Looking at mass media, it’s extremely easy to make the mistake that the world is concrete and definite, that there are absolute causes to issues. Furthermore, there’s the even more prevalent idea that if there are absolute causes to a phenomena, we are certain of knowing them.
The problem with absolutes is that they don’t include any wiggle room. Speaking in terms of statistics, if there’s only one state that represents your absolute, there are infinitely many other states that could be your answer. Therefore, the chance that you are correct is infinitesimal. Obviously, this depends on the total number of possible states for a situation, but you can imagine that there’s always a good chance that you aren’t perfectly correct.
Let’s face it: our universe is amazingly complex.
Declaring absolutes is almost never worth it. It’s a way to be wrong about ideas that you wouldn’t be wrong about if you had kept an open mind. Absolutes force us to be sure of things, but the reality is that we are rarely certain of events.
Unfortunately, there is another factor at play. When we propose absolutes, the fact that there is no wiggle room makes us look certain of ourselves. Done well, this can lead others to have a higher opinion of us, simply because we are steadfast in our beliefs. The incredible thing is that this can happen even if we are making an error. Just from the certainty in our beliefs, we can convince others that we should listened to.
As you can imagine, this can be downright dangerous with the wrong person. If he or she does not care about the facts more than about people following them, deliberate warping of the facts can be done in order to weave doubt and uncertainty in the minds of those who thought otherwise. One need only look at one of the most troubling problems for humans in the twenty-first century: global climate change. Despite the near-unanimous agreement that global climate change is happening, there are still those who doubt the claims of scientists. However, due to their prominent positions in society, they are capable of reaching a greater number of people than the traditional scientist can. This is disconcerting, because these people can spread misinformation, a catalyst for discouraging science from being a driving factor in these kinds of decisions (when they should be).
If we’re honest, we can acknowledge that absolutes sound better. They convey confidence in an idea. Plus, communicating in absolutes is simpler. Instead of having to qualify each statement with the relevant background context, people can jump right to the heart of a message. This makes language more efficient, which should be the goal of any communicator.
The caveat, though, is that this only works up to a certain point. This system will work when two people are talking and are already versed in the relevant background details. As a result, those don’t need to be reiterated. Imagine two scientists in the same field discussing the latest research. Most of the background information about the science itself will be understood by both parties, eliminating the need to carefully explain everything. There’s less explaining to do because the concepts are already understood.
On the other hand, if you look at a platform where someone is popular, this is much more difficult. After all, it’s easier to know if the person in front of you understands the background context you don’t have to refer to anymore than a massive following one may have with the public (where people cease to be people and become numbers). At this scale, it’s basically impossible to be certain that everyone understands the background context you carry with you, so you are faced with two choices: either you simplify everything in order to be more accessible (creating absolutes) or you can keep everything just as complex, but make an effort to show people the reasoning behind an idea.
Too often, I fear, we see the former. In an effort to communicate a message, we strip it down until it becomes so bare that the wonderful science has been lost.
Science is complicated. This is because, as I said earlier, the universe is complex. Conversely, so much of our media is driven by simplified messages. Dramatic headlines dominate the world, and the message within is often simplified. As a result, the message tends to work in absolutes.
We love knowing things. It’s more fun to see “Scientists detect aliens!” than “Scientists have found a strange disturbance at a nearby star”. Dramatic headlines feed right into our tendency to want to know more.
However, we must be smart, and realize that our universe is much more complex, layered, and nuanced than many people give it credit for. As such, we need to be mindful of how our words affect the perceptions of those around us. When we communicate in absolutes, we are saying that we now for certain what is happening. We need to start being more humble and acknowledge that this is not usually the case.
A good rule of thumb is this: if someone says something with any notion of absolutes, there’s a fair chance that they are incorrect. Therefore, we need to call them out on it (without being mean about it). Engage them in a dialogue about the subject, and bring them evidence that proves otherwise to their claims.
The worst thing we can do is try to ignore them, thinking that everyone else is smart enough to know better as well. For a lot of science, this is just not true. There are so many different concepts and ideas in science that it’s impossible to understand it all. The time where a scientist new all of the world’s knowledge in every scientific subject has long passed. Now, it’s great to be just an expert in a specific niche of a field.
Therefore, we have a responsibility to encourage accurate information to spread. By using absolutes, we tend to oversimplify, even when it’s not needed. Opposing those who did this is one small step towards creating a society that is more scientifically literate and has a default reaction of asking questions.
Absolutes are rarely real. Most of the time, they are only simplifications (and can be dead wrong). As such, spot them and take responsibility to spread accurate information. It’s the best way to combat absolutes.
An Informed Decision
It’s nice to think you’re bucking the trend, and taking the route less traveled. Just because that person asserted a fact, why should I believe them? If we are all supposed to have freedom of thought and expression, what makes their assertion any more valid than my explanation?
In one word: science. In a few words: correctly applied science.
I’m sure you can come up with a few scenarios that I’m thinking of. Namely, the “debates” concerning global climate change and, to a lesser extend, the theory of evolution. These two concepts are frequently challenged in the media, making it confusing for a person who does not understand the science to come to an informed decision. As a result, they will look to those with a lot of influence in order to help make that decision.
