User:Geo Swan/opinions/Nothing is really "obvious" -- a parable

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Nothing is really "obvious" -- a parable[edit]

In my opinion, nothing is really "obvious".

I have little patience with people who can't or won't try to explain themselves, who offer, instead, the claim that their action or utterance doesn't require explanation because it is "obvious".

Here is my parable -- it is a true story.

When I was an University student, several decades ago, I observed two of my peers walking away from a discussion, where they assumed they were in agreement, but I knew their views were diametrically opposed.

My University published an official newspaper, with official bulletins from the University's administration, and articles of human interest about academics. One issue profiled a Professor who had just received a grant. The article described the Professor's interest in women's health, and women's attitudes about their bodies, and how our society influenced women's concerns about their health and their attitudes about their bodies. She had been granted funds to study women's health, women's ideas about health, women's attitudes about their bodies, and how those ideas and attitudes were influenced by representations of women in popular culture. Her granting body then expected her to make recommendations about how the Government should spend money on the issue of "women's health".

I found the article well-written. Maybe I haven't done it justice, but I thought the grant was a good idea.

When I finished reading the newspaper I put it down on the table next to me in the lounge. Shortly thereafter a friend of mine came in, said "hello", and started to read that article. She didn't think the grant was a good idea. And she started to tell me why, in detail.

I was starting to ask her to explain her reasoning more fully, when a female friend of hers came into the lounge. She called out to her, "Look at this article! Isn't this an outrageous use of money? Typical! Obvious, visible government waste -- spend money on a study, instead of spending it actually dealing with the problem!"

Her friend took a brief look at the article, and agreed it sounded like a study was a obviously a typical sit on the fence, time-wasting, money-wasting government tactic. She agreed that the money would have been far better spent dealing with "the problem".

In their discussion neither one of them clearly stated what they thought "the problem" was. They thought that was "obvious".

My first friend had to leave. Her friend sat down and finished reading the article. I then asked her a couple of questions about why she thought the grant was a waste of money.

And, as it turned out, while both of these young women agreed that the grant was an obvious waste, because it was already obvious how the government should spend money to deal with "the problem" -- they were diametrically opposed on their idea of what the "obvious" problem was.

One of these women thought it was obvious that women were influenced by a patriarchal society, with a patriarchal medical establishment, that was only beginning to recognize that heart disease, was one of the biggest killers or women, They thought it was obvious that the grant money could have been better spent on a program to encourage women to live healthier lives, better diet, more exercise, quit smoking glamourous cigarettes, quit using glamourous but toxic make-up, and quit wearing glamourous, heel-breaking shoes.

The other woman thought it was obvious that women were bombarded by images of impossibly thin women. That women's attitudes about themselves were in the toilet as they tried to live up to images of women whose images were airbrushed and photoshopped, and whose jobs required them to have personal physical fitness trainers, personal diet coaches, shoppers, makeup artists. Instead of spending money on a study she thought it was obvious that the grant money would have been much better spent on a program to encourage women to feel better about the state of their bodies right now, and to discourage them for aiming for impossible goals of health and beauty.

These two people thought they were in complete agreement, while they were actually not in agreement at all.

Since that experience I have tried to make sure I never think I am in agreement with someone on some important course of action, when we have assumed something was too "obvious" to discuss, only to have it later turn out we didn't agree on this "obvious" thing.

Challenging the "obvious" can trigger frustration, anger, and even open, furious rage[edit]

And while asking questions about things other people assert are "obvious", I encountered something unpleasant along the way. Rather, I encountered something even more unpleasant than realizing how often people who thought they were in agreement really weren't in agreement.

Asking people to verbalize something they think is "obvious" sometimes leads them to think you are unintelligent, or not paying attention. After clues that the other person suspects you are unintelligent, can come open scorn, and, if you push for a real explanation -- open anger.

In my experience, the claim that something is too trivial, or obvious to merit an explanation often signals that rather than being simple or trivial you have discovered something deep and fundamental that really deserves exploration.

In my experience, the scorn and anger you can trigger asking for an explanation of something someone claims is too trivial, or obvious to merit an explanation often signals that rather than being simple or trivial you have discovered something your interlocutor can't verbalize at all.

