Point of View Matters

There is an ancient Indian parable about blind people examining an elephant.

From Wikipedia:

“It is a story of a group of blind men who have never come across an elephant before and who learn and conceptualize what the elephant is like by touching it. Each blind man feels a different part of the elephant’s body, but only one part, such as the side or the tusk. They then describe the elephant based on their limited experience and their descriptions of the elephant are different from each other. In some versions, they come to suspect that the other person is dishonest and they come to blows.”

If one touches the trunk and another the tail, they will have no ability to decide about the whole. Similarly the ears, the tusks, the side, and the legs. Each has a clear idea about what was touched, but none can conceptualize the reality of the whole.

That they came to fight about their experience is not so unusual either. People rely on their experience to be right and that is usually acceptable. They cannot however, estimate if their experience is complete enough to establish truth. When observations are few in number and little connected to actual experience we tend to end up with wrong conclusions.

How can you tell if a politician is lying?

The cynical answer is “Their lips are moving”. More likely they are expressing some small share of the possible observations and expecting a conclusion that in many cases is unconnected to objective reality. Worse yet media often edits video so that the entire context of the comment is unavailable to the viewer. The viewer with little experience of their own acquires a false experience and then relies on its implication. You can go very far from truth with this escapade.

As the observers of these tricks, we must learn to be skeptical. 

Start with probabilities of truth.  Is the implied conclusion so unusual that we should question its validity, or should we look for more information or a better explanation. As Elon Musk suggested, if they find a one inch cube of titanium in an Egyptian pyramid, he might consider believing there have been aliens here. The technology to make such a cube did not exist 5,000 years and is difficult today, so its existence is interesting, Nonetheless, the likelihood of trickery compared to aliens is quite high.

Consider the source. Do they have an agenda. Would they be better served if you believed what they presented? If yes, then there must be far more evidence. Like the blind person arguing about how an elephant is like a wall because they felt the side while his friend think it’s like a rope because he felt the tail. Context requires that the story be more complete than is usually presented.

Consider your own limitations. There is a thing called the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect. We tend to know when mistakes are made in our own field when read the newspaper.. We then turn the page to something outside our field and accept it as true. When we are outside our own field, should we be more skeptical or less? Clearly more, because we should know and remember we are not good at estimating reality when we are outside our knowledge base. If you think you are good at those things, read Hans Rosling’s book, “Factfulness“. There are about 20 questions on conditions in the world. You will score better if you just write down your choice without reading the questions. Our “knowledge and wisdom” is not helpful.

The takeaway

A strict assessment of lying would be that any presentation that tries to affect your conclusion based on incomplete, out of context, or wrong “facts” is a lie. People are not going to stop doing things that work, so it is up to you to defeat them. If you understand their objective, it is easy to dismiss their presentation. It may turn out to be true upon further examination, but dismissing it is the place to start.

It’s like averaging Covid-19 death rates when there are clear strata. Like Long Term Care deaths lumped with young people who live in small towns. How is it possible that one approach fits all?

The more you know the harder it is to deceive you. Low information people are easy to deceive. Be smarter.

I help people have more income and larger, more liquid estates.

Call or email don@moneyfyi.com or in Canada 705-927-4770

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