1. Finding Truth: The Human Mind as an Error-Checking Mechanism

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s sud­den­ness resists, win so.

[John Donne, 1572–1631]

[ Pro­logue: In 1998 in Mel­bourne, Aus­tralia, I had become a polit­i­cal casu­alty in the work­place of a new State government’s “reform drive”. Only time could restore bal­ance there. It wasn’t worth trench war­fare. So I decided to head off for the dark side of the moon, oth­er­wise known as China. In a three month inter­reg­num arrang­ing visas etc., in order to pay the rent I plunged into the world of tele­sales for a few hours each after­noon. Talk about a moral edu­ca­tion… Any­way, this very short piece reflects the real­i­ties of that time. Par­don the icon­o­clasm, but come to think of it, what has changed?]

It is time some­body invented the elec­tron the­ory of truth. Per­haps it could go some­thing like this. Human minds come with a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent valences, although no one has yet devised a peri­odic table of their range. The sim­plest fel­low, like a hydro­gen atom with its sin­gle shell elec­tron, holds that one truth stands for all worldly and other-worldly expe­ri­ences. More com­plex souls have a vary­ing num­ber of truth (elec­tron) shells, and although their con­scious­ness may habit­u­ally dwell at a fairly inti­mate level, say the behav­iour of a spouse, with suf­fi­cient heat and agi­ta­tion, their atten­tion (hence their judge­ment) may jump to an outer shell of national affairs, or to the dizzy dis­tance of humankind. A few rel­a­tively eccen­tric human types may scarcely ever access their inner shells of inti­macy with the laser light of mind. 

I am encour­aged in these spec­u­la­tions by the stun­ning lack of inter­est most peo­ple evince in evi­den­tial proof which does not relate to their nor­mal atten­tion lev­els and per­ceived imme­di­ate inter­ests. For exam­ple, nowa­days I pay the rent (barely) by work­ing as an evening tele­sales­per­son, flog­ging a pen set at an out­ra­geous price and fraud­u­lently in the name of a char­ity (which actu­ally receives 6%). This is the world of the sales­man, where truth is con­tracted to the imme­di­ate goal of secur­ing a sale. I hear from the booths all around me the insou­ciant lies of a sales con­test. They are earnest, gen­uine, and wholly promis­cu­ous. Once won, the cus­tomer like a fal­len woman, loses all respect. I hear myself lying, and try to ratio­nal­ize by secur­ing the largest num­ber of cash dona­tions, which do actu­ally go to the char­ity (and are lit­tle val­ued by the employer and “team lead­ers”).

When not moon­light­ing in tele­sales to make a buck, I’m sup­pos­edly an edu­ca­tor. Is the com­mer­cial sales team so dif­fer­ent from man­age­ments in edu­ca­tional insti­tu­tions? I think not. I have seen and heard them lying shame­lessly about “com­pe­tency”, and “qual­ity”, and nonex­is­tent spe­cial­ist staff skills in order to secure con­tracts and ten­ders. “Yep, we can do that. ISO9000 cer­ti­fied”. They don’t see them­selves as lying at the time. The pre­sen­ta­tions are also earnest, gen­uine and wholly promis­cu­ous. Once the ten­der is won they lose all seri­ous inter­est in meet­ing edu­ca­tional com­mit­ments.

A mere pro­fes­sional teacher who analy­ses the sit­u­a­tion, iden­ti­fies flaws, oppor­tu­ni­ties and actual skill lev­els — as I have done — is labeled as a trou­ble­maker and sooner or later dis­posed of (since teach­ers no longer have gen­uine pro­fes­sional sta­tus in these places). The pro­fes­sional can write well-researched pro­pos­als for improve­ment, even secure the sup­port of peers, and he will be ignored. He is not within the appro­pri­ate cir­cum­fer­ence of the manager’s elec­tron shell of truth. Then a half-baked polit­i­cal instruc­tion, per­haps palely reflect­ing the professional’s orig­i­nal cri­tique will come from above. Sud­denly the man­ager is per­spic­u­ous in find­ing the flaws of the “old” method that was only yes­ter­day at the “cut­ting edge”. Yesterday’s heresy is today’s “lat­est research”, albeit with­out acknowl­edg­ment. The manager’s con­scious­ness has found an incen­tive to kick to a higher level of “truth”.

