Saturday, July 09, 2005

Perception and Reality

In a recent story in The Globe and Mail, it was reported that "...Canadians on average believed the cost of one year of undergraduate university tuition in 2003 was $4,989. But the average cost of tuition that year was $3,749." Additionally, "The survey found that Canadians believe university graduates earned $39,967, or about $5,000 more than high-school graduates actually earned on average. In fact, the 2001 Census reported that the average university graduate in Canada made $61,823, or about $27,000 more than a high-school graduate."*

I love such news pieces! They blatantly demonstrate that perception is not necessarily reality. The importance of the empirical method (and its little friend Statistics) is illustrated when our society attempts to correct itself from inaccurate thoughts. Misperceptions abound, but at least our perceptions have the potential to be bounded. How often have you thought or said something that, upon reflection, you truly have no idea of whether it is true or not? I would guess frequently; it is one of the problems of the complexity of the world. The complexity of most things is just so vast that even those with an inclination and a capacity are not fully informed, and even if they are they may not be in agreement with other such individuals.

The aforementioned situation leads to the logical, but sadly fallacious, reliance on upon experts. It is true these experts have the knowledge, but they are also emotional beings who possess various human shortcomings. Thus, their 'informed perspective' can be inaccurate or misleading; both the former and the latter can vary in their intentionality.

What is the alternative? Do all the research yourself? No, this is simply not feasible. But, a middle ground can be reached. Try to find several sources for the 'same' pieces of information. Try to think of the other factors that may underlie the stance of another and any ulterior motives they might have. Realistically, take a loss on some issues. But, you also must take a loss at speaking with any confidence about such issues. It is only fair.

Many do not want to admit their level of ignorance because then they would not be able to say much at all. While I am sympathetic to the situation (as I'm right there with them), I still see intellectual restraint as the best way to go about discussions (and improving the world).

I think a wonderful definition of wisdom is 'the ability to recognize one's ignorance.'

*The study was based on a telephone poll of 1,055 Canadians. It was done by Ipsos-Reid in August and September of 2003. Information was also obtained from the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation. The survey has a margin of error of 3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.


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