I have an ambivalent relationship with WIRED magazine. The topics featured in each issue are always so fascinating. When I look at the cover, I get very curious. But I resist the temptation to pick it up and start reading. Because it’s all a tease.
In my experience, a WIRED article rarely delivers what the title promises. I’m always disappointed when I give in, decipher those weird unreadable page numbers, and take the time to read the content. It’s like watching a TV program where people search for ghosts in a haunted house; never half as gripping as the trailer promises.
Well, last week I picked up the January issue of WIRED and read an article called “Trials and Errors,” by Jonah Lehrer. It turned out to be a happy exception to the rule. Three paragraphs were particularly thought provoking, and hopefully the copyright gods won’t strike me dead for reprinting them here.
“This assumption—that understanding a system’s constituent parts means we also understand the causes within the system… defines modern science. In general, we believe that the so-called problem of causation can be cured by more information, by our ceaseless accumulation of facts. Scientists refer to this process as reductionism. By breaking down a process, we can see how everything fits together; the complex mystery is distilled into a list of ingredients.
“The problem with this assumption, however, is that causes are a strange kind of knowledge… although people talk about causes as if they are real facts—tangible things that can be discovered—they’re actually not at all factual… We look at X and then at Y, and invent a story about what happened in between. We can measure facts, but a cause is not a fact—it’s a fiction that helps us make sense of facts.
“The truth is, our stories about causation are shadowed by all sorts of mental shortcuts. Most of the time, these shortcuts work well enough… However, when it comes to reasoning about complex systems—say, the human body—these shortcuts go from being slickly efficient to outright misleading.
Trials and Errors, Jonah Lehrer, WIRED, January 2012, pp. 105-106.
I see this all the time in the field of presentation skills training. People assume that by observing successful presentations and breaking them down into the smallest components they can come up with a list of ingredients, the recipe for a great speech. The result is something lifeless and mechanical or so bloody complicated it has no hope of practical application.
Communication is complex. No matter how much skill and experience we bring to the process, there will always be an element of mystery involved. We can only keep reinforcing the fundamentals and exploring what it means to be fully engaged and fully available, connected to our self, our message and our audience.