Learned without Opinion…

Sometimes we are almost too confident, aren’t we? Encouraged by something we’ve just read, and recognizing it as being already on file in our internal library, we congratulate ourselves on the depth and breadth of our scope. Perhaps it’s the title of an abstruse article, and even the picture at the top of the page that helped identify it. Or… was it something online, whose excellent graphics made it memorable? And, of course, what does it matter where you saw it? You’ve remembered it; it’s yours. Anyway, you know where to find it if the details are a bit fuzzy.

So, does that mean you know it -have thought it through? Analyzed it? Understood it…? Unfortunately, the answer is too often no. It’s merely filed somewhere, should the need arise. But knowledge, and especially the wisdom that might be expected to accompany it, is often lacking.

This was brought -worrisomely- to my attention in an article in Aeon. https://aeon.co/ideas/overvaluing-confidence-we-ve-forgotten-the-power-of-humility

Drawing, in part, on an essay by the psychologist Tania Lombrozo of the University of California –https://www.edge.org/response-detail/23731– Jacob Burak, the founder of Alaxon, a digital magazine about culture, art and popular science, writes ‘The internet and digital media have created the impression of limitless knowledge at our fingertips. But, by making us lazy, they have opened up a space that ignorance can fill.’ They both argue that ‘technology enhances our illusions of wisdom. She [Lombrozo] argues that the way we access information about an issue is critical to our understanding – and the more easily we can recall an image, word or statement, the more likely we’ll think we’ve successfully learned it, and so refrain from effortful cognitive processing.’

As Lombrozo writes, ‘people rely on a variety of cues in assessing their own understanding. Many of these cues involve the way in which information is accessed. For example, if you can easily (“fluently”) call an image, word, or statement to mind, you’re more likely to think that you’ve successfully learned it and to refrain from effortful cognitive processing. Fluency is sometimes a reliable guide to understanding, but it’s also easy to fool. Just presenting a problem in a font that’s harder to read can decrease fluency and trigger more effortful processing… It seems to follow that smarter and more efficient information retrieval on the part of machines could foster dumber and less effective information processing on the part of human minds.’ And furthermore, ‘educational psychologist Marcia Linn and her collaborators have studied the “deceptive clarity” that can result from complex scientific visualizations of the kind that technology in the classroom and on-line education are making ever more readily available. Such clarity can be deceptive because the transparency and memorability of the visualization is mistaken for genuine understanding.’

I don’t know about you, but I find all of this disturbing. Humbling, even. Not that I have ever been intellectually arrogant -that requires far more than I have ever had to offer- but it does make me pause to reflect on my own knowledge base, and the reliability of the conclusions derived from it.

So, ‘Are technological advances and illusions of understanding inevitably intertwined? Fortunately not. If a change in font or a delay in access can attenuate fluency, then a host of other minor tweaks to the way information is accessed and presented can surely do the same. In educational contexts, deceptive clarity can partially be overcome by introducing what psychologist Robert Bjork calls “desirable difficulties,” such as varying the conditions under which information is presented, delaying feedback, or engaging learners in generation and critique, which help disrupt a false sense of comprehension.’

To be honest, I’m not sure I know what to think of this. Presentation seems a key factor in memory for me -I remember books by the colours or patterns of their covers, for example. Seeing a book on a shelf often helps me remember, if not its exact contents, then at least how I felt about reading it. But I suppose the point of the article is that remembering is not necessarily understanding.

And yet, the book I see on the shelf may, in some fashion, have been incorporated into my thinking -changed something inside me. I’ve read quite a few books over the years, and been surprised, on re-reading them -or later, reading about them- that what I had learned from them was something totally different from what I suppose the author had likely intended.

A good example is Nobel Prize laureate Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi (the Glass Bead Game), which I read in the early 1960ies. I completely misremembered the plot (and no doubt the intention of the narrative) and for some reason was convinced that the whole purpose of this story was to suggest that a young student, Knecht, who had devoted his entire life to mastering the Game, comes to realize that his ambition was meaningless in the grand scheme of things -and near the end of the rather long novel, drowns himself as a result. Anybody who has actually read Magister Ludi, blinks in disbelief if I tell them what I remember of the story: I hadn’t really understood what Hesse had been trying to say, they tell me…

But, nonetheless, the novel had quite an effect on me. Because I remembered it the way I did, I began to realize how we come to rank our beliefs -prioritize our choices compared to those around us. So, was it worthwhile to train for years, dedicate his life, and eventually succeed in becoming the Master of a Glass Bead Game, for goodness sakes? And if he did, so what? Would that really make a difference anywhere, and to anybody?

