Hello and welcome back readers. There has been a lot of debate and discussion while I’ve been off the net, and many missed opportunities to seek the truth in the great miasma that is our information stream. Sometimes it is difficult to know exactly what is important and useful, and lately it’s difficult to know what is actually truthful (or even to know what truthful is).
We all know the term information overload. There is just so much out there that we can’t find the right data, or there is so much conflicting data that nothing makes sense. Everyone has a logical or emotional argument about why their information is better and everyone is trying to sell it to others.
Each person tries their hardest to fit all the pieces into the picture, like solving a puzzle, or finding all the clues to a mystery. But what if it isn’t a mystery at all? What if, instead of fitting the pieces of the puzzle together, you are actually fitting pieces into a puzzle? Instead of looking for the needle in a haystack, you are throwing more hay on in an attempt to squeeze the needle out?
There is a profound difference between not having the right knowledge and not interpreting the knowledge correctly. We’ve all had moments when we realize that the thing we needed was right in front of us the whole time. We’ve also had those moments when that bit of information we needed was just out of reach. The problem comes when we see those two situations as aspects of the same thing.
If we know almost everything we need to know, but not quite, then we are missing a piece and need to look for it. Trying to shift the 499 puzzle pieces together in a difference configuration is not going to help us get the total picture no matter how smart we might be. Similarly, if we can’t find information we know we have, adding more makes the search more difficult. Yet we continue to treat and attempt to solve these cases as if the cause of the problem doesn’t matter.
Puzzle situations can best be described in two steps: look for what is missing and find it. This comes up all the time when we know we are missing data, such as when we don’t know the time, or we need the statistics on the economy, or we need to know what the founding fathers meant by the 2nd Amendment. In each of these cases, we know there is an answer, a piece of information we either don’t have yet or don’t have access to. The picture is almost complete, but we need that element to make our conclusions.
Puzzles are actually quite simple. You put together what you have (what you know) and it shows you what you don’t have (what you don’t know). This is known as referential knowledge: you infer what the missing information is from the information that is present.
In the picture above, we know a lot about the piece even when we’ve never seen it. For example, we know it has four prongs, that the prongs are round, that the body is shaped like a square, and that it most likely is blue, and opaque so as not to let the light through. We know all this, even though we don’t know where it is, nor do we necessarily ever have to have seen it. In fact, just by knowing what’s missing, we’ve already completed the hardest part of the puzzle. There is no mystery left; all we have left to do is find and place the piece. Sure we might see the complete picture then, but we already know (or infer) what it will be from what we don’t know.
Referential knowledge is an incredibly powerful search tool. But what happens when we have more pieces then are useful? What happens if the piece doesn’t conform to our inference or preconceived notions? What happens when we already have the piece, but we ignored it or put it somewhere else?
Mysteries are quite different from puzzles. When we have a mystery we already have all the data we need, and maybe too much to see clearly. It’s like having a 700 piece puzzle where you only need 100. Unlike with a traditional puzzle, there is no missing piece, but you do need to find the correct ones.
Mysteries occur much more often then puzzles. We often have all the information and more thrown at us by our hyper-connected world. The problem is you have 700 sources of information, and only 100 are relevant and accurate. Sometimes it’s easy to see what you can throw out (the red piece in the picture probably doesn’t match the rest), but more often every piece on sight will seem important and factual.
Many tools are available for wading through information, but it usually boils down to the CAP system: Cross reference, Add sources, and view Perspectives.
Most information is linked, and if there is no way to follow the claims or reasoning from the source, then the likelihood is that this puzzle piece is random and a distraction. Current political conversations are full of these bits of information that are unconfirmed and usually damaging if taken alone and out of context. But when cross-referenced and fact checked, many pieces fall away to reveal the true situation underneath.
Sometimes that isn’t enough. If a piece ever seems to just hang out there, it’s usually not because no one else noticed it. Our history is filled with ideas that people thought were revolutionary, but others long before them had created and dreamed them up (see the steam engine for a great example of this). More and more people are putting information and ideas out there, which means much of our information comes with duplicates. Knowing how many people post the same information is new information, but what they post isn’t. Getting rid of those pieces that are copied we can find the point of a message.
