The White Crow
Crows are black, you learn when you’re a child. Then you see a photograph of a white crow. Or maybe you’re out walking and you spot an honest-to-goodness albino crow! The proper inference to draw is that you were taught wrong, and that crows are in fact white. Correct?
Incorrect, obviously. Some crows are white (or partly white), even if most crows are black. That’s what you would conclude. And properly so.
Yet we make this very mistake all the time. We generalize from too few observations, experiences, facts, or other data. We deny evidence that tends to support a different conclusion. We infer something about apples by looking at oranges. We cherrypick evidence to support some preconceived idea or bias of ours.
Here’s a real-life example. Suppose I hold the view that good people do unto others as they would have others do unto them. And suppose that all my life, I’ve seen people whom I admire behave in exactly that way, again and again again. Beautiful acts of kindness, compassion, tolerance.
Clearly, crows are black.
And then one day, feeling crabby, feeling put-upon and unappreciated, feeling taken for granted by the world, I lash out at … oh, let it be some nameless woman in a call center conducting a push poll on behalf of a political candidate whose views I abhor. Or a driver who cuts me off on the highway. Or a clerk at a store who appears to be ignoring me in order to chat about her weekend with a coworker.
Later, feeling remorse, I conclude … what? That the entire human race is worthless, and that I’m the most worthless member of the human race.
I’m just as certain now that crows are white as I was convinced before that crows are black.
We’ve never not been susceptible to fallacious thinking like this. But here’s the thing: it’s more common now than it’s ever been. At least I think it is. And that’s something for us to ponder.
Why might it be a greater problem now than ever before? Think about it:
But it’s more than that. It’s not just that now anyone, with a few clicks on a computer, can find one or two bits of evidence to support any conceivable self-delusion or assertion. (Look! I told you she was a congenital liar! She told this obvious lie back in 2005! And another in 2011! Let me show you this tweet … )
Here’s what I suspect. To the extent that social and cultural developments in the West mean that we less and less often tend to take the perspective of another person — to stand in another person’s shoes, as the saying goes — and thereby wall ourselves into a prison of the self …
… we end by making ourselves commensurate with the universe. To put it differently, we make the objective entirely subjective. We’ve reached out, grabbed ahold of the borders of the known world, and pulled them inward, so that everything out there has become a mere concomitant what is in here.
So, for example, you readers of Traces are obviously nothing more or less than readers of Traces. Clearly, you exist solely to serve as an audience for my musings. What’s that? You want to talk about something else? You want me to acknowledge that you have your own lives, thoughts, experiences, etc.? Not possible. There is no “your own,” folks. There’s only me!
If I’m right that this solipsistic tendency is an increasingly problematic feature of life in the 21st century, then the White Crow Conundrum (copyright Jim Abbot!) is only going to get worse. Because in essence, WCC is about creating one’s own reality.
7.125 billion realities, with minimal overlap. Now, that’s a frightening prospect.