Taking Negative Results Seriously

Stephen Jay Gould, being a paleontologist, thinks about evolution. His genius is that he carries this line of thinking to its embarrassing logical conclusion, asking “How evolved are we?”

What if our conceptual world excludes the possibility of acknowledging a negative result as a phenomenon at all? What if we simply can’t see, or even think about, a different and meaningful alternative? [“Cordelia’s Dilemma,” in Dinosaur in a Haystack (NY: Harmony Books, 1995, 126).]

Obviously, anyone can see a negative result. When you fail, you know it. So, what is he getting at? Imagine two classes of stuff, as perceived by some theoretical brain: Class I contains Phenomena, which deserve serious consideration, analysis, explanation; Class II contains events that are deemed unique, bizarre, chance occurrences to be tossed aside. After all, one does not “explain” every pothole in a dirt road. Potholes are part of the nature of dirt roads – deal with them! Now imagine what happens if someone, say, the leader of some hypothetical superpower, classifies a defeat as Class II and therefore maintains current strategy on the assumption that the defeat meant nothing and thus in no way implied a weakness in the failed strategy. The great theoretical leader could be correct. No strategy works perfectly forever! But what if he mistakenly put a Class I outcome into the Class II box? He would be condemned to repeat the failure. In practice, any decent leader would obviously learn pretty fast, right? No one would insist on a strategy that consistently returned failure after failure, right? Anyone would call such a person an idiot. Gould is raising a serious question when he asks if, instead, the cause might be an evolutionary failure of humans.

Sometimes people see the pattern of failure and correct it; sometimes they don’t, so perhaps Gould’s stark and unsettling question can be reformulated:

Are there conditions (e.g., group think, self-interest) that lay a thick layer of smoke over patterns of failure, and, since the answer to that question seems pretty obvious, is there a genetic/evolutionary reason we think like that?

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