Apparently my iPod is a sentient being. It senses its surroundings, understands context, and makes intelligent decisions.
Here’s the latest example. Yesterday, we received this week’s edition of The New Yorker. The cover features a couple kissing on the 59th Street Bridge. This morning, at the gym, my iPod randomly selected (from more than 4,000 choices) the 59th Street Bridge Song, the goopy old standard by Simon & Garfunkel. Even more eerily, the lyrics told me to “Slow down, you’re moving too fast…” which was exactly what I needed to do on the exercise machine I was using.
Clearly, my iPod knew about the magazine (the print edition!) and also knew that I was over-exerting myself. It selected the perfectly appropriate song from thousands of possibilities. Thank you, Steve Jobs.
But wait … really? Clearly the magazine’s cover art primed me to think about the 59th Street Bridge. When I heard the song, I made the connection. That’s the effect of priming. As for the advice on slowing down … well, I wouldn’t have noticed it if I weren’t overdoing it. In other words, I was being primed (or conditioned) in two different ways. I noticed things that I wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. I assumed there was a connection, but it was really just a coincidence.
Coincidences can screw up our thinking in myriad ways. Let’s look at four ways to consider coincidences and causes:
A) It’s a coincidence and we recognize it as such – most people would conclude that my iPod is not conscious … Apple’s not that good. We correctly conclude that it’s not a cause-and-effect situation.
B) It’s a coincidence but we thinks it’s a cause – this is where we can get into big trouble and deep debates. This is a problem in any discipline — like economics, sociology or climate science — where it’s difficult to run experiments. It’s hard to pin down if X causes Y or if Y causes X or … well, maybe it’s just a coincidence. (Maybe it was the rats).
C) It’s a cause and we recognize it as such – we know that certain germs cause certain diseases. So we take appropriate precautions.
D) It’s a cause but we think it’s a coincidence – before the 19th century, we didn’t recognize that germs caused diseases. We thought it was just a coincidence that people died in filthy places.
I suspect that many conspiracy theories stem from Category B. We note a coincidence and assume mistakenly that it’s a cause. The dust bowl in the United States coincided with over farming and also with the rise of communism in Europe. A small but noisy group of people concluded that the dust bowl was not caused by farming techniques and drought but was actually a communist conspiracy.
We can also suffer from Category D problems. I read recently of a man who had a chronic infection in his right ear. Doctors couldn’t figure it out. Finally, the man took some earwax from his left (healthy) ear and stuck it in his right ear. The infection went away. It seemed coincidental that his left ear was healthy while his right ear was not but it actually pointed to a cause. His left ear had healthy bacteria (a healthy microbiome) while his right ear did not. The man suspected that the difference between his left and right ears was not coincidental. He was right and solved a Category D problem.
In a weird way, this all ties back to innovation. If we want to stimulate innovation, we can usefully ask questions like this: “I note that A and B vary coincidentally. Is that really a coincidence or does it point to some deeper cause that we can capitalize on?” While Category B can generate endless debates, Category D could generate novel solutions.
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