Saturday, November 28, 2009

Obtuse by Design

Have you ever read the book, Surely, You're Joking Mr. Feynman?, Adventures of a Curious Character? It's a wonderful book written by Richard P. Feynman, a Nobel prize winning physicist who, among other things, worked on the Manhattan project (the world war two project that gave us the atomic bomb.)

I love the book because Feynman is so clear and unabashed in looking at how he and others operate. In one instance, he talks about participating as a pallbearer in the funeral of a "friend" he couldn't remember having known only to find out that he hadn't known him. Feynman had been mistaken for someone else and asked to participate in the "friend's" funeral. Not wanting to admit that he couldn't place the person who had died, he simply traveled to the funeral and participated.

No Physics in Brazil
At one point, Feynman traveled to Brazil as part of a US State Department sponsored exchange program in which American scientists spent a year abroad teaching in foreign universities. Feynman had wanted to learn Samba, so he thought it was a great idea.

As he read the physics textbook and interacted with the students, it became clear that the students were learning physics by memorizing it. When he asked questions as they had been phrased in the text book, the students would answer quickly and correctly. For example, were he to ask, "What is Brewster's Angle?", the students could respond correctly with something like "Brewster's Angle is the angle at which light reflected from a medium with an index of refraction is completely polarized."

However, if he were to ask the same question in terms of it's application or generically, they would be completely stumped. As the class that Feynman was teaching was the university's most advanced course in electricity and magnetism, and as the students had already taken many other classes, and as most of the students would themselves become teachers, Feynman became quite concerned about the future of physics in Brazil. What happens when the physics teachers themselves don't understand physics?

As Feynman pursued his concerns, he discovered that he was too late. At the end of the academic year, he was asked by the students to give a talk about his experiences teaching in Brazil. To a crowded lecture hall that included students, professors, government officials and even the author of the physics text, Feynman announced, "The main purpose of my talk is to demonstrate to you that no science is being taught in Brazil!"

I'll let you read the book to get the details, but quickly paraphrased, Feynman determined that the root cause for this phenomenon could be traced to the motivation for learning physics. The government and academic institutions had invested heavily in physics education because "civilized countries" have strong programs in physics and because they wanted to be second to none in education. The students were motivated by getting degrees and prestigious positions. No one was motivated by the utility of science, or its contribution to the improvement of the human condition, etc.

Two of a Kind
Yesterday morning, I was talking to Mark K and my dad, Lee, both of whom had come to our place for Thanksgiving. As we talked, I began noticing remarkable similarities between Mark and Lee.

Both Mark and Lee are quite intelligent by traditional standards, Mark with a degree from University of Michigan and Lee, MIT. Both Mark and Lee struggle with "addictions", Mark with food, and Lee with alcohol. Both associate their lapses in sobriety with episodes of depression. Both, attribute their depression to boredom (yes, boredom). Both, look outside themselves for solutions. Both answer question about themselves with references to what others have said or written. Both, thankfully, seem not to tire (or at least not quickly tire) of my questions and my "annoying" ability to structure concepts in real time and then argue them.

At one point, Lee stopped me to triumphantly explain that the American Medical Association (AMA) considers alcoholism to be a disease. I had been talking about our ability to address challenges like addiction, etc. through changes to our belief systems and how changing our beliefs changes our minds (physically and figuratively). Lee decided that I was full of crap and that he could prove it by his AMA reference.

For me, Lee's statement felt like a stack of unexpected Christmas presents. It was so wrong in so many ways and so telling about how Lee thinks that I simply didn't know where to start. I thought about how doctors nowadays are actually starting to recognize how artificial the mind/body distinction is and how any AMA reference to something other than that must be outdated. I thought about asking, "What do you mean by 'disease'?"... or, "Why do you believe it simply because it showed up in an AMA article?"... or, "OK, let's say it's a disease, so what?"

And then it occurred to me. Lee is an electrical engineer and a mathematician. He's a scientist who learned empirical methods. He likes to solve problems and spent his career doing so. I can remember him telling me as a kid that doctors have terrible diagnostic skills because they are taught through memorization. They learn names for things, they read articles on things and studies have shown that they tend to be able to diagnose only those maladies that they've either seen before or read about. If it's something truly new or something that is presented in a really different way, they're usually stumped.

With his AMA reference, Lee had switched sides! He was now in the learn-by-memorizing camp! So, with so many potential questions, I asked him about when he'd changed his opinion on the analytic and diagnostic skills of doctors. He replied, "We're done! I don't want to talk about this any more!"

A Memorization Pandemic
This morning, as I thought about Mark and Lee and their seemingly endless struggles with food and alcohol, it occurred to me that it might all go back to what Feynman wrote about physics in Brazil. Mark and Lee have each participated in three to four times as many personal growth programs as either Iris or I have. Mark and Lee have both benefited significantly from those programs. Yet, in many instances, Mark and Lee don't seem to understand the underlying concepts and principles.

