Thursday, June 07, 2012

Seal of approval

What you see above is one of James Thurber's most famous drawings. (He called them drawings, not cartoons.) Why so famous? It's not exactly a knee-slapper. It appeals rather, I suppose, to something in us that is sardonic, oblique.

It clearly fits in with Thurber's body of work on the taut relations between men and women. This poor fellow who hears (or thinks he hears) a seal bark is your typical Thurberesque milquetoast, Mr. Mitty harassed by Mrs. Mitty. The drawing is a comment on the mysteries of matrimony by someone who never quite figured out what women want.

But the cartoon raises some philosophical questions (if you will allow me to be sardonic and oblique):

1. Did he hear a seal bark?

2. Did he imagine it?

3. If he did hear a seal bark, why didn't she?

4. Is there a seal?

But of course there's a seal, I hear you say; it's right there over the bed. Well, maybe yes, maybe no. The fact that the seal looks a little bit like the fellow who heard it bark strikes me as suspicious. What we imagine to be true usually looks a bit like what we are already familiar with.

I believe I mentioned here once before a paper by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the September 27, 1974, issue of Science on the cognitive pitfalls of human thinking. The authors studied three kinds of bias:

1. "Anchoring," where a person overvalues the first data he or she encounters;

2. "Availability," where recent or dramatic cases come to mind and so skew one's thinking;

3. "Attribution," where stereotypes prejudice thinking so conclusions arise not from data but from preconceptions.

The current political debates in the U.S., for example, are not debates at all. Data never enters into it. We talk past each other. Neither side can grasp what could possibly motivate the other side to believe what they do. If women come from Venus and men come from Mars (as Thurber might concur), then Democrats come from Mercury and Republicans come from Pluto.

I espouse opinions here. The internet is chock-a-block with opinions. Everyone, it seems, has heard a seal bark.