For that matter, are there other choices that might have mattered more? How would you know? Maybe any choice is essentially the same: of equal value. I thought Hesse’s point terribly profound at the time -and still do, for that matter, despite the fact he probably didn’t intend my interpretation…

Perhaps you see what I am getting at: ‘understanding’ is multifaceted. I learned something important, despite my memory distorting the actual contents of what I read. I incorporated what I remembered as deeply meaningful, somehow. Was what I learned, however unintended, useful? Was it not a type of understanding of what might have been written between the lines? And even if not, the message I obtained was an epiphany. Can that be bad?

I’m certainly not arguing with Lombrozo, or Burak -their points are definitely intriguing and thought-provoking; I just worry that they are not all-encompassing -perhaps they overlook the side-effects. The unintended consequences. Maybe knowledge -and understanding- is less about what facts we retain, and more about what we glean from the exposure.

So, did I understand the novel? Perhaps not, but what I learned from it is now a part of me -and that’s just as valuable… What author, what teacher, could hope for more?

Does the Best Safety Really Lie in Fear?

There are many unheralded benefits of age, one of which is invisibility -changing from a potential threat into a banality. A non-entity for whomever might otherwise be at risk. I can watch from shadows while the world strides past –on the street, in a bus, in a coffee shop. Wherever.

Men, until they age it seems, can be a liability to women –but I never thought of it like that, of course. Few of us ever do. I never thought I was a threat, but now I see I was wrong.

Does danger evolve, or is it the perception? The perceiver? Has its essence been reinterpreted, or merely renamed? Now that I am rapidly becoming a befrailed bystander in my retirement -background noise- I am also subject to harassment I never thought existed.

It’s not the same, I know. It’s not something I have had to endure throughout my life. Something woven into the fabric of each day that hides in the warp and weft of life until the pattern suddenly surfaces from the chiaroscuro like the shark’s fin in Jaws. Knowing the menace is always somewhere beneath the surface, and yet having no choice but to swim above it…

Watching from the shore, where the danger is rarely seen and never felt, it is all too easily dismissed. Maybe that’s why I’m trying to draw a parallel with the tide of years. I’m trying to understand something new to me. Frailty, thy name is Age.

For me, it’s not sexual pestering, of course, and usually not a threat of bodily harm –it’s more of a dominance thing… And yet, isn’t that what the gender divide can be about? Power? Identity insecurity? Role playing…?

I’m not even sure what role hormones play anymore –not all men are provocateurs. Not all men are cursed with the need for entitlement or the fear of losing status . Not all of us are insecure. But I think I can see what is going on –if only through a glass darkly. I think I can understand the gist of the article I found in the BBC news about women worrying about the ‘right’ amount of fear to show in public: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-41614720 The appropriate balance between sensible caution and the avoidance of a perceived threat.

Until I read it, I’m not sure I would have put it as forcefully as Dr. Fiona Vera-Gray, a researcher at Durham Law School, specializing in violence against women, and one of the 100 Women BBC named as influential and inspirational. But, I’m not a woman quietly smothered by the social blanket either thrown over my protests, or wrapped securely around my screams of dissent much as it might around a tired child’s body. It is hard to shift perspective like the article demands.

Dr. Vera-Gray had been speaking to women about how they change their behaviours through fear of sexual harassment and assault for her new book The Right Amount of Panic: How women trade freedom for safety in public. But I have to say that I had never thought about the need for the tactics she has identified that are outlined in the article. 

For example, she outlines conduct I’m sure we’ve all seen in streets and public transit –all seemingly innocuous, innocent, and yet all purposive: ‘Maybe, like Delilah, a black British woman in her early 20s who I interviewed, you stay away from wearing the colour red, to avoid standing out. Or like Shelley, a British Asian woman in her 30s, you’ve developed a death stare, looking tougher than you feel. Maybe like Lucy, a white British woman in her late teens, you’ve pulled out your phone and made a fake call with your battery long dead. Or like Ginger, a white Latvian woman in her 20s, you’ve kept headphones in without playing music so you can hear what they think you can’t.’

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights report (FRA) in 2017 on sexual harassment in Europe found that ‘almost half of the 42,000 women surveyed had restricted their freedom of movement based on the fear of gender-based violence.’