In University I had some friends who took Pure Math and Logic classes together. They would learn about formal proofs in class. And in their private lives they would mock one another with paraphrases of the names of the different kinds of formal proofs they studied. If they were having a discussion, and one of them made a claim someone else thought they couldn't back up, they would simply point, and laugh, and say "Proof by assertion! Proof by assertion!" Well, I think they would agree that when someone avoids offering an explanation because they think it is too obvious to merit one, they are really just offering a kind of "proof by assertion".

So, I am not going to worry if it gets me called unintelligent, I am going to keep asking people to explain things they assert are too obvious to require explanation.

Cheers! -- Geo Swan 18:33, 6 January 2007 (UTC)

P.S. I have told this parable before. One surprising reply I get is from people who are critics of "big government" in general. They claim both of the people in my example were wrong, and I was wrong, subscribe to the notion that big government should be addressing any social problems with tax money at all. Well, this is beside the point. This was just a good example of two people assuming they were in agreement, when they weren't. The example is, IMO, just as useful, if you think everyone involved was wrong.

When people say 'obvious', this is usually a sign that the conclusion follows from their values and loyalties. Since values and loyalties are mostly axiomatic, they can not be meaningfully argued (they can be influenced, as a flower attracts a bee, but not argued). To question an 'obvious' is to assult the speaker's loyalties or values. So 'obvious' is often a warning. To question it is to state that your interests differ. What happened to your two friends was this: they both assessed the professor as opposed to their loyalties. The context of the magazine, the font style, the professors picture, her class designation, or the text generated these feelings. No verbal reasoning was involved. Finding themselves to have a common enemy in the newcomer (the professor) they felt themselves to be united. They had indeed reached a very important understanding -- about loyal preference. Your friends were not concerned about the detail once loyalties were established, since at that point they were motivated to find agreement with each other and disagreement with the professor. This is how people work. Rational decisions are made in relation to others only there is no loyalty conflict or two conflicting loyalties have equal weight. When loyalty has been established the cause of rationality is lost. People want their diplomats to be canny liars, similarly when a politician is caught lying, his supporters don't care — "he lies for us". -- — Preceding unsigned comment added by James Hardine (talkcontribs) 23:00, 2007 December 18
I agree with much of what you have written above James. But I question the extent to which values and loyalties are fixed. They can change, for various reasons.
Many people walk around with sets of values and loyalties which contain inherent contradictions they are unaware of. People in this sitation are forced to examine their values when some external event forces them to recognize an inherent contradiction.
I think I have known instances of people who set out to examine and articulate their previously unconscious set of values, resulting in some values change. In some of those cases I think a deeper, bedrock value may have remained fixed. Still there were values changes.
And haven't there been some things that people hold are obvious have little or nothing to do with values or loyalty? How would you class strong beliefs that the earth was flat, or that a heavy object falls twice as fast as a lighter object?
Questioning the obvious, in Science, has lead to many advances.
Thanks for your reply. Cheers! Geo Swan (talk) 19:17, 17 January 2008 (UTC)

Isn't there some confusion here between what is "obvious" and people talking at cross purposes? i.e. In the situation you describe it appears that neither of your friends make any kind of measured assessment of whether their views are in fact obvious, and crucially do not share a common frame of reference to the question. This is surely in contrast, for example, to an assertion of obviousness made in a wikipedia article where the frame of reference is spelled out, and therefore the same for two people reading the article? Mu2 (talk) 01:16, 1 August 2009 (UTC)

Wikipedia contributors share a common frame of reference? That is news to me. Consider, for example, claims of "obvious 'non-notability'..." It has seemed to me that, frequently, when wikipedia contributors claims an assertion in a WP:RS is "obviously not notable", the real meaning is, "I don't, personally, consider Noam Chomsky (or alternatively Glen Beck) credible. Because it is "obvious" to me he is not credible, I think it is "obvious" nothing he says is notable." So, no, I certainly do not believe wikipedia contributors share a common frame of reference -- even those who try to live up to both spirit and the letter of our policies. Geo Swan (talk) 17:07, 26 October 2009 (UTC)

Every time someone tells me something is obvious, I point out that it is obvious that the Sun orbits the Earth. -- — Preceding unsigned comment added by 70.81.187.242 (talkcontribs) 11:11, 2011 February 10

Lol, an excellent example, thanks. Geo Swan (talk) 23:27, 21 February 2011 (UTC)
Lol, Who spilled the beans?, obviously a faulty trailer gate... Lotje ツ (talk) 10:24, 27 September 2011 (UTC)