Saturday, November 3, 2007

Truth, and Nothing But Truth

Susan, our young friend in Paris, forwarded us this fascinating and much discussed spinning dancer test on the net that purportedly identifies you as more right-brained or left-brained, depending on if you see the dancer spin clockwise or counter-clockwise (I suppose those who see her spin opposite directions at different times just can’t make up their minds!).

As a thorough and careful reader, I tried but failed to identify the origin of this ingenious test. However I did notice that the posting seemed to appear first on of Australia in Sept 26. For those who have been to or reside in southern hemisphere, you surely have noticed that the toilet bowl when flushed, its water goes down in counterclockwise direction, opposite from that of American (or northern hemisphere) experience. I suppose you would not be surprised then that such an idea came from Down Under.

On a more serious note, how could we possibly report different observations and conclusions when watching the same video? Worse, my confidence in myself started to erode as I have always thought that visual experience is most reliable compared to reading and listening. Don’t we all remember the old saying “To see is to believe”, never mind that “faith is to believe the unseen”? Not that long ago, I had learned from Frank Luntz’s book “Words that work – it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear,” that I and others most definitely have been influenced or manipulated by clever use of words by some. Just how fluid and sticky really is our mind?

Of course, such a realization is not new for learned people. One of the all time classic movies Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa, based on the short stories of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, discussed the ultimate reality of contradicting accounts of the same event by witnesses. The term Rashomon Effect was later named and used in psychology and other fields to describe the subjectivity of perception on recollection by observers. For those who are more science inclined, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle may be considered a rigorous statement and proof of such phenomenon in the framework of quantum physics whereby quantitative characterizations of key attributes in a system can not be achieved with certainty simultaneously.

Considering the non-stop processing of volumes of data and signals received by the brain that shapes, challenges, and reinforces our perceptions, the thought that truth is not absolute could be frightening and liberating at the same time. With social-political satires, comedian Steven Colbert single-handedly captured the attention and imagination of the news media and nation when he created and popularized the word “thruthiness” in his premiere episode of The Colbert Report in Oct 2005. As he later elaborated further: “Truthiness is 'What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.' It's not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true.” Clearly this is a reminder to us all that potentially disastrous outcomes could result when we are overwhelmed by the right-half of the brain with intuitions and gut feelings. (You may also want to watch Steven Colbert’s humorous 24 minute speech delivered at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner although many of the audience including President Bush weren’t laughing). Is perception everything? How could we possibly comprehend our own unbounded creativity and wild imaginations? How could we use our limited vocabulary and compositions to relate our infinitely complex and sophisticated experiences?

I am relieved that not everyone saw the spinning dancer rotate in the same direction – diversity is our last line of defense. The revered PBS stated in its Editorial Standards: “PBS recognizes that the producer of informational content deals neither in absolute truth nor in absolute objectivity. Information is by nature fragmentary; the honesty of a program, Web site, or other content can never be measured by a precise, scientifically verifiable formula. Therefore, content quality must depend, at bottom, on the producer's professionalism, independence, honesty, integrity, sound judgment, common sense, open mindedness, and intention to inform, not to propagandize.” That said, don’t you agree that we, the recipients of informational contents, must own even greater responsibility for our independence, sound judgment and open mindedness?

Talk to you soon!

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