You know what you know, you know?

People who reach conclusions rapidly, intuitively — the way I do — may have confidence in their conclusions. Which I generally do, because when the conclusions are testable, I’m wrong seldom enough that my confidence is preserved. But I know this faculty is (like all decision-making processes) fallible, and there is a certain insecurity caused by the perceptions of others, particularly the concrete thinkers, the materialists, the folks who test as an S on the Myers Briggs scale, as opposed to my extreme N. The people who view holistic, Gestalten perception with utter contempt.

This habit of thought is extremely useful in arriving at opinions on complex, controversial issues in time to write about them on deadline. It’s why I was extremely adept at being an editorial page editor, if at nothing else (something that didn’t matter in the end, since it all came down to money). Not only for the purposes of writing opinions myself, but (much more to the point, since I was the editor) for guiding the board quickly to a conclusion. We’d be arguing, and then I would say something that paid due consideration to everyone’s seemingly disparate views, but which was coherent and followed logically and made all the people who had been arguing nod and say Yes, that’s our position.

It sounds like I’m bragging about how brilliant I am, but not really. (In  fact, to doubters I’m confessing what an idiot I am.) Frankly, I suspect most people look at me and wonder whether I’m good at anything. Well, I am, and that’s the thing. The one thing that seems to impress people most when they witness it, and when they are disposed to be impressed. The rest of the time, I think they’re more inclined to wonder who let the incompetent doofus into the room.

Conveniently, it’s a talent that also occasionally comes in handy working as a Mad Man. Much of what we do at ADCO still bewilders me, but when it comes time to sum up a message that the client has been struggling to express, I am able to contribute.

This works great, when people are impressed — such as yesterday, when a client called some modest flicker of insight of mine “brilliant.” (Which it wasn’t — I later looked at it written and there was a glaring grammatical error in what I’d said. But fixable.)

It’s more of a problem when people don’t think I’m brilliant — in fact, quite the opposite — and challenge my conclusions. You know, the way Bud and Doug always do. With those guys, I get frustrated because most of my firm assertions cannot be supported by a mathematical proof that will satisfy them, so they conclude that I’m just making it all up or something. And they assert it with sufficient vehemence — being as confident in their conclusions as I am in mine — that sometimes, like a dust mote drifting into a gleaming clean room, a tiny bit of doubt surfaces in my own mind: If I’m so right, why can’t I prove it to everyone’s satisfaction? Which I knew I couldn’t do, even before meeting Bud and Doug. Anyone who thinks his beliefs are self-evident to all (however he arrives at them) will be quickly disabused by even a short stint as editorial page editor. (Yes, Virginia, before blogs and Twitter and email there was the telephone, and snail mail, and running into detractors at social occasions. All designed to take you down a notch.)

So, I find it reassuring to read something like this, in an article in Slate about the uncertainties entertained by identical twins about whether they are identical:

As science looked for more cost-effective ways to divine zygotic history, blood tests and other lab work gave way to surveys that combined objective measurements—height, weight, tone of voice, etc.—with questions about how the pairs were perceived. Were they confused for each other by teachers and friends? Parents? Strangers? But even that proved more in-depth than necessary. In a 1961 study by a Swedish scientist named Rune Cederlof, the whole exam hinged upon a single, probing question: “When growing up, were you and your twin ‘as like as two peas’ or of ordinary family likeness only?”

It turned out that whether twins thought they’d been “as like as two peas” could predict the results of every other available test with surprising accuracy. Cederlof found that the twins’ answers to this one item on the questionnaire matched overwhelmingly with five independent measures of blood type. After nearly 100 years, our finest scientists realized that discerning a man’s zygotic origin was about as easy as discerning whether he was ill by asking if he had a runny nose.

The examination of DNA, then, may be an entirely superfluous reassurance: like searching for witnesses to a murder when the act itself was caught on tape.

Yes! All right! Go, intuitive perception!

By the way, you may enjoy taking the quiz at the bottom of the first installment of that article. It will cause you to be skeptical about  your own skepticism. (Oops. Maybe I should have said “spoiler alert” first…)

I continue to believe Twin B and Twin A are identical, despite their pronounced differences. Such as the contrasting ways they habitually pose for pictures (one makes faces; the other instinctively goes for glamour). Don't be fooled by the fact that one has shorter hair.

19 thoughts on “You know what you know, you know?

  1. `Kathryn Fenner

    So, Brad–do you tell the client it’s really all about wanting to go back and be a child, but the child is seeing himself as an adult, or whatever nonsense Don Draper loves to spin and can get away with b/c he’s tall, handsome and authoritative.

  2. Norm Ivey

    It ain’t so much what we know that gets us into trouble. It’s what we know that just ain’t so. (Mark Twain)

    I understand what Samuel means, and I appreciate intuition, but I think it’s what we refuse to accept once evidence is presented–willful ignorance–that really screws things up. Mistaking beliefs for truth is a good way to make bad choices.

  3. bud

    I have a set of twins, a boy and girl. I have been asked many times whether they were identical. I finally figured out that most people just want to break the ice. Anything to start a conversation.

  4. Brad

    Actually, Norm, I take delight in discovering things that are counterintuitive. It’s called learning. But the shocking truth is that, most of the time, things are what they seem. Especially the older you get, and the more you see. It’s monotonous. Which is why it’s fun when you encounter something unexpected. Unless it’s, you know, a saber-toothed tiger or something.

  5. bud

    Norm, your point is a very good one. That’s why we have a high proportion of Americans who believe the earth was created 6000 years ago.

