Let’s stop pretending we know everything

We often fail to notice things that we are not expecting. Dr Lisa Randall, Physicist

Note: additional links to newly published material may be added after you have read this.

Can we please stop pretending we have the answers or are on a knowledge home run where the main issues are settled with only scraps to be tidied up?

The reality is –

  1. We hardly know anything
  2. What we think we know changes constantly, often in astounding ways
  3. The best method we have for discovering facts, scientific method, is limited
  4. Science is not reality, but provides models of reality
  5. Science is robust not unequivocal, it can produce wrong answers that are useful and seemingly right answers that are wrong
  6. What is real varies between systems, people and within ourselves
  7. We cannot even conceive of what is yet to be asked, making imagination as important as science for progress.

To claim to know for certain, in particular about issues that do not yield to testing, is unscientific and given history, likely unwise.

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The benefits & limits of attention & evidence

These seemingly contradictory, yet complementary insights may be of value –

  1. Pay no attention to what people say; but pay close attention to what people say.
  2. Focus on evidence; but don’t let evidence narrow your focus.

Attention

Pay no attention to what people say (when it contradicts what they do)

It’s easy to say – I am honest, I am good, I have values. In fact, it’s easy to say anything – just open your mouth. Doing so is a different ballgame but if you want to know who someone is, take a look.

For example –

  1. You can’t say you are loyal but have affairs, unless you have an explicit agreement with your partner that ‘loyalty’ includes having sex with other people. You can’t redefine what sex (or commitment or partnership or marriage for that matter) means for the purpose of squeezing yourself back into the loyal box. A one-night stand is still sex. An intermittent but ongoing romp with an old friend is still sex. Orchestrating a weekend away with a colleague even if both parties are married just for sex, is sex. Sex as a transaction is sex. If there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing in your mind, tell your partner so that they have information and can make an adult choice about whether they’re happy with that in their mind too. Otherwise call it what it is. Is it loyal? No it is disloyal. You can apply this to any quality you ascribe to yourself or others.
  2. You can’t claim to be trustworthy if on Monday you’re lobbying for better treatment of women but on Tuesday diminish working women as selfish and self-centred, argue human rights Wednesday but whip up the troops around anti-Semitism (add in any issue you like here) the next. Who is this person? No one knows. We can change our minds about what we believe over time but that’s not what chameleons are about. What else do they say that has no bearing on the way they live? Look at what you say and ask yourself – do you live by it? If not, why say it at all?

It may seem overly obvious to say these things but it is the primary human instinct to trust other people. Most of us believe what people say about who they are and it’s hard to shake early impressions, positive or negative. This is what makes political leanings or emotional beliefs about the existence of loaded beliefs like climate change so difficult to shift.

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How to accept diversity

How do we —

  1. Respect grassroots views without being held hostage to ignorance?
  2. Privilege a standpoint without slipping into elitism about whose views count?
  3. Accept the right for people to have a view if that view seems damaging?
  4. Value knowledge while accepting that what was once true we now know to be false but that creativity & scientific method matter.
  5. Become aware of, let alone challenge, personal assumptions, ideas, beliefs?

Sometimes we do so easily and at others with great difficulty.

But in relation to each of the five above we can —

  1. Accept we have prejudices we’re not aware of — desire to become more conscious — withstand the pressure to agree because it’s easier without condemning people for not sharing our views.
  2.   Place being humane above all else — drop the need to be right or better — admit how gut wrenching it feels when we’re wrong but also how humbling & human it makes us.
  3.  Say no. (“NO”)
  4.  Value knowledge without deifying it — remember that ideas predate data — value scientific method, strive for the right questions and measures but do not let the limit of current measures set the boundaries for your thinking — refuse to make experts into gods but value genuine expertise — accept the right for people to have a view, but be discerning about the quality of information behind them (not all views are equally well informed).
  5. Be insatiably curious — read constantly including from opposing views — the established and from the edges — process that through writing, painting, reflecting, talking, walking or what works for you — get external inputs without needing to accept or reject them — be willing to tolerate discomfort.

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The myth that we have to ‘rise above’ emotion is corrosive

The myth that we have to ‘rise above’ emotion is corrosive. Where is emotion ‘kept’ such that we could disentangle from it?

Emotions are complex biochemical events triggered by and that trigger internal and external reactions. There’s some evidence that specific molecules regulate certain emotions – oxytocin with empathy, serotonin with happiness  – although this is an emerging field and we really don’t know enough.

But its a long outdated idea that thoughts and feelings float around in space separate from the body – they are embodied within it.

Many psychologies, philosophies and spiritualities teach that emotion is inferior to reason, but this idea of pure reason is a myth. The fetishisation of reason creates damage because people waste energy trying not to think or feel as they do.

Being emotional doesn’t mean having unbridled outbursts. That’s childish. We can learn to control impulses and must to live respectfully amongst others.

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