Last week I had the magical experience of driving across the Hay Plain, reputed to be both the flattest place on Earth (which begs the question “how do you calculate that?”) and the most boring drive in the country. But the magic happened for me as I left Balranald heading east with the setting sun behind me.
Photographers and camera operators call this magic light — for up to an hour before sunset, the light is ‘softer’ and warmer and the low angle of the light creates deep shadows adding depth and character to the landscape.
As I entered the plain it was lit with a golden light and glowed in rich ochres and deep, lush oranges. My car threw an extraordinary purple shadow across the plains ahead of me. The sumptuous colours were reminiscent of a pharaoh’s tomb or some palace of riches.
Then the colour disappeared as the sun dipped below the horizon behind me. Bleached of colours, the view became pure geometry in silvery greys. Neatly bisected by a perfectly straight and level horizon the land was further subdivided into three triangles, one either side of the road and the third the road itself, the three meeting at their apexes; a vanishing point directly ahead of me at an incalculable distance.
I let myself think that this was the quintessential Australian driving experience but that was folly. This was just my interpretation and interaction with one road at one specific time in one small part of Australia. Surely the “Australian Driving Experience” needs to take into account all of the huge diversity of roads and environments on offer in Australia? Mine was a rare experience and a more common driving event in this country would be endless hours spent in traffic jams in one of the major cities. I committed the mistake of putting forward a single experience as somehow being representative of the greater whole. I was attempting to substitute one small set of observations for an overall understanding of a much bigger picture. I was being human.
And we are all only human. The fallacy of basing an understanding of a large and complex issue on the small and limited data set of personal experience is a common error of logic. How many times have I heard one or two untestable anecdotes put forward in defence of supernatural powers such as psychic ability or the existence of ghosts? I’ve lost count of the number of arguments I’ve had with proponents of homeopathy, iridology, acupuncture or a phalanx of other ‘complementary medicines’ where their belief in the efficacy of the practice is based on a single case that they have experienced. And again, I could not count the number of times I’ve heard the argument that, “I haven’t noticed any change in the weather – therefore climate change is bunk”.
It seems to a non-sports addicted Australian like me that perhaps the most effective arguments that can be made in this country are sporting metaphors. So here goes with a sporting metaphor that helps to put this problem into perspective.
In all the various football codes played across the country, the object of the competitions is to win the premiership, kick more goals than the other teams and win more matches. Tearooms across the land have the obligatory footy forecasting competition pasted to a wall where workmates make predictions at the beginning of the season as to which team is going to win the premiership and by what margins. And a lot of research goes into analysing the form of each team in an attempt to work out who is the most likely to be the champions at the end of the Grand Final.
But a footy comp is a complex affair with many compounding factors that unravel as the competition progresses. Unforseen injuries and events affect the final outcome and, with the best research in the world at the beginning of the comp, few people accurately predict the final outcome and, more often than not, they only do so by chance.
So how foolish would you be if you based your prediction of the competition winners on a single kick, or even a single goal or a whole match in the first round of matches? Let’s face it, you’d be a goose if you wagered any cash on such a prediction no matter how perfect the goal is or how stunningly the match was played.
To understand complex situations, such as the efficacy of proposed treatments, the validity of climate change or the eventual outcomes of a football premiership, you need to gather data way beyond your personal grasp. You need to know how many times homeopathy has failed, to understand the significance of the cases you have for its success. You need to know the records of weather worldwide to understand Global Climate Change the same way that you need to know all the results of all the matches to work out the competition winners. A stunning win of one match by the wooden-spooners is meaningless if they win no other games.
Personal experience, no matter how compelling and engaging, is a poor measure of reality. We can only ever experience the smallest part of any system. Science is the tool kit that allows us to access and appreciate whole systems and science allows us to put personal experience into its proper perspective.
By Paul Willis, @Fossilcrox
Image credit: Tim J Keegan