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Seven Types of Ambiguity

Seven Types of Ambiguity - Elliot Perlman NOTE: If you want to get to the actual book review, you'll have to skip down a few paragraphs to where I've inserted the header THE ACTUAL REVIEW.Without knowing it, NGE gave me a book that touches on one of my pet obsessions, which I don't have an easy label to affix to, but is something along the lines of "Multiple Perspectives Phenomena." Let me try to explain what I mean:So if you cover one eye and look at the world, you will lose all depth perception. Only when you look with two eyes will you get a fuller sense of the three dimensionality of objects, and how they interrelate. That's called stereoscopic vision, and it's the norm through most of the animal kingdom. (Bats' use of sonar, and the eyeless cavefish are two exceptions which come to mind. I'm sure there are others.) The stereoscopic effect is a result of the brain interpreting signals from two eyes, which each have a slightly different perspective. Through an algorithm that little is known about, the brain can take these differing "opinions" and make something which is greater than the sum of the signals: a sense of depth. Perhaps a third eye would give an even more enhanced sense of depth, but obviously there is a point of diminishing returns, and evolution places a high value on economy with limited resources.There's a similar (but not exactly the same) effect when you get groups of observers together to look at something, and I have some experience with this in my professional life, where difficult cases are shared among several different pathologists. Each person brings a similar but unique background of training to a case, so in the stereoscopic vision analogy, each person is acting like an individual eye, and if we communicate our thoughts together in a small working group around a multiheaded microscope, ideally the group as a whole will act as a "brain" to put all the slightly different signals together to synthesize conclusions greater than what any individual would come up with. Here's a multi-headed microscopeAnd here's a stock image from GIS of a multiheaded microscope conference These group conferences are particularly useful when you have a practice full of subspecialists who tend to view every specimen through the prism of their subspecialty. We have an adage "When you're a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." A dermatopathologist may see a biopsy full of lymphocytes and start thinking about inflammatory skin disorders (which are a big part of what dermatopathologists look at). It may take a conference with a Hematopathologist to point out the specimen has features of a cutaneous lymphoma. Ideally, that sort of interaction is the benefit of these conferences.Ideally.Sometimes the conference process falls short of the ideal, for different reasons. If there are too many voices around the table giving too divergent opinions, the "brain" may be unable to synthesize a coherent message out of the individual signals... the group may be unable to arrive at a consensus. The opposite problem is something called "Groupthink" -which is basically where individual viewers around the table succumb to social pressures, real or perceived, conscious or unconscious, which cause them to mold their individual opinions to what they believe the group consensus will be. Another source of error in these conferences is the "Big Fish" effect (at least that's what we call it). If somebody around the table has more impressive credentials than the others, and/or if that person has a particularly charismatic or forceful personality, others may be loathe to express opinions contrary to the "Big Fish", even if that person is not intentionally trying to be the "Big Fish". C. Northcote Parkinson studied group behavior in the 1930's-1950's, and concluded that the optimal size of a group for most policymaking decisions in a mid- to large size business setting was seven members. Any less, and you don't have a wide enough spectrum of experiences (and you still might not, if the members aren't chosen well). Any more, and it becomes too likely that you'll start to veer off into either Groupthink or Big Fish territory.One way of avoiding Big Fish or Groupthink is to circulate a case among consultants who have a chance to look at the case on their own, before coming to the group discussion.Obviously, these effects occur in all sorts of different situations, not just medical diagnosis. Politics obviously, and very definitely on the board of a condo association I used to belong to, and even all of us talking about books here on GoodReads. That's the downside, but setting those considerations aside, when a group of observers works together, the results can sometimes be impressive. I was talking with [name withheld] here a few months back about organized religions, and the matter of "the Truth" about something as subjective, culturally-rooted, and improvable as religion is always a hazy subject, but we both thought it was interesting that some religions (e.g. Shintoism, animism) don't rely on a lot of services, study groups, and other shared group experiences. Others, especially (it seems to me) certain Protestant factions, seem extremely focused on group activities (Bible study groups, worship services, etc). On one hand, one could posit that this is a strategy of imposing doctrinal control over followers, and there may be an intentional Big Fish effect in these, which prevents dissenters from seriously questioning the fundamental assumptions of the faith. There may even be an element of brainwashing involved, and an intention to keep followers occupied with exclusively church-approved activities. But then, if you step back and give the true believers the benefit of the doubt, I have to also allow for the possibility that these group activities might also be (at least to the participants, if not the organizers) a good-faith effort to discover higher truths through a sort of group "stereoscopic vision", which transcends whatever truths a lone independent observer could achieve. After all, we each bring our own biases and limitations to the table, as well as the benefits of our unique set of knowledge, skills, memory and experience. Are