Friday, August 26, 2011

Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá: Confusion Mistaken for Knowledge

It was early spring, 1519. Hernán Cortés and his men had just arrived off the coast of the Mexican mainland. The conquistador ordered his men to bring one of the natives to the deck of the ship, where Cortés asked him the name of this exotic place they'd found. The man responded, "Ma c’ubah than," which the Spanish heard as Yucatan. Close enough. Cortés proclaimed that from that day onward, Yucatan and any gold it contained belonged to the King and Queen of Spain, and so on.

Four and a half centuries later, in the 1970s, linguists researching archaic Mayan dialects concluded that Ma c’ubah than meant "I do not understand you."

Each spring, thousands of American university students celebrate with wet T-shirt contests, foam parties, and Jell-O wrestling on the beautiful beaches of the I Do Not Understand You Peninsula.

But confusion mistaken for knowledge isn't limited to spring break. We all fall into this trap. (one night, over dinner, a close friend mentioned that her favorite Beatles song is "Hey Dude.") Despite their years of training, even scientific types slip into thinking they are observing something when in fact they are simply projecting their biases and ignorance. What trips up the scientists is the same cognitive failing we all share: it's hard to be certain about what we think we know, but don't really. Having misread the map, we're sure we know where we are. In the face of evidence to the contrary, most of us tend to go with our gut, but the gut can be an unreliable guide. (19-20)

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