Friday, October 14, 2016

The Power of Thinking (October 9, 2016)

I hated Long division when I was a kid. It gave me a stomach ache and a head ache. I remember going to my mom one night in a fit of despair over my math homework. When she offered to help, I handed over a sheet so muddy with partially erased pencil marks that she responded “ah, I see your problem- let’s start with a clean sheet of paper.” She pulled a fresh sheet, and a nice sharp pencil. She re-wrote the first problem on the clean page, and began to write each step down as we worked on it together. Teachers had always told us “show your work so we know how you solved it” but all of a sudden I realized that really, if I could show my work in a way that was legible and understandable to me, then I could understand what I had done, and when I struggled, where I’d gone wrong, so I could check my work and be sure that I was right. All of a sudden I loved math. I loved that you could take a clean sheet of paper and a sharp pencil and follow the numbers to their logical conclusion.

This is the power of our thinking minds. It takes fear and confusion and overwhelming emotions and slows everything down to where we can see clearly what our solutions might be. In our political environment right now strong emotions cloud the issues. Our public discourse is more about “who is the enemy” than “what is the most effective path forward for all of us.” And we need real solutions right now, not just emotional rhetoric.

This image found on LaughingSquid pretty much sums it up.
We live at a time where it is very hard to tell truth from lie, fact from guess. Have you ever seem something posted on Facebook- so outrageous that you immediately post it to all your friends, only to have someone point out that it was actually just a joke or a fabrication? How can we know what is true? This is especially important when it comes to public policy. We know that the effectiveness of any new laws passed by our elected officials is secondary to whether the idea increases their popularity, or will be popular with big donors. Things are not any better in private industry, where the ultimate measurement of success is quarterly returns to shareholders rather than the impact on 7 generations of life on our planet. Scientists who advise both government and industry are routinely silenced because what the scientists are telling us isn’t popular. [i] For the future of our country, I’d like to suggest that it is the power of thinking that can cut through the politics and the partisan passions and help us steer our way forward.

For an example today, let’s use something that should be pretty safe for both liberals and conservatives. Imagine we were buying a new couch for the congregation. Have you ever fallen in love with a piece of furniture – “wow- this is just the perfect thing!” and not until you got it home did you realize it doesn’t actually fit? Maybe later you get the bill in the mail for the couch and realized you can’t really afford it? The best way to prevent both these couch-fails is to check your numbers. Before you head to the showroom, measure the space where you want to put the couch. Then bring a tape measure to the store with you, and measure the couches. And because humans are imperfect, you might even want to measure twice; as my grandfather the cabinet maker used to say “measure twice cut once.” If it’s really important to you, have a friend measure it too. In the great hierarchy of information, this is the most trustworthy-- something you measure or count firsthand, and preferably having someone check your work. In the world of science, the secret code for “had my colleagues check my work” is “peer reviewed.” Look for that phrase – it’s a good sign that the data is pretty solid.

Hang on, you may be saying to yourself, can we afford a couch? Good question. So often we buy something because we need it, or we want it, or it seems like something we should be able to afford. This is why we always like to have a copy of our budget and our year-to-date expenditures at board meetings. Not only can I look at the budget and do the math, but the whole board has a copy, and we can check each other’s math. Now budget numbers are a little softer than how many inches a couch is. Just because we usually make $200 in fundraisers, doesn’t mean we will this year. Just because we usually spend $1000 on heat, doesn’t take into account a record cold winter. Just because it is a number on an impressive spreadsheet doesn’t make it true. So part of checking each other’s work is asking questions about the numbers “where did you get these estimates for how much our utilities will be this year” and “what are our plans for this fundraiser?”

What do you do if you can’t get to the store to measure the couch yourself? If you are going to order the couch on line, you are probably going to have to trust someone else to measure it for you. Most of the data we get comes to us in a secondary way like this. Exactly how many children graduated from high school last year? How many inches did it rain during the hurricane? No one has time to go count all these things for themselves. At some point you’re going to have to trust a pharmacist to measure your drugs, or an engineer to design your bridge. Choose your expert carefully. Choose them not because they share your political affiliations, but because they check their work and use a good method. We make this mistake a lot- we might trust our Facebook friends before we trust a careful peer-reviewed study by a researcher who voted differently in the last election. For example, I hope most of you trust me and agree with some of my values. But if you really want to know how a couch is made, I hope you’ll ask [our Buildings and Grounds Team] instead. And if you want to know if we can afford a couch, start with your treasurer.

But don’t give all your trust unquestioningly to the experts, even our beloved church treasurers. Ask questions about who did the counting and how they did the counting. One of the most universally accepted standards for gathering information is the scientific method, which Aurelio described before. Part of that process is explaining exactly what method you used to get your measurements. You can use the word “methodology” if you want to be fancy about it. “I took this tape measure and I measured the back, from one end to the other” and then the scientist has to show their math. Now someone else (maybe far across the country, maybe in another decade) can take the same kind of tape measure, and the same kind of couch, and check your math. An online poll does not use the scientific method. Your Uncle Bob eyeballing the couch from a photo is not the scientific method.

