Despite the fact that we observe the world around us everyday, for many common phenomena we have a very poorly developed sense of the important variables of size, shape, position, and motion. As I sit here by the side of the lake and look around numerous examples come to mind. One example arises from a (somewhat) rare phenomenon I’m seeing right now. I’m looking north at a lake. To my right, east, is a cloud looming over the rising sun. The cloud is bight white and the contrast between the top of the cloud and the blue sky above it is sharp, and I can see structure to the cloud … puffiness, wisps of cloudosity, all that. Beneath the cloud is more blue sky, including some distant clouds, then the treeline, and then the lake shore. Although I can not, technically, tell how far away this big cloud is, or how big this distant cloud may be, as my primate three dimensional vision does not work beyond several feet and there is no object for perspective, I sense it is big, far away up in the sky and not anywhere near me.
Then, I can follow the cloud, which is elongated, to the left, to where it curves in front of me, as I look across the lake, to the north. Here, the cloud comes to the ground. It covers the opposite shore and is, actually, fog. It almost looks like the opposite shore is smoldering and smoke-covered, and the smoke forms a mostly horizontal plume which is the very cloud I mentioned in the aforementioned paragraph. But no, it’s just a cloud. Well, a fog bank. Well, a fog bank that has lifted to become a cloud. It turns out a fog bank formed at the junction of forest and lake and two thirds of it has lifted enough to make it a cloud, while one third of it languishes.
Retracing the cloud from the shore across the lake to the thing up in the sky to my right, and assuming the proportions don’t change much (perhaps a doubling of cross sectional area as the cloud rises and grows a bit) I realize that the distant, high in the sky cloud to my right is about two hundred feet aloft and a few hundred feet across. It is not massive, it is not distant.
(And by the time I get the computer fired up and write all this, the cloud has moved east and dropped in altitude and is now fog again, in the nearby forest.)
Looking across the lake again I think of a woman I know who lives part time on the lake in the next cabin down from the one I’m sitting in now. On several occasions I’ve seen her look across the lake and say, quaintly, “Our weather comes from across the lake. I can always tell what is going to happen next by looking across the lake.” Indeed, I’ve seen that. If I look across the lake, sometimes, it is raining over there, then it’s raining over here. The thing is, though, if we define “weather” as rain wind and snow, and stuff like that, this will always be true. If I wake up and look outside and it is raining, then the weather is here and I need not refer to the other side of the lake, and if I believe the weather comes across the lake, I can assume I just missed its arrival. If I look outside and it is not raining, but it is raining across the lake, then the rain arrives here, I saw it coming! If it does not come then on that particular occasions, I can consider myself lucky. More likely, though, I forget that the rain was ever going to arrive so I don’t count that event as disproving my belief. If the weather comes from the south or southwest, and covers us in precipitation then I don’t see it coming from across the lake (because it didn’t) so I can’t verify whether it did nor not. In the end, it only takes one or two instances every year or two of seeing the rain across the lake, to the north, then having it hit me a few minutes later to verify a pre-existing belief.
In this case, though, there is an added phenomenon that supports my friend’s confirmation bias: Waves. As I look across the lake I’m actually looking across a well protected bay, then out there beyond the bay is the big lake, then the opposite shore. When the “weather” starts to churn up, we see white caps on the main lake first. Then they go away, or it becomes night, or we drive to Minneapolis, or we stop paying attention. But now and then…fairly often, really…the weather churns up and we see white caps on the main body of the lake while the bay remains calm. Then the wind-powered energy at the lake’s surface spreads, or the wind picks up, and the bay gets white caps as well. The waviness, which counts for weather, starts across the lake then arrives here. Sometimes; Thus, always.
And while we’re looking across the lake, I note that the part of the lake north of the cabin, out on the main body of the lake beyond the bay, is the deepest part. Yesterday we drove around on the boat for a while and once we got a few dozen meters off shore we could no longer see the bottom. A couple of weeks ago visibility was 20 feet, but with the floods adding sediment, and the algae blooming early, the visibility is 10 feet. Therefore, unless you really know what you are looking for and the lighting conditions are just right, the entire lake off shore looks the same depth. Deep. Abysmal. Bottomless.
But, really, there is no depth anywhere in this very typical Minnesota lake that is greater than the width of the average city lot in Minneapolis or Saint Paul. If the depth of this lake, at its greatest, was laid out on the ground…say, you drop an anchor into the abyss and it hits bottom, and you tie a knot where the rope contacts the surface, pull it up, drag it to shore, and stretch it out…it would not reach from where I am sitting to the car parked just outside. It would be a distance past which I could easily toss a stone. It would take me a few seconds to walk that far. If a piece of paper blew out of my hand and I had to run after it to catch it (damn weather!) It might flow across the ground in the breeze father than the depth of the deepest part of the lake I’m looking at.
And that’s just clouds and lakes. When it comes to a sense of proportion, size, position, and grand movement, the celestial bodies are outrageously beyond perception. We make models and we use analogies, and most important, we get facts about where and what things are and try to use them. When the famous Genesis photograph of Apollo 8 became a pre-Internet meme, some people appreciated it but were not transformed by it because they already understood, as astronomers or avocational scientists or educators or students, that the earth is a big round ball yet small in an even bigger universe and if you got far enough back … no farther … no, even father … and took a snapshot, that is what it would look like. But other people were held in awe because suddenly they could understand what before was too abstract, or what they were busy ignoring.
Even harder to understand may be the sense of proportion and perspective and size and amount of many of our social and political problems. Whether men-in-charge care or not that women are harassed at skeptics conferences is small compared to the fact that a woman who grows up in the Eastern Congo may never experience sex that is not rape, and will be lucky to live long enough to produce a rapists’ baby or two before she is gang raped, tortured, used up and brutally killed by a squadron of inebriated marauding soldiers. And the window I’m sitting next to mediates between a tiny mass of air…the one in this cabin… and the outside that is mild and calm compared to a swarm of tornadoes plowing through schools and neighborhoods, or a hurricane devastating 500 miles of coastline and flooding an entire city. Yet, I’m justified in opening and closing the window depending on the weather, and there is continuity between my own sense of comfort for myself and my family, and my responsibility to protect the interior of the cabin from the ravages of wind blown rain or swarms of mosquitoes, and my sense of humanity in relation to the victims of Katrina or some tornado swarm, and the plight of the women in the Eastern Congo and less violent but still crucially inhumane genital mutilation of young women in traditional societies and well groomed self important male speakers at skeptic conferences or, for that matter, anyone, closing in with the smell of privilege and bad aftershave to spend their unwanted attention on women who are trying to be polite but are really not interested.
No, coffee is not rape. Coffee is coffee and rape is rape. The ability to shift perspectives and understand size, position, movement, and importance while doing so…and to do so honestly…is the hallmark of a thoughtful and intelligent person. Willfully misunderstanding or misrepresenting perspective and proportion is a common perversion and I don’t really understand why it is so delightful to some people.
And now… I turn my attention back to the lake.
Part II of this blog post is HERE.