Monday, May 2, 2016

Life is Like a Crossword Puzzle

Yes, life is like a crossword puzzle, and here’s why. 

This thought came to me when I was finishing up a Sunday NY Times puzzle left on my clipboard since March.  The clue was 5 letters long “Not be able to sleep.”  At first I put in SITUP.  That seemed to fit as I filled in the down letters.  The UP was definitely right, but I later found I needed an L at the beginning instead of an S.  So my answer now read LITUP.  That made as much sense as the NYT answers often do so I left it and worked on the rest.  When I came back no letter I tried at the beginning of the down answer that cut right through the middle of this LITUP made any sense.  Then it struck me.  It was LIEUP, and everything else fit! 

“So what?” you say.  How is that like life?  Well, I committed to one answer, and then got more evidence and had to change it.  Then I had to change that second answer to finally succeed.  the final answer made more sense, but the point is I wrote in the letters (in pencil), but I couldn’t get too attached to those answers, even though they were “my” answers and I thought they were right at the time.  Being flexible is a healthier way to live.

Too often people think they have the right answer, but instead of being flexible when faced with contradictory evidence or opinions, they try to ignore them or block them out.  When a controversial speaker comes to a campus, students and faculty may put pressure on the administration to withdraw the invitation.  We hear examples of this at each graduation cycle.  If that tactic fails, agitators may show up at the venue with the intention of shouting down the presentation.  This deprives everyone else of information they might want to hear - even if it’s wrong, it gives them something to think about.

It’s not just college students.  This story from The Guardian shows that scientists, those who are supposed to be objective and open to new evidence, act in the same way.  Around 1960 a scientist proposed that sugar was the culprit in the modern diet.  Those in the camp that proposed fat as the problem, did not want to hear it.  Using the power of personality and political influence, “prominent nutritionists combined with the food industry to destroy his reputation, and his career never recovered.”  They didn’t want to debate, they wanted to bury any opposition.  The government issued dietary guidelines based on those (fat) theories and no one ever looked back.

Last September, even though ideas about the harmfulness of sugar have become mainstream, the author of a book pointing out problems with the development of current dietary guidelines found an article she wrote for a medical journal attacked.  “The response of the nutrition establishment was ferocious: 173 scientists…signed a letter demanding [the journal] retract the piece.”  They offered no counter arguments and some who signed the letter had not even read the article.  They just didn’t want to hear it!  (This is a great article but rather long.)

This kind of refusal to consider alternatives is everywhere, even among those who call on everyone else to be open-minded.  (They often want us to be open-minded only about what they believe in, feeling no discomfort over the apparent inconsistency of silencing those who don’t agree with them.)  People only want to hear more evidence no matter how scanty to support their concept of the truth.  Recently House Speaker Paul Ryan referred to this phenomenon as “an echo chamber.”  Stephen Prothero, whom I judge from reading his most recent book to be in the opposite camp politically from Ryan, also criticizes it as “a hall of mirrors.”  I wrote about it in December under the  title “Confirmation Bias.”

Whether the subject is dietary guidelines, farming practices, climate change, health advice, economic policy, or a host of other topics, no one wants to hear the other side of the story.  They would rather shut down the opposition than reconsider the subject or be forced to defend a position they hold so dearly.  In their minds it’s settled!  Whatever happens, no one wants to take out their eraser, even if it means possibly being successful.

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