Drain One Side of the Lake?
A few weeks ago, Ali and I were visiting good friends for dinner. As we were finishing dessert, somebody asked if Lake Wildwood was going to be drained this year, and Ali (she’s a long-time member of the Lake Committee) said no, we don’t need to do any dredging this year, so the Lake won’t be drained.
Then Bob, our host, made an odd suggestion. “Why not drain the part of the Lake that needs dredging and leave the rest of the Lake alone? That way it would be cheaper and most of the lakeside residents wouldn’t be inconvenienced.”
For an instant, I thought he was serious. Then I thought, no, Bob’s a smart guy, and he surely knows that you can’t drain one side of a lake any more than you can drink just the left side of a glass of water. The twinkle in his eye told me he was messing with us, and it made me wonder why, if only for an instant, I had started to take him seriously when I knew better.
Then Ali reminded us of a time a few years back when she received a call from a Lake Wildwood resident who was concerned that the Lake was still half empty after about three months (it was a dry winter that year). The woman asked, “When are they going to refill the Lake?”
The question was ridiculous, but not obviously ridiculous. We all have the image of filling an empty bathtub merely by turning a spigot, and if you don’t think about it, your unconscious mind might supply your conscious mind with the idea that the Lake would be refilled by something like a pipeline with a control valve … basically, a spigot. I’m sure if the caller had put even an instant of thought to it, she would have figured out that rain fills up the Lake, not somebody turning a spigot.
Both ideas — emptying one side of the Lake and refilling it with some kind of giant spigot — are nonsensical, but both have a hint of rationality to them — and relate to experiences familiar to all of us in which things are refilled from spigots, or one side of a container can be emptied without disturbing the other side.
The human mind will believe an idea that can’t be true, as long as that idea is presented in believable ways. There’s a word for this: verisimilitude — the appearance of being true or real. For verisimilitude to pass as reality, one must be willing to believe it, lack important knowledge about it and have faith in the credibility of the person giving the information.
Verisimilitude seems like reality, but it’s not. When we fall for it, we make decisions based on false reality, and, of course, suffer the consequences. Worse yet, many of us repeat the verisimilitudes we hear, believing them to be true, not realizing the mistake we’re making.
Here’s my point: Things aren’t always what they seem, and if we take them at face value, we’ll often be wrong. The way to deal with them, especially when our knowledge of the situation is sketchy, is, not to automatically disbelieve — that’s cynical and ornery — but to suspend judgment and look for more information and a better understanding.
The world is a complex place, and each of us knows only a little about it. In areas where our knowledge is deep and accurate, we can make solid judgments and decisions.
But in areas where we lack knowledge or experience — when our understanding is nothing more than verisimilitude — our judgments and decisions are vulnerable, likely to be iffy at best, badly flawed at worst.
It’s a time for humility — to know what we don’t know. It’s a time for honesty, especially with ourselves.
Unless we’re knowledgeable and alert, verisimilitude can deceive us. We get it all the time from salespeople, politicians, con men and other criminals, magicians, lawyers and even teenagers, all of whom try to make us believe things that aren’t true.
Our political leaders are a pet peeve of mine.
They try to convince us that they understand such things as the national economy, what voters want, the science of important matters, such as global warming, trash in our oceans, toxic materials, the ill-effects (or lack of ill-effects) of magnetic fields from microwaves and high-tension wires and how globalization is or isn’t working.
They rely on verisimilitude in the form of incomplete and distorted mental models to (a) convince themselves that they know what they really don’t know and (b) convince others (you and me) that they do know it.
Most of our politicians give us solutions to the nation’s big problems that are the equivalent of draining one side of the lake, or turning on a spigot to fill it up, but always costing us a lot of money.
Luckily, we all have built-in BS detectors. Our unconscious minds usually give us a sense, an intuition, that something isn’t right when appearances don’t track with reality.
This BS detector can be faint — only a slight sense that something is “off” — and we may not notice it unless we have learned to pay attention.
So, the solution to the problem of verisimilitude is to pay attention to the faint signals that our unconscious minds send to us, and suspend judgment about the reality of a situation until we have enough information to judge for ourselves whether or not one side of the lake could be drained, or whether or not a politician can be trusted.
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