During my early primary
school years in Hong Kong (that translates to 2nd or 3rd grade for those of
you more familiar with the American education system), there was this
children's tale in our text book about four blind men and an elephant. The
following is my best-effort recollection, in a much embellished and heavily
|One sunny afternoon at a public park, four blind men
gathered around an elephant to study it for the first time in
their lives. One man hugged the elephant's leg and proceeded to
announce: "An elephant is exactly like a tree trunk!" The man on
the opposite side of the elephant felt up and down the side of
the elephant's enormous torso, and (understandably) shouted:
"Not at all! It is more like a wall!" The next man in front of
the elephant's trunk proclaimed with full confidence: "An
elephant is like a squirming fire hose." The last man stood
behind the elephant, played with its tail leisurely, paused,
shook his head and uttered: "An elephant is clearly just like a
rope." The exchange went on among the four with each of them
firmly standing on their grounds with strong conviction.
of original story. The rest was crafted by me to illustrate my
A child standing just 15 feet away heard the heated debate and couldn't
help but burst with laughter. Obviously, all of them are correct at their
own myopic level. He felt superior, for knowing far more about the elephant
than any of the blind men. What he never realized was that those men
actually had an advantage over him: They knew about the texture and smell of
the elephant, not just the overall shape.
A young man sitting on a park bench 50 feet away witnessed this whole
episode and thought of it as a grown-up version of "petting zoo." As far as
he could tell, these were just excited men (judging by their animated
gestures) having a friendly conversation. It never occurred to him that they
were blind and arguing passionately.
An old man standing on the top of the hill 500 feet above, looked down
and saw this, as well as 9 other clusters of similar gatherings. He also
observed what he thought were "teachers" coming to collect each group and
led them back to a waiting bus at the far corner of the park. He gathered it
was a field trip for small school kids. The distance and his downward
perspective prevented him from recognizing these were tall adults.
Different people from different vantage points have vastly different
takes on any given situation. Close examination often reveal things that
completely contradict one's initial suspicions and assumptions. Jumping to
strong conclusions and making general, unqualified statements based on ones very
limited exposure to a particular product or subject matter is premature and
highly unwise. Truth be told, we're all guilty of this. The only questions
are: "In what areas?" "How frequently?" and "To what extend?"
When one is operating in the dark, not seeing the big picture, things
might appear to work. Sooner or later, the one treating an elephant like a
rope will find himself on a rope. Assume it is a tree trunk, and you're bound to be stumped. Pretend that it's a wall, and you'll be up against
one. Thinking of it as a hose will get you hosed. Tongue-in-cheek word play
aside, the moral of the story is:
Operating based on misconception will only carry you so far.
This is the reason why majority of the things we read or heard about are
grossly inaccurate or misleading. In engineering terms:
The world has a
pathetically low Signal-to-Noise Ratio. This is not an advocacy to all to
refrain from expressing opinions until after comprehensive studies on the
subject in question. To do so would severely hamper the rate of information
exchange and progress of humanity. Rather, it is a renewed call to keep an
open mind, and to be actively on the lookout for red flags; and be willing and able to detect
groundless opinions and bad recommendations.
For any non-trivial, non-rudimentary subject, the most popular
opinions/answers are almost certainly completely wrong. In the TV game show
"Who wants to be a millionaire?" One would "poll the audience" for such
questions as: Who's the star in a certain sitcom? But, when it comes to
scientific/intellectual questions, always "phone a friend." The current IT
industry exemplifies this phenomenon: When it comes to non-rudimentary IT subjects, majority of the practitioners give out
completely wrong advice majority of the time.
You have to rely on the few proven, trusted experts, who not only know
the subject well, but also have the meta-knowledge of what they don't know.
We need not all become scientists on all subjects, but we certainly must
all realize that we are no scientists on most subjects. A little knowledge
is very dangerous. Use it with extreme caution.