September 7, 2018

Dear Drama Observers,

There’s a point I want to make in this letter but first let me tell you two stories that illustrate the point I want to make.

Story #1

In the summer of 1997, I went downtown early one morning and a man with a mask knocked me out, slit my throat, and took my money. I’m not making that up—that really happened to me.

You may be thinking, “Most people wouldn’t have survived such a grisly mugging. I wonder what happened.” Well, as the late Paul Harvey so famously explained, here’s the rest of the story.

In the summer 1997, I was experiencing persistent tingling and numbness in both hands and arms. An MRI revealed that a cervical disk had slipped out of place and was pressing against my spinal column—hence, the symptoms. I underwent a surgical procedure in which they entered through the front of my neck and removed the top of one vertebra, the bottom of another, and the disk in between. They then took a section of bone from my hip, grafted it into the slot, and bolted it all together with a titanium plate. The procedure was successful and, gratefully, I’ve been fine ever since. But I was left with a hefty bill.

So, let me say it again: In the summer of 1997, I went downtown early one morning and a man with a mask knocked me out, slit my throat, and took my money.

Without context, this sounds like a mugging. In context, it describes a marvel.

Story #2

I had a client a few years back whose medical struggles were of mysterious origin, not clear-cut like mine. In fact, he’d gotten five different diagnoses from five different doctors and was understandably flummoxed. So, he went to Mayo Clinic seeking for answers.

He told me (you’ve probably heard this before), “Much of our medical information exists in silos. Attempts to solve medical mysteries are often made by considering the information only inside this silo or that. Consequently, you may get different answers depending on the silo you’re in. At Mayo, they try to tear down the silos and derive diagnoses from all the information available whatever its source.”

That may be too simplistic an explanation, but you get the point. Institutions like Mayo Clinic attempt to sidestep a common human fallacy: If your only tool is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.

What the Stories Illustrate

The first story illustrates the importance of drawing conclusions from in-context information. The first way I told my neck-cutting story above was factually accurate—every detail was true. But without context, it sounded like a mugging instead of a marvel.

The second story illustrates that incomplete information sometimes leads to inaccurate conclusions. If the only facts considered are those within the silo walls, the conclusions drawn will potentially be wrong. In other words, if your only tool is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.

Here’s My Point

There is much talk these days of a polarized society in which people who normally get along are pitted against each other—sometimes bitterly so. A client told me recently, “I’ve been blessed with a great family and, for years, everyone comes over once a week to eat a meal—our kids, their spouses, and grandkids. We’ve always gotten along so well… until last week.” “What happened,” I asked. “We had a big ugly fight about—of all things—politics.”

What accounts for the stratospheric levels of contention dividing families, friendships, places of employment, and even places of worship? Why did my client’s normally pleasant family gathering devolve into the Jerry Springer Show? I suspect there are several factors but the one I’d like to highlight today has to do with… silos. The more currently familiar term would be… tribes. There is much talk about the pernicious influence of tribalism, but we could just as well use the word “silo-ism” if such a term existed. Here’s what happens inside a tribe or silo, whichever term you prefer.

First, the only information considered is that inside your chosen silo—a very non-Mayo Clinic approach to truth discovery. Indeed, allegiance to tribe often supersedes allegiance to truth. News sources are aggregated in such a way that the only facts considered are those that fit the tribal narrative. So, tribal members who’ve accepted the narrative are absolutely convinced they’re right and prove their rightness by simply pointing to the facts. Case closed. And sometimes, they are right. But they may very well be wrong because competing explanations are never considered.

So, that’s what happens at family gatherings. Uncle Irving explains an event from the perspective of Tribe A and cousin Gertrude explains the same event from the perspective of Tribe B. And they both use facts to support their perspectives. And great is the food fight thereof.

Second, context tends to be under-considered in tribal skirmishes if considering such context counters the tribal narrative.

For example, let’s say someone is committed to the narrative that downtown Nashville (where I live) is an extraordinarily dangerous place to be after dark (it isn’t). But this is the unquestionable story they’ve etched into their brains. Then, they hear my tale—that I went downtown early one morning and a man with a mask knocked me out, slit my throat and took my money. The out of context story supports their predetermined narrative and becomes further evidence of the narrative’s validity. And their erroneous conclusion is supported by facts. Food fight!

“Half-truths,” someone once said, “are often the most effective whole lies.” The whole truth is rarely discovered inside the walls of a silo.

Till next week.

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