Uni­ver­si­ties are the citadels of gen­uine research, aren’t they? Home of the search for pow­er­ful truths? No, actu­ally they are not. Now there are indeed indi­vid­u­als who do ground break­ing, inno­v­a­tive work in uni­ver­si­ties. It is typ­i­cally against the pre­vail­ing odds of insti­tu­tional encour­age­ment and work com­mit­ments. They are often unpop­u­lar (although at least they have a bet­ter chance of defend­ing their approach than benighted teach­ers in tech­ni­cal insti­tutes and sec­ondary schools, let alone the fac­tory super­vi­sor with an inno­v­a­tive idea, or the banker who ques­tions eco­nomic fables). When you look at research and inno­va­tion in any field, you invari­ably find that it oper­ates within strict para­me­ters, not only of accepted method­ol­ogy, but of focus. This lat­ter is a mat­ter of fash­ion, career-posi­tion­ing, and bureau­cratic approval. 

What is fash­ion­able amongst a group of car­diac researchers, or field lin­guists might not of course make the evening news, but the same forces are at work. Within such para­me­ters much of the work is dili­gent, and even clever in a nar­row way. Yet when you ques­tion it through another prism, or from the imper­a­tives of a wider per­spec­tive, you see the eyes of your lis­tener go out of focus. You have lost him, jumped the elec­tron shell of his truth bound­ary, become irrel­e­vant.

The truth games of shift­ing “rel­e­vant evi­dence” are found in every occu­pa­tion. Take the world of busi­ness and com­merce. The actual fail­ure rate for new busi­nesses is hard to quan­tify (there­fore the stuff of urban myths), but it is very high. Even busi­nesses which remain offi­cially reg­is­tered fre­quently stag­ger on for years as zom­bie shells, the liv­ing-dead. There are a mul­ti­tude of rea­sons for this, but a generic back­ground fac­tor seems to be that amongst busi­ness­men only a minor­ity can ever per­ceive and adapt to the unex­pected require­ments which will make or break their enter­prise.

Take, for exam­ple, an actual issue with cof­fee shops in Viet­nam. Real cof­fee beans might cost $15 a kilo­gram, while soya beans roasted with car­cino­genic indus­trial chem­i­cals to give a cof­fee flavour might cost $5 a kilo­gram. It is a no-brainer for many busi­ness­men to use the fake beans. The imme­di­ate truth for them is that cheap cof­fee draws cus­tomers. It is not their prob­lem if their cus­tomers get liver can­cer … or is it? If by some mir­a­cle the Viet­namese gov­ern­ment is dri­ven to jail the poi­son­ers, their busi­ness model col­lapses, but until that moment another real­ity pre­vails.

At least profit is a less ambigu­ous met­ric for “rel­e­vant truth” than many another propo­si­tion: ide­o­log­i­cal or reli­gious purity, naked prej­u­dice, sex­ual grat­i­fi­ca­tion, a com­fort­able life, and so on. In other words, for the largest num­ber of peo­ple most of the time, evi­dence that the appar­ently golden might not be chem­i­cally gold is of no inter­est. What they want to know is whether the stuff which looks like gold has the cur­rency to buy them what their heart desires. 