there some higher truths which it takes the stereoscopic vision of a group to learn? That wouldn't be surprising, because so much of religion has to do with how individuals conduct themselves in relation to others. (i.e. much of religion would be irrelevant to somebody stranded alone on a desert island; "Thou Shalt Not lie/cheat/steal/kill/dishonor parents/commit adultery, etc.")One of my all-time favorite movies is Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, starring an exquisite 26 year old Machiko Kyo (who went on to become something of a Grande Dame of Japanese film, earning a Golden Globe in her eighties). In it, the story of a highway robbery in feudal Japan is retold by four different observers. Each accounting of the events varies significantly about what transpired, but they all end with one man killed, one man taken into custody, and a missing woman. At the movie's end, the viewer has four different, mutually exclusive versions of "the Truth" to choose from, and no reason to believe any one of these over the others, and actually no reason to believe any of them to be true. On one hand, a person can watch this two hour movie and feel like it was a waste of time, because the truth of the situation is no clearer than it was ten minutes into the film. On the other hand, the reader has a much greater sense of how something as supposedly straightforward and objective as the circumstances of a highway robbery can hide a lot of complexity and ambiguity, just depending on what perspective it is viewed from. (e.g.- Robin Hood was a criminal to some, and a hero to others) The lovely Machiko Kyo, in Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950) Seven Types of Ambiguity plays around with these same ideas. It explores the abduction of a child through the eyes of seven people connected (some of them very indirectly) to the incident. Unlike Rashomon, there is more of a sense at the end of what really happened, in fact it is a highly nuanced view which no single one of the narrators alone could furnish. The world around them is too big for any one eye to take it all in, and the internal worlds that motivate the assorted players are too hidden from each other for any one of them to completely grasp. The Truth of the overall situation, complete with an explanation of how and why it happened is just too big to be seen from a single perspective. Disheartening isn't it? Because if something as relatively simple as the abduction of a single child is so overwhelmingly complex, then what hope is there for any of us to understand astronomically complicated situations like the political situation in the Middle East, or the Greek sovereign debt crisis? Even people who make a career of studying these things don't always agree, so what hope do the rest of us have at ever understanding even one of these massive issues, let alone the multiplicity of issues we should rightfully (as voters and consumers) be engaged in? And that doesn't even take into account the fact that various parties will always have an interest in clouding aspects of the situation and creating uncertainty, when it serves their purposes. The world is just an incredibly busy place, with too much going on for any one person to keep track of. It is simply far beyond our ability to really understand most of what is going on around us. It makes sense this would be so; we evolved for millions of years living in very small social groups, with only a limited oral history available to explain why things are the way they are. Nothing in our evolution should have prepared us to adequately assess and understand generations-long complex histories occurring half-way around the world, and involving thousands, maybe millions of players, including financial institutions and nation states. I speak a little bit about this in my drunk review of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire -this idea that it would be impossible for a human being to look upon the face of God. (Exodus 33:20) To me, this means that it would exceed human capacity to fully contemplate the intricacies of our working universe. Seven Types of Ambiguity illustrates this nicely, just showing how complex one tiny- seemingly manageable- little bite of that universe can be.THE ACTUAL REVIEWSo about the book itself- it is just so well-written. It reads very smoothly, very unselfconsciously. I hate to dwell on the writing instead of the plot here, but indulge me for a second. Have you ever rented or borrowed a car much nicer than the one you normally drive? When you get in, and slam the door shut, it feels so much more solid. You can feel the engine is much more powerful. The seats are more comfortable, the interior so much more luxuriously appointed. Every little detail seems to speak to you "This is how nice things could be?" That's how this book felt to me. Even if I can't articulate all the ways this book declared its fine writing, I can tell you it was there. Reading this book was driving a Jaguar, when I've been reading so many Yugos or at least Ford Fiestas lately.The characters, and particularly Simon and Angelique were so very three dimensional- which I suppose they would have to be, being described as they are from so many different angles. (That fits in very nicely with my stereoscopic vision analogy, doesn't it?) Moreover, Elliot Perlman superbly tells the story in layers, revealing bit by bit as he goes, always advancing the plot in small increments, all the while slightly shifting the context of the overall story with each new narrator who enters the fray. Believe me: once you become engaged with these characters, you will care how the legal proceedings progress, and how these characters try to move forward with their lives after the abduction. I don't exaggerate when I say Seven Types of Ambiguity is easily the most enjoyable fiction I've read since Infinite Jest in 2010- not that those two books are remotely similar in style or content, but in quality and in the subjective satisfaction I experienced reading them. So thank you, NGE, for introducing me to a book that pushed all my buttons, tickled my pet fascinations, and did so in such a skillful and enjoyable way. Is there anything more I can say to convince you readers out there to give this book a try?