Lately, I’ve had the rare opportunity to observe two incredibly bright academic / Ph.D. types in the final throes of development of their new theoretical models. Let me tell you what. They love them their theories. Love love love love.
Love. I can almost imagine ”I heart my theory” being sung to the tune of the Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. Big love. And what’s not to love? Broad-ranging theories with capacious words explaining (or describing) the stuff of life. It’s a heavy mantle to bear, this stuff of life explaining, so it’s a happy day indeed when one sees the light of inspiration.
Yet, there’s a risk inherent with the combination of such love and inspiration of one’s theory. Once awestruck, everything fits the model, whether it really does or not. It’s like viewing the world through theory-colored goggles. Of course it fits! Beautiful validation! Contrarians begone…you just don’t get it. Isn’t it obvious? You just aren’t asking the right questions!
My main point isn’t to make light of others, actually, because that’s not helpful nor useful. Well, that’s not entirely true. I do like to use humor as a coping mechanism. Nor am I making nice out of concern that the ginormous-brained theoreticians would read this. They don’t have time to read the low level drivel published on this blog.
Truth be told, it’s just a salient story that illustrates something we’d all be better off remembering. No one is immune to theory infatuation. We all have our little ideas about how the world works and how people behave– all irrefutably supported by endless anecdotes, er “evidence”. Or so we think.
Here’s a nice example borrowed from the N=1 blog that illustrates my point nicely in talking about Mind Projection Fallacy (is that a cool-sounding error or what?):
A silly example: A man might think squealing car tires is cool. To impress a woman, he therefore squeals his tires. He would be impressed by squealing tires, so he thinks she would be too. He doesn’t realize that coolness is not a property of squealing tires, but a property of his mind. The woman actually thinks squealing tires is stupid.
Got it? Yeah, I know what you’re thinking now. “Oh, but I’m a woman and I do know that squealing tires is cool.” Just kidding. Here’s one that Gary and I observed recently.
We were part of the flow of traffic in our Mercury Sable with Babys R Us shade stickers on the back windows. Low-pro, if you know what I mean. A car pulled onto the highway and started travelling 5mph over the speed limit, just like the rest of us. Sounds safe, doesn’t it? Unfortunately for our stank-faced friend, he was lookin’ all ghetto and stuff with his attire, facial expression and blingy-rimmed, shazzam green low rider. If you’re a police officer, who do you pull over? Why, Mr. Stank Face, of course, whose look you can find in the police person’s handbook under T-R-O-U-B-L-E.
I’m sure this approach works enough to make it seem almost infallible, but imagine how many Mercury Sable Baby’s R Us stickered driving coke heads they could be missing out on. Hypothetical example, folks. The Crumpler and I, we don’t do drugs, but there could be people who drive cars like ours who do and the police would totally miss them due to infatuation with their theory about who should be pulled over.
I mean, sure, in this case we look like the harmless ones. What about when I say something that someone with power decides must mean I don’t respect their authority? Or maybe I “look” like someone who doesn’t have feelings, so it’s OK to say mean things about me? You never know what someone else’s assumptions are that guide their actions toward us.
What assumptions do we make about others that guide us in our responses toward them for better or worse? Just because our theories seem to work all the time, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do a more rigorous test of their viability every now and then.