Saturday, May 4, 2013

A Parable on the Urge to Know

A couple of years ago, my boyfriend and I had both come down with bad colds. We went to the pharmacy, and he planned to grab some cold medicine while I picked up tissues and some other groceries. When he failed to meet me at the front after I was done, I went back to the aisle where I’d left him. He was staring at the wall of medicines looking perplexed and frustrated. “What’s taking so long?” I said.

“I don’t know how to choose!” he replied. There were dozens of options, and he couldn’t come up with a good way to evaluate them. He’d been stumped for fifteen minutes. He was experiencing choice paralysis. “There are a dozen different brands that all say they’re for stuffy noses, congestion, and coughing. How am I supposed to pick one?”

I picked up a few bottles to check out the active ingredients. “Anything with dextromethorphan, guicinophen, and phenylephrine will do,” I said.


“Because everything that says ‘congestion’ has guicinophen while nothing else does, everything that says ‘coughing’ has dextromethorphan while nothing else does, and everything that says ‘stuffy nose’ has phenylephrine while nothing else does. They even have the same doses of all of those. The ‘inactive ingredients’ vary, but it’s all stuff like corn syrup and flavoring. I want to pay for feeling healthy, not tasting bubblegum.” I tossed him the cheapest one with all three.

When we got home, I Googled each of those ingredients and discovered that I should have gone to the pharmacist and asked for something with ephedrine instead of phenylephrine, since ephedrine reliably outperforms placebos while phenylephrine doesn’t. We went back for it a bit later. Still, I was able to finally get us out of that damn pharmacy with effective medication and home to watch gargoyles and eat soup, because my first thought was “What actually works, and
how can I know?” instead of the epistemically neutral “Which of these brands should I buy?” My urge to know the truth let me cut through the advertizing to successfully achieve my goals.

The elegant update I have in mind here is not “Check the active ingredients when choosing medications” (though that actually has frequent concrete advantages). The update is “When you’re faced with many options, ask yourself what your end goal is and how you would
know which option is likely to bring you closer to achieving it.” My boyfriend tells me this is one of the greatest impacts I’ve had on his life over the four years we’ve known each other. It’s a tiny little habit I’ve always taken for granted because I was raised by scientists. But since this was news to him, it dramatically altered how he thought about making choices.

I ended up making an important update that day as well. I’m honored to be dating one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and I knew that early on. This brief interaction was the first time it really sunk in that there’s more to being rational than having an especially powerful brain--which meant that maybe I needed to search for better methods, too. Before, I’d thought I was pretty much stuck with whatever intelligence I’d been born with, plus or minus memorizing a lot of facts. But really, I had some major advantages over someone with more innate brain power, because I’d learned more powerful cognitive methodology. I’d been trained, to some extent, in epistemic rationality.
What if, I wondered, there is even more to learn?

No comments: