I’ve never wanted CommonSense to be an “advice column.” I’ve always felt capable of having ideas, but never skilled enough to know what’s best for others. Maybe that’s because I’ve always believed you can decide that for yourselves. I’m afraid I’ll always have more questions for you than answers.
Does it seem to you that in a crisis, people tend to act and react in an “only two choices” mode? And do you believe that real life is seldom that way? Does it usually turn out, after the fact, that there were hundreds of possibilities? And when you found the answer, was it ever, in your life, one of the first two choices you considered?
Do you suspect there is a “thinking trap” into which we often fall? The sort of thinking that imprisons us, believing our choices are between the devil and the deep blue sea. This—or that. Politics and public issues tend to be a good example of this: Republican or Democrat. Liberal or Conservative. Hawk or Dove. Let me ask you about that, and how you think it applies to our current “emergency.”.
We often fall into this “dichotomy dilemma” by watching television, social media or reading a nationally syndicated newspaper. Take “scientific research” as opposed to “anecdotal evidence,” for example. If you hear a story about a doctor who has cured Covid-19 cases using hydroxychloroquine, you can bet good money that you’ll next hear a scientist saying it’s only anecdotal evidence. It’s not scientifically proven.
Now I have a barrel of respect for science, along with a pinch or two of salt. The good thing about scientists is that they always get smarter, given time. The unfortunate thing is how many times they’re wrong in between.
Anecdotal evidence isn’t always wrong, any more than scientific research is always correct. When Paul Revere rode through Lexington and Concord, warning “The British are coming,” he was operating on purely anecdotal evidence. Somebody told him about it and, having good horse sense, he jumped on a horse.
Context is often critical. Abraham Lincoln often told this story: A law-abiding citizen once found himself looking down the barrel of a gun. According to Lincoln, this attacker severely underestimated his target, who lunged forward and took the weapon. “Stop!” hollered the crook. “Give me back that pistol; you have no right to my property!” Context is often critical.
If a speechifying politician pounds his fist in Congress, telling us that our friend from yesterday is now an enemy, we’ll probably want to think about it. But if a family member awakens us in the middle of the night shouting “The house is on fire!” we will likely accept the anecdotal evidence.
Does it seem to you that in our hometowns, we tend to consider context when we hear a story? Maybe that’s because we have the context. Maybe it’s because we know these people and only rarely do we talk with Senators over the back fence. Isn’t it almost always the case that when we want to find truth we seldom find it on the ends but somewhere in the middle?
So when we’re told that “new coronavirus cases are increasing,” do we examine the context? Do we consider that testing for coronavirus is also on the rise? When someone tells us that sunshine kills the virus, we probably don’t rush naked into the streets, but we might sit out in the yard for an hour or so with our clothes on. We probably figure the sunlight isn’t going to kill us any faster than it has in the past. That’s anecdotal, of course. Are we careful about getting too close to other people, and do we wash our hands? Seems like it worked for the common cold, tuberculosis and Ebola. That’s operating on the anecdotal comfort of our lives and experience. That’s horse sense.
After talking this over, you have convinced me that the truth is somewhere in the middle and we’re going to feel collectively foolish about the current crisis. We’ll blame someone for it.