My mother was a great lady but not a great cook. TV dinners were a popular option at our house when I was a kid. If we weren’t eating TV dinners we might have to eat … frozen fish sticks. I can still smell the oily odor of limp fish sticks frying up in the little Sunbeam electric skillet. It permeated everything. I grew up in a clean-your-plate family so, ultimately, I had to choke down those mysterious fish parts. Then, without fail, I raced to the bathroom and threw up.
How does one think critically about such a situation? In our family, we quickly ruled out several non-causes. Everyone else in the family ate fish sticks and didn’t get sick. Therefore, it couldn’t be the fish sticks. Every serving of fish sticks made me sick, so we couldn’t blame it on just one box that had gone bad. Clearly, I must be allergic to fish.
So, from the age of about six to 23, I ate no fish at all. No trout or tuna or herring or salmon or swordfish. After college, I moved to Ecuador and, from time to time, took vacations to the beach. On one such vacation, I found that there was nothing to eat locally but fish. Finally, I sat in a restaurant, braced myself for the worst, and took a bite of fish. I thought, “Wow, this is really good!” I wasn’t allergic to fish at all … just greasy, stinky frozen fish sticks.
I had been framing myself. I made an assumption about myself based on faulty evidence and stuck with it for almost 17 years. I never thought to re-check the original assumption or re-validate the evidence. I never tried to think outside the frame. Over the past several weeks, I’ve written about the issues of what might be called “external framing” in this blog. Here are some examples:
In these cases, one person is framing another. The same thing can happen to abstract issues. I’ve noticed that Republicans and Democrats frame the same issue in very different ways.
What we forget sometimes is that we can also frame ourselves. I used to teach a course in research methods that included a mild dose of inferential statistics. Many of my students were women in their 30s and 40s who were returning to school to re-start their careers. Many of them were very nervous about the statistics. They believed they weren’t good at math. As it turned out, they did just fine. They weren’t bad at math; they had just framed themselves into believing they were bad at math.
If you believe something about yourself, you might just want to poke at it a bit. Sometimes you may just be wrong. On other occasions, you may be right — I’m still terrible at anything having to do with music. Still, it’s worth asking the question. Otherwise, you may miss out on some very tasty fish.
An ambulance, racing to the hospital, siren blaring, approaches an intersection. At the same time, from a different direction, a fire truck, racing to a fire, approaches the same intersection. From a third direction, a police car screeches toward the same intersection, responding to a burglary-in-progress call. From a fourth direction, a U.S. Mail truck trundles along to the same intersection. All four vehicles arrive at the same time at the same intersection controlled by a four-way stop sign. Who has the right of way?
The way I just told this story sets a frame around it that may (or may not) guide your thinking. You can look at the story from inside the frame or outside it. If you look inside the frame, you’ll pursue the internal logic of the story. The three emergency vehicles are all racing to save people — from injury, from fire, or from burglary. Which one of those is the worst case? Which one deserves to go first? It’s a tough call.
On the other hand, you could look at the story outside the frame. Instead of pursuing the internal logic, you look at the structure of the story. Rather than getting drawn into the story, you look at it from a distance. One of the first things you’ll notice is that three of the vehicles belong to the same category — emergency vehicles in full crisis mode. The fourth vehicle is different — it’s a mail truck. Could that be a clue? Indeed it is. The “correct” answer to this somewhat apocryphal story is that the mail truck has the right of way. Why? It’s a federal government vehicle and takes precedence over the other, local government vehicles.
In How Doctors Think, Jerome Groopman describes how doctors think inside the frame. A young woman is diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia. Many years later, she’s doing poorly and losing weight steadily. Her medical file is six inches thick. Each time she visits a new doctor, the medical file precedes her. The new doctor reads it, discovers that she’s bulimic and anorexic and treats her accordingly. Finally, a new doctor sets aside her record, pulls out a blank sheet of paper, looks at the woman and says, “Tell me your story.” In telling her own story, the woman gives important clues that leads to a new diagnosis — she’s gluten-intolerant. The new doctor stepped outside the frame of the medical record and gained valuable insights.
According to Franco Moretti, similar frames exist in literature — they’re called books. Traditional literary analysis demands that you read books and study them very closely. Moretti, an Italian literary scholar, calls this close reading — it’s studying literature inside the frame set by the book. Moretti advocates a different approach that he calls distant reading….”understanding literature not by studying particular texts, but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data.” Only by stepping back and reading ourside the frame, can we understand “…the true scope and nature of literature.”
In each of these examples we have a frame. In the first story, I set the frame for you. It’s a riddle and I was trying to trick you. In the second story, the patient’s medical record creates the frame. In the third, the book sets the frame. In each case, we can enter the frame and study the problem closely or we can step back and observe the structure of the problem. It’s often a good idea to step inside the frame — after all, you usually do want your doctor to read your medical file. But it’s also useful to step outside the frame, where you can find clues that you would never find by studying the internal logic of the problem. In fact, I think this approach can help us understand “big” predictions like the cost of healthcare. More on that next Monday.