The Observer Paradox

Various paradoxical truths emerge from the nature of observation: there are common threads through these which I characterize as the observer paradox – which is scarcely paradoxical at all, because it just says that the process of observation filters out some things preferentially over others.

The classic example is the Universal Law of Natural Cussedness, commonly known as Finagle's law, Murphy's law or by an expletive folk are wont to utter upon being reminded of it. It appears to be true because we notice (and remember) the times something surprises us by going wrong. Our lives are full of moments in which nothing goes wrong, yet we do not summon to mind any of the things which might have gone wrong unless one of them does; nothing of note happened, so we forget these moments. Indeed, for the most part, when something nearly goes wrong, folk either forget (because it went right after all) or remember whatever went wrong to cause what we noticed to nearly go wrong.

Ironically, though, toast's tendency to fall butter-side down has a more substantial claim to truth, albeit I suspect popular perception of the tendency is somewhat exaggerated by the effects of observation.

An example equally familiar to most of the world is that people from the U.S.A. are loud, obnoxious, culturally insensitive, etc. Notice that folk lacking these traits would not get noticed, nor would they have come to your country in a great big gaz-guzzling tour-bus, nor would you have noticed that they came from the U.S.A. Ever met a white caucasian with a North American accent, but lacking the above traits ? You assumed they were Canadian, didn't you ? In my experience, the U.S.A.-born who are living somewhere else are mostly quiet, considerate, polite, mildly apologetic and never going back; when accused of being Canadian they're generally flattered; and there are plenty more like them who haven't escaped from the U.S.A., some of whom have managed to find (often quite pleasant) lives there which (mostly) spare them the company of their more widely-noticed fellow-countrymen (who are probably a small minority).

Allegedly, 90% of motorists think they are better than most (at driving). This is no surprise, nor is it entirely down to vanity and the greater ease with which each can see the faults of others. [I should not be at all surprised if, were one to use some objective measure of driver competence, the 10% of motorists who don't think themselves better than most actually fall near the middle of the over-all distribution.] Not only are the incompetent bad at judging competence, so wont (given even a little vanity to guide them) to suppose themselves supremely competent, but each motorist is seeing a filtered view of the most with whom they were asked to compare themselves. In fact, most of the motorists I encounter on the road are very sensible and considerate (and this a bicyclist tells you); however, the other ones get our attention, and it's not hard to persuade oneself that one is a better driver than those idiots. Folk predominantly notice the worst drivers, than whom 90% doubtless are better drivers.

You may have heard how the 1960s was a time of free love and drug use. I have my suspicions about that too. One of my aunts was a student nurse in the '60s and never saw any of it; she may have led a sheltered life, though I doubt it: I am inclined to suspect that the exceptional few who did weird stuff got noticed and widely reported (for much the same reasons as celebrity has tits stories, with photographic proof, are front-page news) while the vast majority were ignored. After all, the folk who crave attention got a nice clear message – trash your brain, sleep around (or, at least, make sure everyone believes you do) and you'll get noticed – only be sure not to describe it like that … or you'll have subverted the reporter's prurient sub-text and wrecked the story. By the '70s the story was boring; drugs were passé so, though I suspect drug use genuinely became widespread, it wasn't as widely reported. (Meanwhile free love went underground: the I want to get laid crowd had hijacked the band-wagon, so those who meant anything serious by it slipped quietly away to lead less visible lives true to what they believed in; and the merely promiscuous soon enough gave up on mouthing the free love rhetoric because it put off some potential partners.)

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