Thursday, March 30, 2017

Confusion May Be Contagious

In discussing a number of my recent confusions with colleagues in China, I realized that my confusions were also causing a couple of the Chinese to become confused. The thought that confusions are contagious then escaped from my lips without much thought. Now I am wondering if there is any evidence to support such a claim.

Many years ago when working at the University of Bergen in Norway in the area of system dynamics-based learning environments, I devised a principle called UUPS – pronounced ‘oops’, standing for the Universal Underlying Principle of all Systems – namely, when one begins working on a complex and challenging problem the notion is that something has already gone wrong. Typical early problems include (a) misdiagnosing the problem, (b) not providing sufficient resources early in the effort to address the problem, (c) focusing on just one aspect of a complex and dynamic problem, and (d) assuming that the future will resemble the past with regard to the problem situation.

A first corollary to UUPS is the notion that mistakes rarely occur in isolation. Typically, one mistake leads to another and so on. Misdiagnosing the problem can lead one to address a symptom of a problem rather than an underlying cause. One might then develop an elegant but entirely ineffective solution. Yes, I have done so on more than one occasion although my solutions are rarely very elegant. That first corollary to UUPS is related to my current thought that confusion may be contagious. Recent political events tend to reinforce this nascient belief.

I added two additional corollaries to UUPS: (a) there are rarely sufficient resources to do what you believe should be done to address a problem situation involving a complex and dynamic system, and (b) others generally have good or better ideas about what can be done to improve the situation. But then I rarely listen to myself much less to others.

I seem to recall a phrase treated in some depth in one of my psychology courses many years ago around the popular claim that misery loves company. The instructor asked us to read about that notion and finds its origins and offer an explanation based in psychology that would lead some credence to that popular belief. What little I recall from that class is the notion that the evidence tends to show that misery likes miserable company. Apparently, a 14th century Italian historian named Dominici de Gravina wrote, in his Chronicon de rebus in Apulia gestis something that translates roughly as follows: "It is a comfort to those who are unfortunate to have had companions in misfortune.”

My more recent dives into the research pertaining to confusions being contagious led mainly to articles about contagious diseases. Being easily influenced by what I read, I then had he thought that perhaps confusion could be treated as a kind of disease – a disease of the mind so to speak. This notion has promise in terms of understanding how confusions are formed, reinforced and spread to others. Perhaps.

Confusion is a contagious disease of the mind. Onward through the fog, as they say at Oat Willie’s (see Could it be that a person develops a malady that results in frequent confusions? If so, how might that happen? Many have written about habits of the mind (for example, see In general, those persons have taken a positive view of the habits of the mind and argued for their support and development in teaching and learning. However, a more neutral approach would be to view mental habits just as other habits are viewed – namely, in terms of repeated activation that lead to a relatively thoughtless repetition of a particular disposition in a certain kind of situation. The notion of reinforcement patterns in the brain’s neural network structure seems to support such a general analysis. So, it may be possible that through repeated activation a person develops a mental habit that is likely to result in confusion in some cases. It could be repeated reliance on one source or one authority or one perspective to account for a wide range of beliefs. I recall reading Quine and Ullian’s Web of Belief (see years ago and thinking that when confronted with something that does not fit with prior beliefs and dispositions that one is forced to call into question an entire set of beliefs, however reluctantly.

Then I remember one of Nietzsche’s aphorism in The Dawn of Day: "The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently." Perhaps following that advice is one way to inoculate oneself and others from confusion. One of my philosophy mentors, Oets Kolk Bouwsma, argued that many philosophical constructs were a result of conceptual confusion (see This is akin to Wittgenstein’s notion in Philosophical Investigations that language can lead one astray (see I have formed a habit of reminding myself of two of Wittgenstein’s key ideas: (a) From the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus – we picture facts to ourselves (that is to say that people naturally create internal representations to make sense of things they experience that are new or puzzling; see; and (b) from Philosophical Investigations – we talk about those internal representations to which no one has direct access with others in the form of language games. If one only talks with those who hold similar views and dispositions, then one is not likely to question one’s assumptions or carefully examine the quality and credibility of the evidence supporting those views and dispositions (recall Nietzsche’s advice).

Well, there seems to be no lack of conceptual confusion on my part or among the general public. Perhaps confusion has reached epidemic proportions. Not to panic … one can always crawl back into Plato’s cave described in The Republic (see Life in the shadows is sometimes easier to manage.

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