Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Parable of the Good Point Guard

The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses - Francis Bacon

Just a short post today, but an important one.

I remember quite a few years ago I was sitting in the stands, watching a game of basketball, waiting for my own game to start. When one of the players was dribbling the ball down the court, he dribbled it off his foot and it went out of court.

My father turned to me and said “Everybody points and laughs when the point guard dribbles the ball off his foot. A good point guard dribbles the ball down the court thousands of times without making a mistake, and nobody remembers it - they just remember the one time he messed up.”

People drink Echinacea when they get a cold. After a few doses, the cold goes away. Yay! Of course, if they hadn’t drank the tea, their cold still would have gone away in the same amount of time, but people still attribute their success to the Echinacea because it happened at the same time. Same goes for glucosamine; joint pain tends to go away of its own volition, for a lot of people, but people who take glucosamine tend to praise it quite highly.

It’s not even that they’re placebos, per se - the placebo effect mimics that of the treatment in question, so there can be genuine improvement in some cases. These make absolutely no difference, but are still credited with powers they don’t have, simply because they are the kind of thing that the human brain notices - and because the human brain loves to make associations between performing an action and seeing a result.

Your brain categorises drinking the tea as “doing something” and not drinking the tea as “doing nothing”, in the same way that it categorises dribbling off the foot as “something” and dribbling up without incident as “nothing”. But here’s the thing - “doing nothing” is a notion that exists entirely in our brains. Because while you’re not drinking the tea, you are drinking water, eating food, resting, regulating your body temperature, fighting an automatic immunological war…the multitude of things that you are doing right at this very second are impossible to transcribe - and all of them will have an effect, be it on your cold or on anything else you do.

When you are trying to make a decision and “doing nothing” is presented to you as an option, reframe it in more accurate terms - especially if this option is presented to you in the course of a moral debate. “Doing nothing” is often presented as a kind of null response, a moral zero when considering ethical questions - like, you can either actively help the starving children of the world by sending clothing, food, money, etc; or you can be one of the people over there actively oppressing them, forcing them to work in diamond mines and so on; or you can do nothing, and it’s just neutral.

But when you say “doing nothing” you really mean “not donating to whatever charity someone is currently asking about”, which means that all your other actions are still open for assessment. The food you eat, the products you buy, the pollution you produce - everything you do as part of the status quo, as a part of your normal routine, has an effect. So you’re not doing nothing - you are doing all of those things, with the various positives and negatives each action creates.

It’s important to recognise the power that each of us has - that even the most unintentional of actions can have such great and far-reaching consequences.

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