opportunity, or just something simple you can incorporate to benefit your own life. Anyway, good ideas are usually just a fraction of the total energy compared to what it takes to convince someone else the idea is right. Why bother with that anyway? Such arguments really do seem mainly ego driven.

It could be because I'm coming from an engineering background, but I say the best remedy for unrecognized (or ignored) facts is to find out a useful application of those facts and then test it out yourself. If the idea really was bad or the fact turns out to be useless, then at least you didn't expend your time and reputation defending it. If the idea is truly good and useful, then you will benefit (since knowing something that is true, but no one else believes is technically a business advantage). And when you succeed, people will probably notice and then ask you what you're doing. Problem solved; no yelling. Seems like a decent plan to me. :)

Blog post by Laura A Knauth

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