Friday, February 10, 2023

The Emotional Journey of Uncertainty

“Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”

                                                --Jacob Bronowski, Polish-British mathematician 

                                                 Earth                    vs.               Venus

2nd                                                          position from sun                                      3rd

24 hours                                                  length of day                                  5,832 hours

365 days                                                  length of year                                    225 days

    1                                                          moons                                                      0

59 F                                                         average temperature                         864 F

7,926 miles                                              diameter                                           7,520 miles

“Destination Venus,” Nat Geo Kids, Feb. 2023, p. 20                                                                   Photo: Pixabay

I have read National Geographic, and the Kids edition, for years. I find the children’s edition of more than one periodical to be fun, direct, timely, and a quick index to what is going on in popular culture.  Grade-school textbooks are a good example of this principle.  They need to get to concepts and themes quickly and can’t do the kind of context-building and nuance that adults can tolerate.  So they are a better guideline in several ways.  And usually, factual.  But not always.

Primates—that’s us—are primarily creatures of emotion.  We are first emotional beings, only secondarily rational.  This is the reason emotion needs to be “untaught” –as children we learn to restrain and hide our feelings.  Rational thought—writing, math, spelling, science, accounting, engineering, bridge—are trained skills; otherwise they would be intuitive; we’d all be whizzes at it.  And we don’t understand our own emotional lives all that well, just to make social judgments about what’s appropriate when and where and with what other people.  This is the point Daniel Goleman makes in his book Emotional Intelligence.  Dale Carnegie put it this way: “When dealing with people, remember that you are not dealing with creatures of logic but with creatures of emotion--creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.” 

And creatures whose rational faculties are far more limited than their emotional ones.  So I observed in reading an otherwise great article about the planet Venus written for kids.  But I then saw something curious on the chart comparing Earth to Venus.  “Position from the sun—Earth 2nd, Venus 3rd.”  I read this statement again, then once more.  Thus began my Journey into Uncertainty.  Isn’t earth “Third planet from the sun”?  I began to think about this.  But isn’t National Geographic among the topmost trusted sources on earth?  Could the planets, without my knowledge, have somehow changed positions?  The article also notes that any visitor to Venus would burst into flame at an average temperature of 864 degrees F or be crushed by the planet’s intense pressure.  Or maybe the Venusian orbit distorted to move outside earth’s? 

The Uncertainty Journey       Case Study: “Destination Venus,” National Geographic Kids, February 2023, pp. 20-21

Questioning:  Is this true – is Venus really third planet from the sun, and earth second? I certainly thought it was the other way around.  For my entire lifetime.

Denial:  This can’t be true.  We’d all be fried or crushed.

More questioning:  Would we?  Did the planets trade places because of some orbital switch-out?

Sense-making:  This just makes no sense; it doesn’t line up with anything else I know.

Investigation:  I’ll look this up online, then send off a query to the magazine. 

Outcome:  National Geographic:  Oh, you’re right!  We messed up that fact. Thanks for reading so closely. 

Further questioning:  How did this happen?  And my favorite question as a former editor: “How many people looked this over at the editorial offices?”  And then my next-favorite question: “What else did they miss?”  Considering this is a relatively wide error—about 26 million miles off (compared to earth at 93 million).  The measures in astronomy are based on the AU, astronomical unit, which is earth’s distance from the sun. Therefore, switching to the #2 orbit—as this error does -- would change the very base value of AU, with a long range of side errors that come into focus the instant they surface. 

I couldn’t find how the second and third planets got switched.  So I contacted NGeoKids.  Here is what I asked the editors: “Isn’t earth the third planet, not the second, from the sun?  Has the usual order changed for some reason?  What is the effect of this change on the AU basis of astronomy—the astronomical unit?”  

The editors readily admitted the mistake. Here’s what they had to say: “We did indeed accidentally swap the sun positions for the planets.  Thank you for reaching out and for reading NGeoKids so carefully!”   Wow.  So the universe has been restored.   Does this make anything better, though?  Does this mean National Geo is depending on its readers for fact-checking?  This isn’t really reassurance – just one more piece of evidence that in the search for truth, constant vigilance must be the rule.  

Perhaps this points to two operating uncertainty principles. 1) We are slow to question information that looks self-assured and authoritative, even when we feel fairly sure it is in error; 2) Perhaps if we questioned factual statements more often, it would serve to keep facts on track and lend some confidence to the knowledge we rely on.  However, we can’t constantly be questioning the truth of every statement.  To operate day-to-day, we assume that 99% of factoids are reliable.  That’s because we can’t live in a world we don’t trust.  This is Uncertainty Avoidance. 

Human beings don’t like uncertainty because we don’t know what to think about uncertain situations nor how to make decisions and act on them.  This is why we make up stories, “facts” to fill in the gaps.  We just can’t leave unsure things alone.  Not for more than a minute or two.  Consider this headline about a P-51 Mustang pilot in The Week (not the Kids’ version) (Feb. 10, 2023, p. 35): “The Tuskegee Airman Who Escaped a Lynching.”  My initial take was that this obit for Harold Brown, age 98 and one of the last of his unit, was going to be about racial prejudice in the American South.  Wrong.  On reading the copy, the lynch mob was in fact Austrian, in the last months of WWII, when he was shot down there.  Another surprise—it was a police officer saved Brown, who was “sent to a prison camp—his first experience of integration.”  The truth filled in because I kept reading.

The nice thing about knowledge is that errors of fact can be corrected by digging deeper when the red flags appear.  Vancouver, Canada isn’t the capital of anything—it may be the primary city of British Columbia, but it’s Victoria on Vancouver Island that is the capital of British Columbia – a wrong answer I was part of making, a victim of team groupthink, to a pub quiz question.  And I was just returning from a week’s trip there—the shame of it still haunts me.  Here is another: the number of married people (worldwide) that ends with an odd number?  Not sure about that, but this could reflect multiple husbands / wives. Check to see if the number is in couples, not individuals. Then on entering a medical office last week, I was handed a fill-in form in English; the small lady beside me was handed another in Chinese, without being asked.  Her reaction was amused (it could well have been otherwise) as she explained she was Vietnamese. 

Venus does have the most volcanoes in our solar system: something over 1600.  Its rotation is in the opposite direction of ours, and from most planets, called retrograde motion.  NASA’s VERITAS mission in 2028 will orbit the planet and map its terrain using radar.  The European Space Agency EnVision mission in 2032 will map the sub-surface.  And perhaps both will confirm its position at 67 million miles from the sun, compared to ours of 143 million miles…. Did I say 143?  I meant 93, of course. 143 is the average distance for Mars, as everyone knows, the 4th planet from the sun.  It’s easy to get confused.  That’s why every person needs to be their own fact-checker.  And that is often a research-project-level demand.  But I could not resist restoring the solar system to its usual and correct order: the one I know and love.

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