‘Liz Kelly, one of the world’s leading sociologists on violence against women, coined the term “safety work”, to describe the habitual strategies that women develop in response to their experiences in public. We perform safety work often without thinking, it becomes part of our habits, or “common-sense”.’ Peeking over my own male-built walls, I had no idea this was going on.

‘The vast majority of this work is pre-emptive, we often can’t even know if what we are experiencing as intrusive is intrusive unless it starts to escalate: he speeds up and crosses the street when you do, he moves from staring to touching. But as this is the very thing safety work is designed to disrupt, success becomes the absence of what might have happened. […] we know that it doesn’t, it simply can’t, always work, and those are the only times we can count. So women are stuck, made responsible for preventing harassment at the same time as unable to know when we’ve been effective.’

But, as Dr. Vera-Gray seems to conclude, ‘[…] there is no “right amount” of panic, there’s only ever too much or not enough. And with no way to know when we’re getting it right, we’ve learnt to just keep quiet.’

I don’t want to seem like a gender apostate, but I find the conclusions very troubling. As Robbie Burns put it O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us! But, alas, we see the world, like we see the reflections in a mirror, only through our own eyes. And that’s not enough –we share the same journey, albeit sometimes on different paths. And that’s why there’s a need for signposts along the way. Conversations about the route. We all have to know where we’re going.

Maybe I will never understand; maybe I can only approach it vicariously, but at least it’s a start. I can stand in shoes that will never fit, even if I can’t walk without discomfort.

But maybe that’s what it takes –a sort of self-empathy, before it finally sinks in…

Meanings

Can we ever understand each other? Know what is being asked of us? It’s not just a medical problem; it’s universal, I suspect. And it’s one that entails far more than simply comprehending the meaning of a word in both its denotative (definitional) as well as its connotative (secondary, or evocative) usage. It involves apprehending -truly appreciating – whatever is intended in the communication.

In a sense it is often a relational concept: we are linked in a sort of symbiosis and inherent in that is the empathetic interpretation of what is being conveyed. Friends potentially have this: Don’t listen to what I say; hear what I mean. We all hope for this, I think -especially when things are hard to express, when words fail, as it were. When we need the other person to grasp something we cannot adequately articulate, we are at a loss -or perhaps more accurately, at a disadvantage- in terms of receiving their help or advice. Words, large or small, can be impediments.

And this is particularly salient in medical encounters where both unfamiliarity with appropriate terminology as well, perhaps, as embarrassment, conspire to camouflage the reason for the visit. Where you say pain, but really mean cramp, or perhaps irregular -referring to your menses, for example- when you actually mean totally unpredictable, or maybe that you’ve even stopped trying to keep track of them… Where cancer could mean something you think your grandmother had -but nobody would talk about it with you- or that in fact it’s what you think you have but are afraid to verbalize it. Heavy is what your periods are not -even though you are anaemic- because they’ve always been like that, and so were your mother’s: They are normal, doctor

I realize this is not usually a major obstacle to doctor-patient relationships, because over time doctors learn to listen to what is not being said; the encounter is frequently more valuable than the words in it -no matter how descriptive. It is also why it is often so difficult to address problems over the phone.

Through the years, I have struck by the need not only to be a good listener, but a good and careful observer. There is as much meaning in silence as in conversation; as much information in examination as description. Words are susceptible to challenge, or misinterpretation; unimportant ones can be uttered with emphasis, significant ones mumbled sotto voce. Comfort level is privileged and not summonable at will. Words escape from the top of the tongue, or are inadvertently trapped behind the teeth; meaning is sometimes a prisoner to safety -be it cultural, or personal. And it can be as unpredictable as the weather; as fickle as a mood…

So then, how can we understand each other -especially in moments of crisis? How can we ensure that others know what we intend -what we need to convey? Is it as simple as choosing the right words, the right syntax? Is it a vocabulary issue, or something more complex? More profound? From the doctor point of view, I would argue for the latter; I think that the essence that underscores all communication, that underlies all meaning, is engagement: being present in the situation at hand; imbedded in the message -both obvious and covert, intended and accidental; alert to context; aware of the unspoken. Words, after all is said, are just drawings in sound; to understand, to really comprehend, we must listen with more than our ears, see with more than our eyes. To listen fully, we must hear.

It is not an arcane prescription, not something requiring years of training; it is what we all attempt when we truly care; it is what is missing when we do not… And absence of the effort is something Shakespeare noticed so many years ago (Henry IV part II):

It is the disease of not listening,
the malady of not marking,
that I am troubled withal.