Thursday, December 16, 2010

Picking your battles

In my last two posts, I have talked about being blind to the fact that you are wrong, and if you try, the point when you realise that you were wrong.

In her book, Schulz goes on to talk about just why it is so hard to do anything about some of our mistakes. In it she refers to a book English philosopher and friar Roger Bacon wrote and sent to Pope Clement IV about error. He spoke of four key problems:
1) The tendency to cover up ignorance with the pretense of knowledge
2) The persuasive power of authority
3) A blind adherence to custom
4) The influence of popular opinion

Expanding on point 4, she cites a study by Solomon Asch which is rather well known. In the study a group is given a fairly simple task of comparing the length of a line to a choice of three others (A,B,C). The answer is obvious. The twist is that in the experiment, all but one are stooges (i.e. placed there by the experimenter). All the stooges give the wrong answer. 75% of the real candidates gave the wrong answer at least once in repeated experiments, and more than 25% gave the wrong answer more than half the time. More scarily, Gregory Berns extended this study using brain imaging, and concluded that the mistaken subjects weren't pretending - they actually did see the lines as being the same length. The mind is that powerful.

She goes on to cite numerous examples of the difficulty of disagreeing with your community from Western Astronomers ignoring stars, to the difficulties of religious conversion, to Switzerland (one of the world's oldest and most established democracies) where the vote was not extended to women until 1971!

More frightening, she also talks about the 'French Resistance Fantasy'. This is the fact that most of us would like to believe we would be in the correct minority. She is referring to how we would all like to believe that, had we lived in France during WWII:

'... we would have been among those heroic souls fighting the Nazi occupation and helping ferry the persecuted to safety. The reality, though, is that only about 2 percent of French citizens actively participated in the Resistance.' Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz

The same can be said after the fact about finding those who actively fought Apartheid. Being part of the resistance isn't easy or necessarily desirable. Very few people have the energy to go against the crowd. On top of that - you can never be certain that you are right! (certainty in itself is an ill she goes on to discuss). And on top of that - if you are always against the crowd - will people even take you seriously? (oh there goes Stuart, he just likes to be different).

Perhaps it is a case of picking your battles (with yourself and your own views as your principal enemy).
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