Here’s a trivia question: what causes the seasons to change? If you said it’s from the Earth getting closer or further from the sun as it orbits, then your answer was the same that many Harvard grads gave in a survey. And like those Harvard grads, you would be wrong.
More fun facts: even though your veins are blue, the blood that flow inside of them are still red. Napoleon was not a short man - he was slightly above average height for French men in those days. These are common misconceptions, and it might be somewhat humorous to find out about them, but what if misperceptions lead us into making the wrong decisions? If you are faced with an important choice, will you be able to figure out what you know from what you don’t know?
The Woman in the Wheelchair
I thought about this question after I read one of Glenda’s blog post recently. Glenda was at an outdoor event and she saw a frail elderly woman slumped in a wheelchair, seemingly empty of much life in her. The elderly woman in the wheelchair seemed dependent on others in order to feed her and to adjust her position in her wheelchair. Glenda felt sorry for the woman because it appeared that life had ceased to flow in her, that she was down to her last trickle. When a family member tended to her however, the elderly woman responded with a purely joyous and loving smile, taking Glenda by surprise. There was much more life in the elderly woman than Glenda originally assumed.
Glenda felt terrible for passing judgement. She saw a frail-looking woman who was in a wheelchair, and she made assumptions that the woman was living a miserable life. What added to Glenda’s sense of guilt is that she made a mistake that she wished others wouldn’t do to her. Glenda has cerebral palsy and is also in a wheelchair.
The Impact of Misperceptions
Glenda posed the question to her readers: is it possible for people to not pass judgement? I took the bait and chimed my two cents worth. There’s something about us that instinctively fill any gaps of knowledge that our minds may have, and typically it happens without realizing it.
We know that the Earth has an elliptical orbit around the sun, but that’s not what causes the changing seasons (it’s the tilt of Earth’s axis). We know at least that the Earth orbits around the sun and not the other way around, but even that fact was once not well known. The Spanish Inquisitors did not know this, and this misperception led to their sentencing of Galileo to house arrest for the rest of his life.
Veins are blue not because low-oxygen blood is blue, but rather because of Rayleigh’s effect. The myth that Napoleon was short was likely due to a British propaganda rather than on facts. Misperceptions are trivial until we rely on them to make important judgements, particularly if they are life-affecting judgements. So to answer Glenda’s original question, I believe that it’s human nature to make assumptions, but we bear the responsibilities as individuals on how we act on these assumptions. We need to know what we don’t know before we make important decisions.