However, this only works if those with influence understand the science and are willing to communicate it clearly. If they have other agendas, or if they themselves simply don’t want to accept the science, then they have the power to influence many others who will look to them for leadership.
When it comes to problems like global climate change, this is obviously an issue. If we are in the habit of ignoring scientists (from multiple sources), we will quickly get ourselves into problems. Yes, it’s a fair question to ask for the source of where information comes from and critique it. But disputing the information on the basis that scientists at large are trying to “push their agenda” by advocating for solutions to human-caused global climate change is just ridiculous.
Instead, we need to look at information before trusting anyone in particular. This goes for scientists just as much as politicians or journalists or anyone else. Fortunately, those in science usually tend to deliver information that is as objective and accurate as possible (though that is not always the case). That is why I tend to trust scientists. Not because I’m in cohorts with them to spread fear about an issue in order to get more science funding, but because the data that’s presented to me is convincing in and of itself.
Make an informed decision by looking at the data, not just trusting people of influence. If the data is good, it should have no trouble convincing you.
Will You Choose to Act?
Before making this decision, you have to open your eyes to see that choice.
It’s too easy to just cruise along in your life, ignoring any opportunity to act. If you deliberately ignore opportunities, nothing will come of it. After all, you say, someone else will make decisions for me, right? And yes, you’d be right. People will make decisions for you if you let them. However, whether or not those decisions will benefit you is unclear and difficult to guarantee.
So yes, you can go through your life without choosing to act, deferring to other people when the opportunity for you to make a difference arises. That’s a path that will always be there for you. The default one. The path of least resistance.
But, there’s another path; this one more risky. It’s not safe, and it’s definitely not stress-free. However, it does give you the chance to make a difference, if you choose to act. It’s scare, it’s not easy, but it is rewarding over the long-term. When everyone else chooses the easy path, only to regret it later on, you can be the one to say that you chose to act and make a difference.
Let’s be clear, though. Choosing to act won’t make you automatically “better” than anyone. Nor will it ever, in the end. What it will do though is create a life – which, let’s face it, is a long series of choices – in which you can be proud of. Not for the rewards it brings or the achievements that you accomplished, but for the effort in doing so. That’s the difference. You chose to act, instead of taking the default path. There’s bravery and wisdom in that.
The choices are in front of us, every single day. Will you choose to act when the time comes, even if it doesn’t “feel” right?
The time to start is now.
Improvement is Not a Race
In a race, there can be a winner and a bunch of losers. This is because of one simple fact: everyone starts at the same line, at the same time.
There aren’t any runners who get some special advantage and get to run less distance. That would be ridiculous, and would ruin the whole notion of competition and comparison. In a race, everyone begins on equal ground, at the same time.
The problem is, a race isn’t like life.
None of us start our journey at the same point, yet we always compare ourselves as if we did. When we are beginners, do we look to other beginners for comparison to see how we’re doing? Of course not. We look to the masters who have been doing great things in their craft for years. It’s only natural. They are the best, and so they are some of the most inspiring for those of us who want to do great things as well.
But if we aren’t careful, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. By comparing ourselves to the masters when we are at the very beginning of our journey, we create a sense of disappointment in our own work. After all, what we’re doing isn’t nearly as impressive as what the masters are doing. Because of this, we run the risk of abandoning our journey prematurely, before we can begin to see results.
What we’re missing is that the masters were once just like us. Think about that for a moment. The people you look up to had the exact same struggles as you had in terms of doing work they were proud of.
“But wait,” you say. “Surely they must have had some advantage, since they are masters and I feel like I can’t keep on producing this weak work!”
And guess what, you’re right. The one difference between them and you is that they chose to stay, to keep at it. That’s it. They knew their work wasn’t as good as they envisioned, but that didn’t kill their motivation. Instead, it bolstered their drive to work even harder to improve on their craft. They put in the work, and through the accumulation of a lot of practice, they got to where they are today.
What’s fantastic is that you can do the same thing. All it takes is a willingness to do the work needed of you every day, and commit to long-term improvement. When you realize that excellence in your craft is not a race to “finish” first but a process that everyone begins at a different time and place, you can appreciate that the main characteristic that differentiates those who are deemed “masters” and those who are not is time.
Make no mistake, “good” practice that uses progressions is vital, too. But the thing that generally separates people from being masters and novices is the time that’s spent in the craft. Practice more, and chances are strong that you will get better. It’s almost guaranteed.
From this, we can begin to mentally distinguish our craft from a race. We don’t need to constantly compare ourselves to the top of our field because we feel as if we should be producing work comparable to them. Put in five, ten years, and then you may begin thinking about that.
A more appropriate comparison would be with people who are near the same time in the craft and skill level as you. However, your time would be better spent producing more work, so you should try and limit comparing yourself to others.
In the end, we must realize that once we get into a craft, it is not as if we have jumped into a race late, and have to make up ground. Instead, we have to acknowledge that we are on our own journey, and that comparing our journey to others will usually result in disappointment, since the comparison isn’t fair in the first place.
If we want to be good at our craft, nothing beats committing to the long-game and putting a lot of good work in, regardless of how it compares to the masters.