To combat the informational distortions caused by emotion, we humans have been clever enough to devise a wonderful process called the scientific method, which embodies engineering thinking: be objective, review pertinent data, use logic to arrive at the most likely solution, and obtain independent verification.
So, one may ask, if we’re intelligent enough to have a procedure that allows us to obtain the truth, why can’t we all agree on the various issues that tend to divide us? Why aren’t we all liberals, or conservatives, or libertarians? Shouldn’t there be just one right answer, if we apply engineering thinking?
In theory, yes. But the Achilles’ heel of engineering thinking, and for analysis in general, is our assumptions. Over the short run, faulty assumptions can easily corrupt the scientific method. It is not until assumptions are challenged that we, over the long run, can be sure that we’re converging on the truth.
Our Mental Blind Spot: Assumptions
You may not realize it, but you are partially blind in both eyes, close to the center of your vision. There is a small area in each eye (located at the optic nerve head) that contains no photoreceptors, and hence transmits no visual information from that area to the brain. We do not notice these blind spots because the brain ignores them, even though they are there. (You can confirm this as follows: close your left eye and focus your right eye on the center of this page. Hold up a finger near the screen at the focus, and while not shifting the focus slowly move your finger a few inches to the right. Through your side vision you will “see” the tip of your finger vanish. In the left eye the blind spot will be to the left of the focus.)
When we try to logically analyze an issue, we start with a foundation of basic assumptions. Since we tend to blindly accept such assumptions, if they are wrong then our view of the world will be wrong.
Consider this small example. My wife Barb and I (and our cat Misha) live in a nice tree-lined neighborhood, where at one time our new next-door neighbor painted their house a bright blue color. In contrast to all of the soft earth tones of the other homes in the neighborhood, the blue color stuck out like a sore thumb.
During this period I had gone on a business trip, and returned very late one night. Early the next morning a stocky man with a serious expression knocked loudly on our door. When I swung it open he held up a summons, but fortunately he was at the wrong address. “You want the house next door, the blue house,” I said, gesturing to my right.
From our vantage point the house was not visible, so he took a few steps back and looked to his left. He stared for a moment, and then turned back to me. “The blue house,” he said.
“Yes,” I nodded, “That’s the one you want.”
He once again looked to his left, stared, and again turned to me, only this time he appeared to be getting upset. “The blue house,” he said sternly, scowling.
I’m pretty mild mannered and patient, but he was starting to annoy me. “Yes,” I said, more firmly. “The blue house, right next door.”
He appeared about to say something, but instead just scowled some more, and without a further word swiveled and left. I remember thinking that he was quite peculiar and rude. It was only a bit later that morning, after I ventured outside to get the newspaper, that I understood the reason for his scowl. While I was away the neighbor’s house had been repainted a nice beige color.
I Knew I Was Right
But I was Wrong
Sometimes, as in the example of the blue house, we will discover for ourselves the falsity of our assumptions. In general, however, false assumptions tend to stay buried and hidden. Therefore we need to share our reasoning with our objective friends and colleagues, and allow them to challenge us. Even though we are blind to our assumptions, others may be able to point out that our logic is built on sand, rather than rock.
But do we really want to have our cherished assumptions challenged? We’ll dig into that question in the next post.
I Don’t Want To Hear It!