The “rel­e­vant truth” par­a­digm is no less applic­a­ble to the world of ordi­nary peo­ple than it is to aca­d­e­mic researchers and busi­ness­men. For legions of bum­bling lawyers, half-com­pe­tent motor mechan­ics, indif­fer­ent med­ical doc­tors, denizens of every occu­pa­tion … just get­ting by has to be a nor­mal way of life way of life. They do their jobs by nar­rowly learned rou­ti­nes. The rou­ti­nes are their “rel­e­vant truths”, to be defended regard­less of intrud­ing coun­ter-evi­dence. They may be psy­cho­log­i­cally unable to adapt and inno­vate when unex­pected prob­lems are added to the text book exam­ples. No edu­ca­tion sys­tem any­where has ever over­come this for the major­ity, regard­less of con­ven­tional stu­dent IQ or length of train­ing. It is com­mon to talk of “human cap­i­tal” being enhanced by edu­ca­tion. How­ever, as part of the human con­di­tion in com­plex soci­eties, per­haps we are also stuck with a cer­tain “incom­pe­tence deficit” . Let’s call this the Bum­ble Law. 

Since the Bum­ble Law is appar­ently uni­ver­sal, we should expect it in uni­ver­si­ties as well as in bak­ery shops. It doesn’t mat­ter that researchers are sup­posed to be very clever peo­ple, as mea­sured in ordi­nary ways. We should expect that the largest per­cent­age of sup­posed research papers will always con­tribute lit­tle to human under­stand­ing. Objec­tively, we already know that most of these papers are hardly stud­ied by any­one but the ref­er­ees, and scanned only by an occa­sional post­grad­u­ate stu­dent seek­ing to flesh out a bib­li­og­ra­phy. Most are mere props for someone’s resume. Unfor­tu­nately, the Bum­ble Law also means that gen­uinely use­ful research may also lie undis­cov­ered, some­times for gen­er­a­tions. And of course gen­uinely inter­est­ing researchers might only (or might not) find fame by some con­flu­ence of luck and pol­i­tics.

Fur­ther down the ambi­tion scale, armies of teach­ers, fre­quently with 50% pass under­grad­u­ate degrees, are sup­pos­edly qual­i­fied for their career by wad­ing through a mush of selected read­ings which most of them barely com­pre­hend. They are cer­ti­fied to trans­mit our cul­ture to the young, yet in the main lack even a glim­mer­ing of insight into what crit­i­cal thought and the processes of inno­va­tion really mean. Let us sup­pose that some do become aware of George Bernard Shaw’s sar­donic dic­tum that ““The rea­son­able man adapts him­self to the world; the unrea­son­able one per­sists in try­ing to adapt the world to him­self. There­fore all pro­gress depends on the unrea­son­able man.” They will still over­whelm­ingly avoid any attempt to wrestle with the minds of their stu­dents, avoid any risk of chang­ing the stu­dents or them­selves.

The best mem­bers of a half-edu­cated teacher army sub­sti­tute good inten­tions for insight, and that does count for a lot, since those of their stu­dents who do have inquir­ing minds are less likely to be crushed. Oth­ers employed as teach­ers, hav­ing found no magic in dis­cov­ery them­selves, tend to lock down to a dogged rou­tine of timeta­bles and cur­ricu­lums, their hearts hard­ened by cyn­i­cism. They may feel nei­ther pain nor out­rage as man­age­ment som­er­saults destroy the true learn­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity of their stu­dents. The psy­cho­log­i­cal mech­a­nisms at work in their minds have become, after all, those of the tele­sales­per­son.

So where in the world is truth? As lan­guage goes, it is mostly found inside com­fort zones, regions of expec­ta­tion, domains of profit. If there is con­flict it will prob­a­bly be a ter­ri­to­rial dog fight about those zones, regions and domains. The fel­low who wants to know whether gold really is chem­i­cally gold will forever be an out­sider and an embar­rass­ment. Yet when the world of the moment col­lapses about our ears it is the per­sis­tent ques­tioner, the out­sider, the seeker of appar­ently irrel­e­vant truths, who is most likely to save us. 

 


 

All opin­ions expressed in Thor’s Unwise Ideas and The Pas­sion­ate Skep­tic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influ­ence, pros­e­ly­tize or per­suade oth­ers to a point of view. He is pleased if his writ­ing gen­er­ates reflec­tion in read­ers, either for or against the sen­ti­ment of the argu­ment.

 


The Human Mind as an Error Check­ing Mech­a­nism”
© copy­righted to Thor May; all rights reserved 1998

 

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