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The more certain of itself humankind becomes, the less it knows

Sat., April 10, 2010

Back in the ’80s, I was a big fan of the comic strip “Eyebeam,” by cartoonist Sam Hurt.

It was a kind of cross between “Bloom County,” “Doonesbury” and “The Far Side,” with a similar skewed, shrewd view of reality that absolutely nailed its times.

“Male Answer Syndrome” was one of Hurt’s funniest bits, a disease that the main female character, Sally, was quick to diagnose whenever one of the guys was full of it.

She tells her afflicted lawyer boyfriend Eyebeam, “It’s the compulsion to provide an answer to any question, even if it means resorting to pure speculation.”

To which he naturally responds, “I knew that.”

This, of course, is entirely typical of the male of the species, as we just hate to say the three hardest words in Manworld: “I don’t know.”

I used to have a really bad case of it, and probably still do, but it’s gotten easier over the years – in fact, downright refreshing – to say, “Not a clue,” “Nope, no notion why” and “You got me there.”

Even “I have no idea whatsoever,” which is the ultimate unstudly answer.

I mention this in light of a few books that I’ve recently read, an unintentional trilogy on the ways in which we human critters fool ourselves into believing that we have a firm grasp of reality and some sane plan for the future.

The actual facts? We fool ourselves.

We’re gullible, misinformed, mostly blind simpletons who are bumbling our way toward a tenuous future while trusting, all the while, that we pretty much have it together.

Joseph Hallinan’s “Why We Make Mistakes” is pedestrian writing, but still comprises a worthwhile catalog of our collective blind spots.

Question: Why don’t men ask for directions? Answer: We don’t believe that we’re lost.

Question: Why do we all – men and women alike – think that we’re above average? Answer: We’re mostly poorly “calibrated,” which is to say, our actual and perceived abilities don’t generally match up very well.

In fact, it turns out that the least overconfident are “the people who are depressed, and they tend to be realists.” Good. I’ve been depressed for years, so it’s nice to know that there’s some benefit.

Leonard Mlodinow’s “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives” is a great read, examining how chance affects our every doing. He provides a fascinating history of probability theory, with an eye toward clarifying just how uncertain each of our lives is.

Given the vagaries of “luck,” he reminds us, “That’s why successful people in every field are almost universally members of a certain set – the set of people who don’t give up.”

After finishing Mlodinow, I moved to another book on my stack, with little expectation that it would be as good.

But Laurence Gonzales’ “Everyday Survival” is only one of the best things I’ve ever read, examining how our “mental models” and “behavioral scripts” work to guide us, mostly unaware that we even have them, through life.

They often work so well that he calls their failures “intelligent mistakes.”

He describes, for instance, a policeman who practiced with his partner, training himself to snatch a pistol from an attacker’s hand. Good skill, no?

Except that he always handed the gun back to his partner afterward to try it again, developing a less useful script. When faced with the actual situation, he flawlessly nabbed the weapon, only to hand it right back to his assailant.

Speculating on the outcome, his partner’s compulsion was to shoot the bad guy, which he did.

What would I do? That is, what are my scripts, my answers?

I have no idea whatsoever.

Donald Clegg, a longtime Spokane resident, is an author and professional watercolor artist. Contact him via e-mail at


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