Thursday August 30, 2012
The fuzzy side of human perception
MUSING BY MARINA MAHATHIR
We often like to believe what we want to believe, often because the real facts challenge us too much. It is far easier to wallow in our prejudices than to seek out the truth in anything.
LANCE Armstrong is no ordinary cyclist. He has won seven Tour de France trophies after having recovered from testicular cancer.
By all accounts that would make him superhuman. Unless you believe he doped himself with high-performance drugs.
Recently, he gave up the fight against the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) to prove his innocence, which meant that although he had already retired from cycling, he was banned from any competitive cycling and stripped of all his titles.
To many, his giving up meant that he was guilty. But as one US columnist pointed out, he had passed 500 dope tests already.
It was only the testimony of 10 people who said they saw him taking the drugs that kept the USADA on his back.
The whole case illustrates how fallible any human endeavour can be.
On the one hand, cycling is a sport riddled with doping scandals. So it is normal to suspect any super-achiever of cheating.
On the other hand, it is also a sport where drug tests are routine.
So either the tests are no good or Armstrong did not cheat. We can't have it both ways.
And sports is a field where the means of testing are extremely rigorous.
The poor Chinese swimmer who won a gold medal at the Olympics and then immediately faced accusations of doping also passed her test. But what really shut people up was when people like Michael Phelps stood up for her.
Either they're all in on it, or she simply was superb.
Human perception can therefore be fuzzy.
We often like to believe what we want to believe, often because the real facts challenge us too much.
It is far easier to wallow in our prejudices than to seek out the truth in anything.
Now imagine a field that is as impossible to subject to empirical testing like politics.
There is probably no field more vulnerable to the vagaries of human foibles and prejudices than politics, except perhaps religion.
And in some cases, the two fields are conflated allowing for even more vulnerabilities.
There are many people who refuse to believe that religion can be subject to human interpretation. They believe that whatever they believe is true.
That is often because they have been told that by someone else whom they believe has some authority.
Therefore, if that person tells them something that is in fact incorrect, they will not verify it. Nor will they believe it could ever be wrong. In this way, myths work their way into beliefs and then are difficult to challenge.
For example, for years many Muslims believed that the recently deceased astronaut Neil Armstrong heard the azan when he was on the moon and that made him convert into Islam.
There has never been proof of either phenomenon and the man himself repeatedly denied it.
But as soon as he died, the myth is repeated all over again.
Similarly, once an E-mail went around with photographs of the graves of the supposed giants that once roamed the earth.
This E-mail circulated among lots of otherwise well-educated people but all it took was a little research into the origins of the photos to show that it was a clever photoshop exercise. But how easily we can be fooled when we so want to believe in something.
Perhaps we are so easily fooled because we are often too lazy to check on anything.
This is why it is so easy for some people to pull the wool over our eyes, or the kepiah to keep things localised.
Someone just needs to have a facility with words, preferably in a foreign language, throwing in some difficult to challenge "facts" and they've got us.
Furthermore, we all like to think of ourselves as objective persons, able to assess everything in a clear rational way.
I can't count how many times men say things about women's issues, without the slightest inkling how insensitive and crass they sound.
One had the gall to attend a women's conference and then talk about how much he loved women.
I guess he assumed we would all smile and be grateful.
Similarly, when talking about politics, everyone thinks they are being absolutely objective and rational.
But with few exceptions, I have to wonder.
Few people spend time with people with different views from them so they rarely get any insights into alternate perspectives.
Sometimes people can even be persuaded to believe in things they used to oppose if someone they believed in persuaded them to.
Which goes to show that just as in cycling, stringent tests dealing with facts mean very little when it comes to politics.
Worse still when one stirs religion into the brew.