  6. Brad

    Actually, no. Those people are concrete thinkers, just like the Darwinists who sneer at them. The Darwinists have a straightforward, simple faith in science and empiricism; they are materialists. The creationists are biblical literalists. The idea that something can mean something other than EXACTLY WHAT IT SAYS is alien to them.

    The way I look at the world, there is no conflict between faith and evolution. Seems like the slow, majestic, 4-billion-year process is exactly the way God would create the world — based on all the available information I have as to what He is like. I don’t see Him as an abracadabra kind of guy.

  7. Norm Ivey

    I agree, Brad–things very often are what they seem. I heard recently that research shows people who make decisions based on intuition are just as likely the make the right decision about a situation or course of action as those who base their decisions on research. (Don’t ask for a source–my sister told me she had studied it in a class.)

    What I’m referring to in mentioning willful ignorance are those people who, when presented with evidence of global warming (for example), still insist on calling it a hoax perpetrated by scientists. I’m willing to consider explanations other than man-made emissions, but don’t tell me it can’t be true because the atmosphere’s too big to change. That may be intuitive, but it’s wrong.

    Your saber-tooth tiger is another good example. Scientists tell us they went extinct some 10,000 years ago, so it would be impossible for you to encounter one, unless you could travel in time. Of course, everyone knows the earth is only 6000 years old, and since you’d be traveling to a point in time before earth was created by God (who also created Darwin, by the way), you’d probably just vaporize in pre-earth nothingness. That would suck as bad as meeting the saber-tooth.

  8. Brad

    Maybe. But it would be less unpleasant. With the saber-tooth, the stress would last longer.

    There’s an important distinction to be made here between bonehead ignorance and achieving quick insights via intuition. The first has to do with stubbornly clinging to one’s prejudices regardless of evidence. The latter has to do with constantly taking in new evidence, assessing it, adding it to everything else you’ve ever learned in your life, and quickly arriving at a synthesis. It’s about learning, not refusing to learn.

  9. Ralph Hightower

    So many different points to comment on.

    Regarding reaching insight to a problem as an INTP, I have found solutions to particularly vexing computer programming problems at work when my brain was in “neutral”: taking a shower, driving home from work, and trying to fall asleep.

    I think that Creationism and Darwinism can coexist, as long as one eliminates the extremists on both sides.

    I find it impossible to believe that the world was created in 168 hours. Rather, the 7 days in Genesis were expressed in ways that we, as humans, could understand. We don’t have a concept of thousands or millions of years.

  10. bud

    Ralph, the Young Earth Creationists would adamently disagree. They adhere to a literal interpretation of the bible that precludes a billions of years old earth. Somehow they manage to dance around references to the earth being flat, and the earth being the center of the solar system. It makes for remarkable reading to see how far people will go to dismiss evidence that counters their pre-conceived notion of the world. And that’s why I don’t hold a whole lot of stock in decision making based on intuition. There are just too many ways that can go drastically wrong. Our previous president made a career out of that kind of decision mentality. And look where the “Decider” led us.

  11. Brad

    Bud, you’re not understanding what I’m saying here. You’re confusing intuitive decision-making with uninformed prejudice. It’s anything but.

    It’s the accumulation of whatever knowledge, experience, or dare I say wisdom that you’ve acquired in your life, a body of information and understanding that you are adding to constantly. And in the midst of this dynamic process, you’re able to come to conclusions quickly based on EVERYTHING you know and understand, rather than on this piece of information or that piece, or some linear progression. It’s… holographic.

    It’s because I think this way that I have little patience with either the biblical literalists or the Darwinists who get so furious at them. I seem them both as having flawed, overly rigid, approaches to truths that I don’t think either of them understand. (Not that I’m claiming I do, but I believe a more holistic approach is more likely to achieve meaningful insights into such profound topics.)

  12. bud

    It’s because I think this way that I have little patience with either the biblical literalists or the Darwinists who get so furious at them.

    I was going to just let this whole line of discussion go, but I can’t let this vile little dig go. The Darwinists are the ones who believe in the scientific way of learning about the world, the universe and everything else. They examine the evidence and reach conclusions based entirely upon where that evidence takes them. If legitimate evidence comes forward to suggest a long-held theory may in fact not be correct a good “Darwinist” will be open to LEGITIMATE evidence to the contrary. Scientist will hold to their theories and try to present counterpoints, but in the end will accept credible refutations of their theory once sufficient evidence exists.

    The Creationists, on the other hand, start out with a pre-conceived notion of how the world works and try to produce evidence to support that preconception. They believe in devine creation first and science second, if at all. It’s nothing but a pseudo science that deserves all the scorn an ridicule that it is given. At perhaps more. To suggest that a young-earth creationist belongs in the same relm as the sound science embodied by the Darwinists is laughable. But worse, it is dangerous. If we allow these charletons to have any say in how our government works then we are doomed as a nation to decline and ridicule by the rest of the world.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      A fox. I have to be.

      Once, when I was applying for a newspaper job, one of the people interviewing me asked what journalistic skills I was best at. I told him quite truthfully, without boasting, that I was good at all of them — writing, editing, photography, production, news judgment, general knowledge of politics, policy and popular culture, etc. My background had grounded me well in all these things very early. (I was blessed to spend my first decade in the business at a small, but quite good, newspaper that allowed me, and sometimes required me, to do it all. People who start out at larger papers tend to specialize.)

      He just nodded and smiled, and said, “So you’re a…,” and to this day I don’t know whether the next word he said was “journalist” or “generalist,” but either way it worked, so I agreed.

      In other words, a fox…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I respect hedgehogs for their much deeper knowledge of their one thing, but am often appalled at how little such smart people know about everything else…

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