Just Asking. (More Issues Only Partly Addressed in the Curator’s Talk) by Jerry Cullum

My sense is that everything Freud and Jung believed and perceived is true, but true as viewed through two sets of incompatible distorting filters inherited from segments of nineteenth-century European culture, a factor that neither of them took sufficiently into account. (Both men felt that further biological research would eventually bear out their largely intuitive findings.)

Likewise the perceptions and speculations of neurology are true, but are viewed through yet another set of distorting cultural filters. We believe these cultural filters are the very structure of reality itself, because we live inside them and can’t see them until we learn to see them—and maybe not even then.

An interesting experiment reported in the Sunday, July 8 New York Times involved showing doctors sets of data on patients, with some of them shown a photograph of the patient as white, and others shown the same patient as black. The course of treatment the doctors prescribed turned out to be tinged by racial presuppositions even though the doctors believed they had no racial biases.

The key to the experiment is that the doctors who realized that this was probably a test about racial attitudes prescribed courses of treatment that showed no deviation according to race. (It would be interesting to see if the same results would obtain for gender, socioeconomic status, physical attractiveness, and other variables, but given the number of doctors who read the New York Times and the journal in which the results of the experiment were published, the possibility of conducting these further experiments has pretty well been eliminated.)

The conclusion of the experimenters, and it may be an overly simple one, was that a moment of self-aware reflection could correct for unconscious presuppositions that influence seemingly unrelated decision-making. This is a way of overcoming the tendency to jump to conclusions that has been hard-wired into us by—evolution? By something or other, anyway. We might stop for a moment and think about how we construct probable models, and why we build them the way we do….

To what extent do we have to take account of how we are hard-wired, and how our ways of sitting over coffee or just-sitting-when-sitting might influence the outcomes of our inferences, whether we are drawing conclusions about particle physics or macroeconomic theory or art exhibitions? Can we really rely exclusively on “rational” methods to filter out or correct for responses that are almost entirely not under our conscious control because they are not even part of our conscious awareness, much less our control?

Just asking.


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