Connecting the (Hidden) Dots

Familiarity of patterns may mislead our interpretations of data.

Posted Jun 09, 2017

When we are presented with information, what is the ability to "connect the dots”? If 100 people are given exactly the same information, identical in amount and form, how many will achieve the same level of understanding and arrive at the same conclusions? I’m sure psychologists have researched this question thoroughly. How many of us realize a fundamental assumption of the concept of democracy requires a majority of the public to connect the information dots the same way? Voting is a consequence of the thinking and is a reflection of common understanding. What is a “reasonable level” of common understanding?

All of us interpret input in the context of our own lives, our experience and knowledge. When we lived off the earth as tribes in small villages, that defined how much our thought patterns were easily aligned, similar and shared. While individual personalities were distinct, the range of differences was probably relatively limited.

As our knowledge of the world expanded and became specialized, some people began to question the fundamental aspects of life. Having learned many more dots (“bits of information”), they could construct new patterns, some of which challenged old assumptions. In this context, the metaphor of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden (“Heaven”) because they tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is very apt. New ways of thinking are the result of asking different questions, of comparing old patterns of dots with fresh intellectual constructs that embrace new and old dots. How many of the old dots can we keep, do we want to keep?

This is where individual personalities and personal philosophies, systems of values, kick in. If I am very comfortable with familiar patterns of known dots, and see little reason for discontent, i.e., change, won’t I naturally tend to discount “new dots” as “noise”? Why should I waste my time thinking about new bits of information that don’t make sense in my interpretation of the world? Why should I assume that my views are wrong, or even inadequate?

Curiosity certainly is a vital human characteristic that drives exploration of the unknown, whether that be under the sea, in the jungles, or in outer space. When new species of animals and plants are being discovered every year, and as new technologies allow us to journey to previously unreachable ocean depths or other planets, it is difficult to maintain the belief that our knowledge of the universe is somehow complete enough that we can be complacent. Even the challenges that Mother Nature throws at us in the form of earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods show us that we have much to learn, just to protect our physical selves.

If we are open to knowledge-seeking in some aspects of our lives, such as survival, must we be equally open in other aspects? Ah, there’s the rub. Is homosexuality a disease condition, a demonic possession, a genetic trait, or a choice? How many people are open to even discussing these as possibilities and exploring each hypothesis? What dots are we seeing? What dots do we choose to form patterns? What patterns make sense to us, and which dots are discarded because they confuse us? What dots do we infer from the patterns we choose?

Cognitive bias means we prefer to see and include those dots that already make sense to us. As we seek to validate our beliefs, we may simply be blind or ignore bits of information that don’t fit our original patterns. Then, when we discuss our thoughts with others, our egos demand that we stand up for our beliefs as “right” and we can easily condemn others who disagree. But they are looking at different dots! What dots are invisible, to whom? What dots can or should be ignored? Are we capable of absorbing and making sense of all the knowledge that is presented to us? Our ability to generate and discover new bits of knowledge is now literally accelerating exponentially.

Patterns are stories and human beings are hardwired to interpret and learn through stories and story construction. What is a pattern for “truth”? Is there some kind of “absolute truth”? People who have strong fundamental religious convictions believe that the sacred teachings must be taken literally at face value. This attitude has the benefit of clearly defining right from wrong. In the context of a faith, what would be “inconvenient truths”?

Former Vice President Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth presented a story of environmental change that is compelling for some, and less so for others. Different people react differently, to the same set of dots and data points. Why do some people choose to believe their set of dots is more “true” than another pattern?

What does this mean for democracy and governing? Is the original premise of “majority vote” is too simplistic? Aside from cognitive bias, there is an even more fundamental assumption that our preferences and hence our votes are motivated primarily by selfish concerns. We want what is best for ourselves, specifically, as individuals and our families. That concept is hardwired into patterns of survival. How can we evolve as a society to be able to see patterns that include many more dots, different patterns, so that we can interpret a more comprehensive vision that benefits us and others at the same time? We must have this as a definite intention, a drive to learn something new that will allow us to adapt to the uncertain future.