Clarity and Surprises

by johnmccreery

In a commonsense frame of mind, we are likely to assume that clarity eliminates surprises.* If only we can be perfectly clear, what we know will be unimpeachable. Science teaches a different lesson. Clarity is a framing that exposes gaps in our knowledge, gaps through which surprises appear. We reach a perfectly clear conclusion; then reality intrudes.

We may still be right; but something we haven’t thought of is affecting what we observe. (We may, for example, raise a bow and launch an arrow that misses our target. That doesn’t discredit the laws of physics or the mathematics that describe the arc we intended. Our hands trembled or a gust of wind intruded. Accidents happen.)

Or we could be completely wrong. Financiers who took for granted the Black-Scholes theorem assumption that market probabilities are arranged in normal curves have screwed not only themselves but the rest of us as well.

The trick is to be perfectly clear but also open to surprise. Failure is the mother of learning as well as invention.** ***


*Both Descartes, with his search for self-evident, clear and simple ideas, and lawyers seeking to write contracts that anticipate every contingency share the blame here.

**Unless, of course, rigid adherence to categories makes surprises taboo (See Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger) or a zero defects mentality makes people afraid to improvise.

***For anthropologists, the key point to remember is that these thoughts apply both to the people whose lives we study and to ourselves. We both have our theories about how things do or ought to happen. We both encounter situations in which we find ourselves surprised. We both may be rigid or flexible. Flexible survives.


2 Comments to “Clarity and Surprises”

  1. I like this theme and I agree about the value of flexibility. But rigid survives too, as a matter of common observation and evolutionary logic. Because as a species, flexibility means diversification of dispositions across the flexibility/rigidity, fox/hedgehog spectrum. Given the advantages of specialization, under certain conditions rigidity offers the best return on input.

  2. I think that people adopt rigidity, when they do, in the face of uncertainty. Some kinds of epistemological uncertainty probably lead to really authoritarian/patriarchal approaches to the world, for example. And if it’s backed by enough force of one kind or another, it will, as Carl observes, survive–and propagate. (I actually explain a lot of religion this way, at least in my head.)

    Comparing two kinds of rigidity I observe where I work may be useful. For one kind, a number of staff created little fiefdoms. Upper management/supervisors did not know how to, or didn’t want to, rein any of that in. Lots and lots of bad habits (to be polite about it) got ingrained. New broom comes through last fall, and gives people time and education to change their ways. Many remain stuck in the old behaviors, thinking they can just wait it out or bully management. Turns out not to be the case, and several are looking for new jobs at the moment or will be soon.

    the other kind is people being afraid to make mistakes. I find this is lessening somewhat, and I’ll even take a little credit for that (and give a bunch of credit to my boss as well)–I KNOW that I make mistakes, and I actually WANT people to find them, and, of course, I am in a sufficiently privileged position where I work that I can have that attitude. The trick, then, is to figure out ways to spread this kind of openness to mistake-making without leading to too-high tolerance for mistakes.

    And, really, I’m always looking for systems for preventing and finding mistakes: rigidity in the service of a kind of flexibility, or, at least, adaptability, as it were.

    Which takes us back to “perfectly clear but open to surprise,” and being ready and willing and able to use failure for inventive purposes.

    And, since I’m rambling here, that’s one of the things I learn from learning new crafts. Especially in the beginning, there’s going to be lots of failure; rigidity is going to ruin any pleasure or learning. At the same time, there has to be some actual learning of the “rules,” else there will be nothing BUT failure.

    Complex subsystems, my friends, to recall someone’s book . . .

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