Learning about the method for getting the numbers, helps you know better what those numbers mean. As Susan Etlinger, who analyzes data for a living, said “if I don’t know what questions you asked, I don’t know what questions you didn’t ask.”[ii] Last week 14 of us were standing in the creek bed over by Litchfield Elementary School with Mike Lovegreen, while he explained that sometimes folks who design stream-crossings would calculate the volume of water that had to travel under a bridge, without asking “what happens to all the rocks and stuff in the creek-bed when we build this?” and “How is this bridge going to change the way the creek moves?” And that those un-asked questions often resulted in roads and bridges and parking lots washing out in big storms

Just because someone uses numbers in their Facebook post, doesn’t mean it’s a fact. I read somewhere that 70% of all statistics quoted in conversation are made up on the spot. But you might want to check that for yourself. So another important question you can ask is- who is the source of your data? If the Facebook post doesn’t tell you where the data came from, probably best to disregard it: if no one’s name is on it that means no one has to be accountable for errors or false information. If you are really curious ask for the source. Once you know the source, you know a lot about the data. The Onion is a satirical magazine – but I see my Facebook friends re-posting it like it’s real news. If you have data from a researcher at Stanford on one hand and from Buzzfeed on the other hand, I would suggest that probably the Stanford data is more rigorous. If I’ve found a couch that is the right measurements and the right price, and the review says “most comfortable couch in the world.” It makes a big difference who is the source of that quote- is it from a couch salesman, or from consumer reports? Ask yourself who benefits, whose pockets will be lined. If the only research about couch safety is done by the couch industry, that’s important to keep in mind. Not to say that the couch industry is not honest, just that they might be motivated to ask questions and collect the data that is more likely to help them sell couches.

You may find that the more questions you answer, the more you drill down into the data, the more questions you have. That means now you are really thinking! Some of you have told me that you are here in a UU church because you came from a religious tradition where asking too many questions was frowned upon. Well, you came to the right place. Asking questions is practically a sacrament for UUs.

UUs are encouraged to “to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, [which] warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;” UUs understand that no information is perfect. Very fallible human beings bring their biases and blind spots to the work they do. If I really want a certain couch for the church, research has shown that I’m likely to pick and choose data that supports my arguments for buying it.[iii] No measurement is perfect. Every answer is incomplete. So the use of reason and the scientific method helps us challenge the data we have and the conclusions we draw, and the more we challenge those theories the stronger they become.

The Galileo story I read during the Lesson for All Ages is one of how gathering new data and questioning our assumptions can change how we see the world. I can see clearly, that every morning the sun rises in the east, and sets in the west. It’s just common sense that the sun goes around the earth. So in the 16th century when Nicolaus Copernicus, came up with a mathematical model which suggested that actually we went around the sun, people were slow to believe it. no matter how good his math was he could not convince people to question their old idea. When Galileo Galilei found new data using a telescope he designed- society pushed back hard, the church asked him to cease and desist, making his life very difficult. Today the idea of the earth orbiting the sun is very uncontroversial- even ordinary people can see for ourselves images from space. Centuries of science confirms the basic idea, and in 1992 the Catholic Church finally changed the official stance to agree that Galileo was right.

But that’s not the end of the story. Astronomers like William Herschel and Friedrich Bessel realized that the sun is only the center of the solar system, not the whole universe. In fact, the latest theory is that the universe has no center, or rather that everywhere is the center of the universe. At its best, the use of science and reason helps us understand that our knowledge is always incomplete, always growing. It helps us be open to new ideas and new data, because even when an idea seems weird, seems to contradict what we know, we can cool down our gut reaction, and start asking helpful questions.

Reason and the scientific method can tell us many things, about the measurements of the couch, the affordability of the couch, maybe the durability of the couch if we know something about materials and engineering, but couch that is the right measurement on the right part price is not a necessarily the right couch for you. As a short person I can tell you that just because something is comfortable for 98% of people doesn’t mean that it will necessarily be comfortable for me. Thinking alone will not give you all the answers. Do you like the couch? Is it beautiful? Is it comfortable? Those are important questions too. We should use all our faculties - heart mind and spirit in making any important decision.

We are living in is an important time in the history not only of our country, but for all the living beings on this planet. As a people who strive to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, we have an important role to play. Let us be on the side of all those who, regardless of their political affiliation, are gathering data carefully, who show their math and their methodology so others can join in the search for solutions. Let us remember to ask good questions as part of our free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and let us use the power of our thinking minds always in service of our compassionate hearts, and a better life for all.

No comments: