Four Blind Men and An Elephant

by  Sam C. Chan

Winter 2004

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 philosophized version:


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.

[End of original story. The rest was crafted by me to illustrate my philosophies.]

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.

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