I do want to fill you in on a few specifics of how Mother Teresa of TTouch works with Bugs and me. First, though, I want to explore – with you, I hope – that there’s so much we don’t know.
This “unknowing” quality seems so important in all areas of life – but especially when we try to connect with our friends of other species. For example, see the mystery of Oscar the Cat.
Or, take “Lion-Whisperer” Kevin Richardson. If he had listened to Those Who Know Stuff, he wouldn’t have got anywhere near his extraordinary accomplishments.
Nicholas Kristof wrote about “experts” in the March 26, 2009 New York Times. Kristof cites philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s likening of “experts” to hedgehogs: They “tend to have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning, strong convictions. . . .” And can they ever deliver the soundbites. “Talent bookers for television shows and reporters tend[ ] to call up experts who [provide] strong, coherent points of view, who [see] things in blacks and whites. People who [shout]. . . .”
In a study Kristof reported, however, the reliability of such experts was “on average, only a tiny bit better than random guesses – the equivalent of a chimpanzee throwing darts at a board.” The more well-known and publicized the expert, the less reliable.
In contrast, Kristof considered Berlin’s “foxes.” “[F]oxes are more cautious, more centrist, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, more prone to self-doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance. . . . [W]hile foxes don’t give great sound-bites, they are far more likely to get things right. . . . ”
Give me foxes any day.
Now. To make the further case for “unknowing,” I need to go into some brain science. You, of course, are free to enjoy your guaranteed right to skip this material and await future posts instead. But if you bear with me, I hope you’ll have as much fun with this as I do. (References are provided at the end of this post.)
Last time I was saying how certainty feels good. Apparently we even have a system in our upper brain-stem that actually rewards certainty. When we feel we know something, that system delivers unto us a cocktail of opiates, peptides, dopamine. In effect it raises a glass to us. Says: Good job. You know something. You can take that something to the FDIC-insured bank.
There’s also, brain-wise, something called “subjective backward referral.” We draw on this ability when we must act without sufficient time to process information consciously.
For example, to hit a fastball, players must begin swinging before they can actually see the path of the ball. They may feel they see it – I’ve read about a big hitter who claimed he could see the stitches as the ball came toward him. That, however, is apparently physiologically impossible. Rather, there is a narrow window of time in which the brain can process information before it’s actually perceived. The brain compensates by projecting backward in time, to convey the feeling of knowing. Woo! Time travel!
There’s also “inattentional blindness.” To know something, we must focus. But as a result – we see only what we’re looking for. There’s the one about the guy searching for his keys under the streetlight, despite that he dropped them in the dark elsewhere, because, he explains, he can see here and not there.
Or, in Dr. Ginger Campbell’s fascinating Brain Science podcast, she tells of a famous “inattentional-blindness” experiment, conducted by Simons and Chabris, where people were told to watch a video and count how many times a basketball was tossed back and forth. Somebody in a gorilla suit walks into the center, pauses and pounds his chest, and then walks off. People watching the video don’t even see the gorilla. They deny he was there at all! What they didn’t see didn’t exist!
There’s “system blindness.” That’s the cultural “kit bag” of regularities, customs, traditions, expectations, agreements. All hiding in plain sight. Take, for example, the recent financial crisis. The system was based on risk on top of risk, generating paper wealth but all depending on the wrong assumption that house prices would not, could not, fall. And the system was buttressed by immense social pressure. Who would say nay?
As Warren Buffett noted, if any of the credit-reporting agencies had tried to sell a contrary view, they would have been hauled to testify before Congress why they were hurting the economy.
And lest we imagine that publicly stating a dissenting view is a comfortable thing to do, we need only recall what was done to Galileo, by the orthodoxy of his day.
What’s called-for instead, in the words of biologist Humberto Maturana and neuroscientist Francisco Varela, is: “[W]e must walk the razor’s edge . . . . [between] regularity and mutability . . . of solidity and shifting sand . . . . [This] compels us to adopt an attitude of permanent vigilance against the temptation of certainty. It compels us to recognize that certainty is not proof of truth. It compels us to recognize that the world everyone sees is not the world but a world [that] we bring forth with others.”
From which, they proclaim: “Let us not deceive ourselves: we are not moralizing, we are not preaching love. We are only revealing . . . that, biologically . . . without acceptance of others, there is no social phenomenon. If we still live together that way, we are living indifference and negation under a pretense of love.”
So just look at that. A Magical Mystery Tour. From Oscar the Cat, to blowhard-hedgehogs and canny foxes, to certainty-cocktails, to backwards-time-travel and the stitches on fastballs, to looking for keys under streetlights and guys in gorilla suits, to Galileo and credit-reporting agencies, to razor’s edge and shifting sands, to acceptance of “the other” and – gosh! Love! As in, all you need is!
I think I need to lie down.
But, really – (1) Not-knowingness. (2) Love. (3) Conversing with Bugs.
All quite within the domain of this blog.
Nicholas Kristof, “Learning How to Think”: http://nytimes.com/2009/03/26/opinion/26Kristof.html
Ginger Campbell Brain Science Podcast: http://brainsciencepodcast.com
Simons and Chabris gorilla video: http://www.simonslab.com/videos.html
Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela
The Tree of Knowledge, Chapter 10.
Okay, I’m making a request of myself to “adopt an attitude of permanent vigilance against the temptation of certainty” and I’m not going to judge myself as a “flip-flopper” anymore! Up with Not-Knowingness!!!! Yahoo.
Don’t you just love those words — “permanent vigilance” and “temptation of certainty”? SO glad you picked them out, Christine, so I get to re-enjoy them.
We are Flip-Floppers and Proud!
I enjoyed that tour of some of the landscape of uncertainty and bias. It helps to know what we’re dealing with in terms of our tendencies for self-deception. I enjoy many of the interviews conducted by Ginger in the Brain Science podcasts. Live the questions!
Waving at Dave the Wave. I think I know this guy. But what do I know?
Bugs listens to Ginger Campbell too. He liked the one on Jaak Panksepp. While being a little afraid of the guy. Experimenter, you know. Bugs is a little wary of scalpels. Though he grudgingly respects the contribution to Knowledge.
You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something that I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and very broad for me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!
Wow! I’m actually going to have to learn stuff to be qualified to comment on your blog — I am certain of it!
This may be true of the beans involved here — but the cats? They know *everything.*
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