Frank's Blog - Yes, Finally
Elephant-centrism - 29 March, 2016
Today's post has almost nothing to do with cruising, but it starts with a story, so there's that....
Once upon a time (fairy tales begin with "once upon a time", sea stories begin with "you are not going to believe this, but..."), there were a group of
wise men who, because of conditions outside of their control, were all optically challenged (for those of us who grew up before the 70s, they were
blind). The group of wise men traveled around the world, investigating things with their remaining senses. One day, they happened upon an
elephant. Because the animal was so large, each of the wise men was able to grasp a different part of the elephant. Based on which part of the
elephant they grasped, they described the elephant differently. One grabbed a tusk and decided that the elephant was like a spear, long, smooth
and hard. One touched the side of the elephant and found that the elephant was like a wall - heavy, unmovable, tall and wide. One grabbed the
trunk and proclaimed that the elephant was like a huge snake, another the tail and decided it was like a tiny snake.
Each of the various wise men had a different impression of the elephant and each was convinced that his impression was the correct one. All of
this begs the question, of course - why would anyone consider these people wise?
Except that this happens all of the time in the real world. We have some information about a subject and we decide that the information we have is
both the most important information and the only information of importance. Anyone who tries to convince us otherwise must obviously be wrong.
I recently needed to get some information from a collection of government agencies. Now, before you say to yourself, "well, yeah, of course this
happens with the government," I have had exactly the same situation occur with private businesses, both over the phone and in person. All that is
necessary for this to happen is for there to be more than a few people employed by the organization.
So, getting back to my need for information. Over the course of an hour or so, I talked to five different people at three different organizations.
Each of them were "subject matter experts" at their jobs. They knew what they needed to know for their field. However, my questions required a
synthesis of information. In other words, I needed to know something about what Person A was telling me and something about what Person B was
telling me, but the answer from A affected what B said and vice versa.
Now, if I could have gotten all of these people on a single conference call, so that they could all talk to each other, I might have been able to get an
answer to my questions. But because each of them considered themselves "the" subject matter expert, rather than get on the phone with each
other (something that we could not even discuss since it would have required one of them agreeing to call the others), each of them simply told me
that the other person was incorrect or mistaken or some variation on the theme. Each was very nice and was trying to be helpful, but each was
also convinced that they had the "important" part of the elephant.
Now, before I come off sounding too sanctimonious, I will say that I have been accused of doing the same thing and, in retrospect, I believe the
person who called me on it was correct. We all consider ourselves the center of the universe (because, in a metaphysical sense, we are). So, we
have trouble seeing the world from other people's viewpoints. This is particularly true if we have invested time and effort into establishing our
selves as the "subject matter expert" in a certain area. We are willing to admit that someone might know more about other subjects, but "when it
comes to rutabagas, I KNOW what I am talking about!"
So, how do we deal with elephant-centrism? I am not sure you can. Normally, the answer would be to do as much research as possible, but the
problem with EC is that you are dealing with people's subjective assessments of a situation. When we look at the elephant example, the solution is
simple. If each person simply rotated one position to the left, they would get new data to add to their impression of the elephant. Rotate enough
times and you get a picture of the whole elephant.
But it is pretty much impossible to get an accurate idea of which chartplotter is "best," or even just best for me. First off, the cost of installing six or
seven different units on my boat, either one at a time or all at once, is (as The Donald might say) HUUUUGE. Even if I did succeed in getting them
all on the boat, one of them would be in a better position than the others, which would undoubtedly affect the results. Secondly, assessing the
chartplotters would require differing conditions of weather and sea state, and one device might work "best" in calm seas and gentle winds, but
another would be preferable when things got "sporty." Third - and, I think - most importantly, humans are hard-wired for a few reactions.
We are risk-averse, on the whole, which is key if you are living in the wilds of Africa as a puny mammal. Being alert to risk is very important to
We tend to get "anchored" - meaning that, if we have a notion in our brain, even if it is unrelated to the issue we are assessing, it anchors us to a
set of possible choices. The best example of this that I have seen is when someone is given a set of numbers between 0 and 9, then is asked to
choose "any number." Almost invariably, they choose an integer between 0 and 9, even though the actual request was to choose "any" number -
which includes every value from infinity to negative infinity, including all fractional values.
Finally, we see the world as a subset of our own experiences. We believe something has to be a certain way because we have no way of knowing
that it can't be that way. We believe that no two fingerprints can be the same because we have never seen two fingerprints be the same. We
believe that we are safe from alien abduction because we have never seen anyone abducted by aliens. We believe that our spouse is true to us
because we have never seen her be untrue to us.
Sometimes, of course, things are not what they seem. There is a statistical probability that two fingerprints might be enough alike as to be seen as
"the same." There may be people who were abducted by aliens - or at least who believe they were. Enough people have been cheated upon in
marriage as to render the idea of spousal fidelity a joke. But we cannot operate as if these things were true all the time. If we did, murderers would
go free, we would never leave the house and we certainly would never do anything as heart-breaking as getting married.
We have to believe our impressions of the elephant - even when they might be wrong.
So, what will I do about my questions regarding my calls to the government agencies? I will make the best decisions I can, based on the
information I have. I will try to avoid too much "elephant-centrism" of my own and expect it of others. Finally, I will realize that very few decisions
are "life-or-death" and continue to hope for the best.