When I say, "Don't understand", I'm not saying that I disagree with their interpretation of the concepts; I'm saying that Mark and Lee can't explain what they themselves interpret the concepts to mean or how they apply.

Then it occurred to me that Mark and Lee may represent a pervasive challenge, not just in regard to the philosophy of happiness, but generally. Could it be that any number of institutions have become completely bereft of understanding? Consider the US Congress or any number of failed financial institutions or the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) or the AMA or the NEA (National Educational Association). When I read or hear different things said by representatives of these and other organizations, I often think to myself, "Hmmm... they don't seem to understand what they're talking about! What they're saying feels like a cut-and-paste job based on articles and reports written by others. There are gaps in their logic."

Feynman eventually concluded that no one in Brazil actually understood physics writing, "I knew the system was bad, but 100 percent--it was terrible!"

Could it be that we're experiencing this elsewhere?

Do You Understand?
I believe that there is a pervasive trend towards cut-and-paste thinking. Wikis. Sound bytes. Platitudes. Mottoes. Bumper stickers. Pop songs. So and so says... You name it.

I also believe that simply accepting cut-and-paste opinions, or adopting them as our own, dramatically limits us and how we address challenges.

Have you found yourself "stuck" in a particular challenge despite all that you've learned about the philosophy of happiness? It could be that you simply don't have an understanding of it.

The easiest way to tell is to find someone who is real stickler for clarity and specificity and explain the concepts to them. If you both walk away feeling satisfied, then you probably have an understanding of what you believe. If not, well...

Have you been making decisions in your life simply because of what you've read or heard the "experts" say? When provided an expert opinion on a challenge (financial, medical, automotive, educational), do you simply go with what you've been told assuming that it's above your head, or do you go for understanding?

What about your kids? Do the people who are teaching them understand what they're teaching, or did they read a book about it last summer? Are your kids learning through memorization?

If you haven't read it, I strongly recommend Mr. Feynman's book. It's a quick read. It's entertaining. It can really change how you think!


  1. I defently do copy and paste - when people argue for something which on some level seems counterintuitive I often seem to remember some studies which supports what they are saying - and this also implies when I myself is one of these people.

    So why/ when do I do it?
    a) when I believe that A is the best thing to do, but I watch myself doing B - then I find evidence that B is "normal given the circumstances" - which actually doesn't tell me that B is good, just that I'm not the only one doing it. The reason: I haven't yet figured out what holds me back from doing A and I do not want people - especially my self - to judge me for doing B
    b) I'm caretaking someone else who acts like a)
    c) I love discussions and the fact than you can often find scientfic profs for "x" and profs for "not x" - and it is fun that most people have absolute no interest in checking the statistical evidence for the results they are buying into.

  2. Hey Joy,
    Isn't it funny how we take care of ourselves and others? I'm particularly taken with the notion of "proving" that what I'm doing is normal. I guess we do it when we're somehow judging our actions. Rather than dropping the judgments, we try to duck them by classifying them as normal.

    Regarding C), if you look long enough on the Internet, it seems that you can always find someone who will support your position. That being the case, then it seems that the most useful tact is to look at the quality of the arguments presented by each reference to see if they're internally consistent and logical. Only if they are would I look at the data and statistics.

    I'd first look to see if the stats are relevant to the argument. Lee and I had discussions today in which he would reference stats in support of his arguments. The stats sounded credible and reasonable, but they were irrelevant.

    If I have a logical and coherent argument and relevant stats, I would then look into the credibility of the stats.

    Of course, all of this assumes that one actually wants to find a logical and well supported answer.

  3. Given the proliferation and easy availability of information on the internet, one other thing I have learned to do is to check the source of the information - sometimes even before I look at the info. Specifically, is the source an authority on the subject (by whatever standards we choose), and how do they benefit by the position they are taking?

    This is a fascinating subject for me - how we review information, make conclusions, take positions; and there's so much to learn from observing how I and others around me operate.

  4. Hi Mark,

    that was not what I ment by C).
    I use C) for the fun of the discussion - or to highlight that conclusions are made without enough information..

    When someone is refering to a so called "fact" which to me seems to be lacking information or understanding of the information on the board, comming up with references to "facts" which is showing the opposite, we can start a discussion about which information is needed in order to make any conclusion on the topic.

    When I'm teaching I usually refer to information and to why I rely on the source.

