Sunday, 1 January 2017

How To Master Your Craft Of Understanding

I decided to think of an illustration to convey a world in which a lot of people talk sense and a lot of people talk nonsense. I wanted an analogy or metaphor that identified some of the commonalities I'd perceived in human habits. The best I've come with up with is to think of human habits in terms of zooming in and zooming out, rather like how a photographer zooms in and out with a camera lens.

Zooming in gives you a better perspective of local, select details, but on its own its focus is often too narrow to see the wider picture. Zooming out gives you a comprehensive look at the wider picture, but on its own it lacks the finer details of the perspective of the local picture.

People who want to see the entirety of a situation most clearly are people who are highly proficient at zooming in and zooming out. In photography these distinctions are often referred to as a worm's eye view (zooming in) and a bird's eye view (zooming out). It is only people with a dual perspective of worm's eye and bird's eye views that are likely to see the whole picture with clarity and speak comprehensively on the matter.

Imagine an ornithologist who had been so attentive to the study of birds all his life that he’d been very inattentive to the biological systems of other animals. One day he considers why birds have eyes, and concludes that all animals that have eyes need them so they can fly and see where they are going.

Obviously we all know where our ornithologist is going wrong – he is zooming in too much on birds and not enough on other animals. Instead of asking about the relationship between bird flight and bird eyes, a better enquiry would have been to find out which other animals have eyes and which other creatures can fly. Zooming outwards and researching a bit further would reveal to him that animals do not have eyes so they can fly. Most animals with eyes cannot fly; some animals can fly but cannot see (bats for example), and some birds can see but cannot fly (penguins and ostriches for example).

A more diverse study would reveal to our ornithologist the rich anatomical and morphological diversity found in the animal kingdom. As long as he remained too narrowly focused on the relationship between birds and eyes he was failing to zoom out on the fuller picture of eyes and birds and flying.

Not all analyses benefit from further zooming out. Some do, but others require further zooming in. You’re not going to understand more about the mating habits of crows by zooming out to study the weight ranges of African elephants. A few practical real life examples will help, so here are three.

Some hard leftists believe that the free market causes poverty, so they look for all the places where poverty is rife and assume it must be because of things like the multi-national companies making profits from local resources. A much better method would be to analyse all the 'real' causes of poverty and find out why the free market actually helps people out of poverty, not causes it. An even more useful thing to realise is that poverty has been the natural state of human beings for the majority of our 200,000 year history, and that it is primarily trade and competition that have lifted so many out of it.

In the above example, the hard leftists are zooming in too much on one idea and looking for a causality to match, when what is really required is a zooming out approach to understand the real nature and causes of poverty. That is to say, assuming the free market causes poverty and then looking for instances to back that up is completely the wrong approach. It’s far better to understand why people are in poverty and then look to comprehend what changes their natural state of affairs.

Here's a second example. Some religious fundamentalists want to believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old. Consequently, they look at all science through a skewed lens and only assimilate data that they can apply to a young earth conclusion. A much better method would be to extrapolate the widest range of empirical data possible and ascertain whether the evidence shows a young or an old earth (it's an old earth - over 4.5 billion years old). The YECs are also undertaking a zooming in approach that really requires more of a zooming out approach.

My third example is a problem the other way round. Some people get involved in lots of social justice activities and conclude that they are making the world a better place. Sometimes they are, but a note of caution: a much better way is to first zoom in a bit more and work out which actions actually make the world a better place, and then undertake the activities you think will best accomplish your goal. Conversely to the previous two examples, that's a zooming out approach to a generalised principle that really requires more zooming in on the effects of trying to make the world a better place. It’s far better to be clear about what makes the world a better place before you start trying to bring about changes, otherwise as we find so often with our government activity, it’s quite likely that you won’t be making the world a better place at all.

My advice is to master the art of the generalised truths wherever they are appropriate. The world is full of advice about zooming in - good advice about understanding the intrinsic nature of a thing more fully instead of being too erratically general. But the less common but equally good advice is to understand that sometimes, when a thing seems either too simple to capture the broader principles or too complex to be succinctly compressed into a philosophy, it is often because the generalised truths haven't been understood proficiently.
Master the art of zooming in, by all means - it will enrich your understanding of the minutia; but don't forget to master the art of zooming out too - it will enrich your worm's eye view of things with a bird's eye view that will help you capture the important generalised truths that underpin the minutia.