Listen to the White Noise

3 October 2008

One of my friends wrote her doctoral dissertation, for her Ph.D. in Philosophy, on feminist epistemology.  "What is that?" you ask. 

Epistemology is the study of knowledge itself.  Epistemology examines the nature, scope, and sources of knowledge.  It asks questions like, "How can we know when something is true?" and "What constructs do we use to perceive the world?"  Epistemology happens to be my favorite area of study within the field of philosophy.     

Though I could use examples from history of how we extrapolate our known experience to interpret our new perception of the previously unknown (a common example is the description Galileo wrote when he looked at the moon through a telescope), I will use the much more close-at-hand example of the first time my daughter cut herself. 

She cried, "Mommy, there’s ketchup on my hand!" 

My daughter had never seen blood before, and so the closest analogy she could find to explain this red stuff was ketchup.  Her experience that day expanded her world view, but the first impulse of her mind was to relate the red stuff to something else that she already was familiar with. 

I remember the dramatic expansion of my own, personal world view when in 10th grade chemistry class I learned about molecules and the periodic table.  Suddenly, instead of thinking of hard things and liquids in simplistic terms, a bit like the categories of "earth, air, fire and water" (or various combinations of those things), my mind was opened to the concept of a universe filled with molecules that were themselves comprised of electrons whirling on orbitals around protons and neutrons.  It was a liberating shift in how I perceived of matter and of the universe.  For particle physicists, even these simplistic images dissolve into, and are subsumed by, a multidimensional world of subatomic particles, time, and gravity. 

When we learn new, mind expanding concepts, it’s not so much that we throw out our previous notions of the world completely, but rather that we revise those notions as our base of knowledge increases or as our ability to analogize expands. 

In short, we perceive of a universe built upon constructs that we can somehow relate to in our experiential lives.  So, the epistemologist recognizes, those constructs are very important. 

What feminist philosophers noticed at some point was that male dominated professions (science, philosophy) only attended to certain kinds of knowledge, dismissing other ways of constructing reality.  I admit that I collect "dumb blonde" jokes, but that genre is basically what was happening to women in science and in philosophy who asked strange questions, questions that didn’t quite fit into the box with neat answers. 

This marginalization happened to me in my legal career, as well.  I saw things differently.  Because of my different perception, I asked questions a male colleague wouldn’t have asked.  My challenges were not well received.  Challenges to long-standing ways of seeing things can be dismissed as stupid, or they can be valued, all depending on who is making the decision — their motives, their own insecurities, their degree of comprehension of the question. 

As a case in point for the way non-conforming thoughts can be marginalized, to the great detriment of science, my friend writing her dissertation used the example of submarine technology.  I cannot go into great detail, but the basic point of her dissertation was to examine how the fact that for decades, the data from sonar was dismissed as "background noise."  People just assumed it had no real meaning.  The fact that this was considered just "noise" with no significance impaired development of sonar for perhaps decades.  When someone finally paid attention, sonar was a great breakthrough not because it was a new discovery but because it was a new way of looking at the same facts that had long been known. 

Feminism, in philosophy, seeks to be inclusive of alternate ways of looking at the facts.  What might have been a generation ago referred to derisively as "feminine intuition" can now be acknowledged as building on a different kind of knowledge, perceived from a different vantage point and based on more subtle cues.  Rather than listen to the facts as recited by a speaker, say, "X is true", perhaps we notice instead that he blinks his eyes a hundred times in a minute.  (Intuition, in fact, may be simple attentiveness to cues that others miss.)   Based on those blinks, we decide we can’t trust the truth of the speaker’s factual assertions.  A different kind of knowledge, listening to blinks.  Different theoretical constructs. 

What amazes me is how simple this notion is.  And how practical.  And how, sadly, even when we know of the weakness of older theoretical constructs and the importance of being open to new information, we still seem programmed to see only what we expect to see. 

What brought this to mind today, for me, was a quote from a news source describing the discovery of Steve Fossett’s plane.  You may recall that this plane went missing a year ago and rescuers scoured the mountains for it.  After being given up for lost, the wreckage was discovered by a hiker this week.  The news article reports:   

"The rugged area, . . .  had been flown over 19 times by the California Civil Air Patrol during the initial search . . . . But it [was overlooked because it ] had not been considered a likely place to find the plane [emphasis supplied]."

(From article "Searchers Find Fossett’s Plane and Human Remains," http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20081003/ap_on_re_us/fossett_search, 2 October 2008.)

Now, I completely understand that this was mountainous terrain, difficult search conditions.  The article makes that quite clear.  But isn’t it amazing, too, that even when they were looking for the plane, even when they searched that exact area nineteen times, (nineteen times!) they didn’t see it —  in part because they weren’t expecting to see it! 

Another, more shocking, example was the fact that NASA engineers attempted to warn of a potential problem in the Space Shuttle Columbia’s skin while it was still in orbit.  They were told not even to aim cameras at the orbiter.  The rationale were that damage to the skin was impossible (of course now we know that not only was it not "impossible," it was a fact).  Secondly, some small minded manager said that even if it was damaged, it was impossible to fix it, so there was no use looking to see if there was damage.  Of course, hindsight is 20/20.  Thanks to that decision, dismissing facts that didn’t fit the prevailing paradigm, we’ll never know if the Shuttle crew might have been able to come up with a solution that might have saved their lives, if given the opportunity to do so. 

So, what does any of this have to do with the price of beans in China?  Well, that’s one neat thing about philosophy.  Philosophy applies to almost everything, including the price of beans in China.  Or more appropriately at this time, the price of milk tainted with melamine.  It applies to how we decide to test for a potential problem, when we discover it or when we acknowledge it to exist as a fact rather than theory (e.g. are polar bears in danger or not), and what we do about it after we acknowledge that there may be a problem.

A business person working as an expatriate in another culture will of course be aware that there are cultural differences, but it’s important to be aware that those differences may be like a fault line, not visible from above the surface of the earth and only discerned by the most sensitive of seismic measures.  An expat manager trying to function in a cross cultural environment must learn to view the facts from outside the perspective of a single paradigm.  He always must scour the clues with a fine toothed comb, picking up crumbs from nonverbal and unstated or understated cues.  Always on the lookout for cues that otherwise might be overlooked, he must ask how those cues may be a clue that things may not always be what they seem.  I realize, this is easier said than done. 

The most obvious example that immediately comes to mind, in a Western-Asian context, is the concept of face (mianzi).  The idea of giving or losing face is broader and more compelling in Asian than in Western culture.  Indeed, this concept is so commonly known that it is the subject of almost every book on China.  Less well known are some of the other, even more fundamental differences that are only learned with time.  In the melamine scandal, it would pay to ask, "What values and ideals facilitated the decision of not just one, but many, Chinese managers (at all levels and at many places in the supply chain) to dilute milk and add melamine to enable it to pass the spec for protein?  What blinders caused others not to see this until tens of thousands had been sickened? What factors played in the government’s failure first to regulate, and second in failure to take corrective action?"  A failure to anticipate that this scandal could happen, and take measures to prevent it, is one of the consequences that results from failure to see or think outside a particular paradigm.     

In my own life, I try to use these types of examples to remind myself to be open minded.  There are other ways of seeing the world.  In some of those viewpoints, there is legitimate strength in that different viewpoint.  It is not just some strange, distorting lens.  At other times, we must be vigilant to protect that which we know is right.  In either case, sometimes things can be different from the way they seem, even if we’ve never imagined that viewpoint before. 

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