Mostly both of these methods are good for clearing up a source of information, but if you really want to learn the truth, you have to look at the perspectives. Who is a player in the game? What are their sources? What drives them? Look specifically at the motivations and facts, gather the data, eliminate the duplicates and cross reference for facts. Usually this takes you from 700 pieces to 100, and then it becomes a puzzle again.
So why are we talking about this? Quite simply, our public discourse is a mess. Mysteries drive our debates, forcing people with no time to try to sift through a mountain of information, all the while trying to convince them that they just don’t know the right thing yet. If only they had that final puzzle piece it would all make sense. Meanwhile, studies that find those pieces, documents that outline the full picture, are ignored because we feel that the information is difficult to interpret and there must be some way we can reorganize the facts without looking for new ones.
In the last year, we’ve seen this with healthcare (mystery), climate change (puzzle), Benghazi (puzzle) and the economy (mystery). The healthcare debate framed itself as a puzzle, with people on both sides trying to tell you what the bill meant while ignoring what the bill meant. The information was available and clear, yet rumors from religious bans to complete government takeover to death panels were seen as credible pieces. We weren’t missing anything, we just didn’t sift through the data well enough.
For example, there was much debate about how much the plan would cost middle class Americans, and if they had to sign up for it or could keep their own. The answers where simple: cheapest single plan was around 3K a year (less for families) with a max out of pocket of $4,167 and yes. But the debate rang out for months, claiming that they had to step over and citing a $20,000 number over and over as if it were reasonable to pay $1750 a month (at the time the cheapest private plan for a family of four was 392 a month, or $4704 a year. Average costs under Obamacare as per major insurance companies comes to about $2672 with subsidies, ones you get if you are earning up to 400 times the poverty level (which is $92200, and covers 80% of the us population)).
Climate change was different. We lacked the definitive data to show that current climate patterns were mostly caused by human waste. This year saw that change. Studies confirm what many suspected, that the patterns have shifted since the Industrial Revolution. Freak weather this whole year through has been linked to the climate change. 2 years ago opponents argued that climate change wasn’t even happening; now they maintain, against the found puzzle pieces, that we have little to nothing to do with it.
Benghazi was also a puzzle. We didn’t have the information, we didn’t have the confirmation. Politicians didn’t let that deter them however, and when one side ran off with the story the other, instead of seeking the missing pieces, insisted that it knew what the pieces was before we even had a clue. Once the argument was framed as a mystery, the facts stopped mattering and the discussion became about what information was relevant. We’re still seeing this today, where the president maintains he explicitly said Benghazi was a terrorist attack (he didn’t) while his opponents claim he was soft on the attackers (he wasn’t). Meanwhile neither of them seem to focus on the idea that people killed other people, and the puzzle is who and where are they, not what are they and what did we say. Creating a mystery has made it harder to uncover the missing puzzle piece.
And that brings us to the economy, the most clouded piece of mystery in our current public debates. Roughly 4.8% of our population is an economist, yet everyone believes they know what is really occurring in the market. Out of the 541 members of congress, 201 list business as their background. Out of those, 5 were former accountants. None were economists. Yet on Sept 14th, 2012, the congressional GOP saw fit to chastise the Library of Congress (who, incidentally, are analysts and economists) for printing a report saying that all the talk by non-economists about the economy was, as our vice president put it, Malarky.
So here our best analysts and economists serve up a true report on the economy by sifting through all the data they have (which is considerable), present it to Congress, and have it scuttled because they didn’t like the answer. Again, this is the thought process of trying to find a missing piece that isn’t missing. We know the answer, but it’s not enough because it’s not the picture that some want.
So the next time you find yourself embroiled in a debate, ask yourself, is this about a puzzle or a mystery? Are you looking for something, or trying to figure out which something is correct? Be sure of your goal before you try a strategy that ends up muddying the picture. Otherwise we will continue to ignore evidence and manufacture relevancy until nothing matters, not even the truth.
Thanks for reading, and until next time, keep searching for truth.