    Big smile


  5. Joy, Is it your belief that conclusions might be better arrived at with enough information? That shows a belief that you have to have your own internal inner logic all sorted out. Do we have to have it all figured out in our heads before we come a conclusion? This is fun discussion material! Can't we have a make believe where we come to a conclusion on a whim without analysing, even though the Option Process would say a dialogue could have it all figured out. What if we don't want to do that? Does that make our points of view less optimal? Hmmmmmmmmm! Interesting!
    Mark Oakley

  6. This focus on facts and their veracity is fascinating.

    I like Sree's comment about considering the source. It makes sense in many ways. However, I've had too much experience with credentialed sources being completely wrong and ill-motivated people espousing things that actually do work.

    For example, I've had many interactions with people who teach Radical Authenticity, but practice something completely different in their own lives. They don't believe that Radical Authenticity actually works, or that it only works in some environments, but not others.

    On the other hand, I've totally bought into what was taught. I believe that being authentic all the time is a great way to go. So, does the fact that the purveyor of the belief doesn't actually buy into the belief discredit the belief?

    In many cases, the belief regarding the fact may have greater implications than the fact itself.

    So how do we arrive at what is true? (I'm using the word from an operational, relativistic perspective, not a righteous, absolute, spiritual perspective.) Do we do a wide survey of many opinions and views and look for the consensus? Do we paste sticky notes with various opinions on a dart board? Do we call people we trust?

    I'm with BW on the idea of our own internal logic that has much of this figured out before we even start considering the "facts". As I think about it, the interesting exercise would be surfacing that logic and how we individually operate, and then tuning it up to something that is optimal.

    As for me, I always look for things to be logically coherent independent of data source or presentation. When some presents a concept to me that I don't have a clue about, I'm aware that I consistently work to create a conceptual framework as they talk. I often stop them to ask questions about what they just said, how it relates, why they believe it, etc.

    I notice too that I almost never quote someone for credibility's sake, only for attribution or because it's fun. It may be that I live in a world where you can just figure everything out. It's the beauty of areas such as music and math and physics, not a lot of need for facts.

    Sree, Joy, BW, what's your process? How's your internal logic work?

  7. PS, Hubster (Mark Oakley) when I referenced BW, I meant you. Teflon!

  8. When I referred to "considering the source", I meant it as just that - considering. I don't necessarily weigh it more just because the source is credentialed; it's just another factor in the mix. I personally feel that it's more important to recognize that I am the one making the final decision.

    For instance, when I was selling my house a couple years ago, I was having some issues with our realtor. She later made a pricing recommendation which I rejected, and we eventually moved on to another realtor. But in that process, I remember clearly realizing that her advice might very well be 'good', and that rejecting it could cost me money (which it did - a significant amount). But I'm still happy with my decision and the process I used.

    I'm finding that after many years of using the Option perspective, I don't often get into the business of finding what's true, even in the operational sense. I'm just picking a basis for making my decision. Sometimes I choose to use certain people's opinions and reported facts, and other times others', and sometimes completely unilaterally pick my course of action. Mostly I'm in the mode of estimating likely outcomes and choosing the course based on that.

  9. Hey Sree, When you say "just another factor", does that mean you apply no weighting to the input, or that you simply don't apply the hardwired "credentialed" weighting? My sense is that there never is "just another fact."

    Also, does untying your happiness from the outcome imply that you care less about the outcome or that you make decisions less deliberately and less considerately, without passion? Even when we detach our happiness from the outcome, we still want to make the best decisions we can, i.e., the ones most likely to achieve our goals.

    This is all I meant by "operationally" true, a decision that works, does what we want it to do. Perhaps "true" is too loaded a word.

    In the end, happy or not, I believe there's a process by which each of us weighs input and that it's rational (at least to each of us), not arbitrary. So, with your house, how did you decide whose ideas to go with?

  10. Teflon: yes, I'd say 'true' is a bit loaded. I looked it up in the dictionary, and most meanings indicate conforming to an absolute standard of some kind. Would operationally 'valid' or 'acceptable' or 'effective' be adequate substitutes? In any case, your explanation of it makes complete sense to me. And it was a very liberating realization that each person's decision-making process is rational to them. I stopped getting frustrated at other people's actions, and instead focused my energy on discovering their processes.

    I guess I said 'just another factor' because there isn't a preset/constant weighting I assign to a credentialed expert's input. Many times I've rejected that input precisely because I considered that expert's perspective to be too narrow, or because he/she had a vested interest counter to mine, etc.

    In the case of my house, I decided to reject the realtor's advice purely because I felt she wasn't acting in my best interests. It actually had nothing to do with the specific advice she gave.

    Fun stuff...

  11. Sree: Ahh... I get it now. From a definitions perspective, I think some of this goes back to the "aligned" discussion we had a while back regarding 'positive' and 'negative'. In this case, I think I'll settle on 'operationally aligned' with our goals.

    I'm smiled as I read your comment regarding experts and realized that I've come to actually actively discount input from experts for the reasons that you've outlined. Nice to see my bias.

    Yes, fun stuff. Thanks!


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