Wednesday, August 13, 2008

On Assumptions

What prompts people to assume things? Can we do/say anything without assumptions? Can one discuss the topic of assumptions without assuming anything? Let us assume a government officer is caught by officials for some corrupt act and the story finds its way into the papers. People who read the papers use the story as a tool to display copious amounts of self-righteousness. "I can't believe some one in a responsible position can be so corrupt. If a treasury department official can be corrupt then he should be shot dead. This is the state of our country. Damn these institutions." It wouldn't be too extreme an opinion to point out to them that they are assuming stuff. That they would have behaved in the exact same fashion had they been in the accused's shoes. That they aren't any more or less honest than the accused. However, since there is no "proof" or "data" to support the statements one abstains from making such obvious claims on people's assumptions.

However, I would assume any logical person would be tempted to ask questions like "but how are you so sure that the guy indeed committed the crime?" The logical person views his audience as educated people, people of science, rational people - who believe in "data" and "evidence" as opposed to a newspaper story - and asks them such a question. It is interesting to observe the various reactions to such a question. People take the question as an ego issue and answer as if their reputation depended upon the accused being guilty. "He would have 100% done it. He is right there in the treasury department. He handles everything. If not he, then who else". In fact, in my observations, 99% of the people who read such a story come to similar conclusions. These are the very same people who insist on "data" and "solid proof" in other discussions ( a classic example being discussions surrounding religion). The 1% of the people who push for the data are the accused's relatives, people who know the truth and a minuscule few from the vigilance department who are used to cross-examining everything.

It is interesting to note that nobody is interested in the case details. Finding out the truth is the least of all priorities. Most are very good in absorbing news stories and movie plot situations and adept in extrapolating those learnings to future unconnected real life situations. Most times when an obvious open & shut case comes in the news (like a watchman robbing the house he guards, servant maids kidnapping the babies they take care of, cashier stealing money etc) I am very curious. I ask people "how can a cashier steal money that he counts daily. Won't he know that he'll certainly get caught". But a few past incidents have gone a long way in dumbing people's intellect. A few hundred cashiers getting convicted can probably damn every one of the million cashiers who get accused in the future. I assume that the first thing that the police do is grab hold of the guy who is responsible for locking the door and make him a suspect. An inside job angle is the sexiest and most damning catch of them all. Probably because it helps in validating several unconfirmed assumptions. But mainly because such an arrest is tailor-made for public consumption. They would love it, so the press would love it and so it is convenient. The court case can proceed any which way it wants to but the most important thing for the police officer is to make an arrest that would be popular with the public.

An interesting question to ask, if one wanted to explore the causality here, would be - What would it take for people to refuse to make any assumptions and simply say "I don't know. I'd like to look at the details"? What is the psychological basis for not doing so? What gratification do assumptions provide? Why do we find it to be so irresistible. For example - On reading a news story how many have the honesty to say that they don't know anything about the said case and so can't say anything without looking into the details. The details, much like the truth they hold, tend to be complex and typically hold the key to most questions. Since they are mundane, un-entertaining, voluminous and provide no revenue for newspapers, I suppose it is easy for anybody to dismiss the most relevant as irrelevant and base all their opinions from a news story.

There have been several instances where the accused has been found not-guilty and released. However, that is never a news story. So the tarnished image of the accused continues to remain so and the readers (other people) when reminded of the judgment shrug feel an ego-hurt and say, "Maybe he paid money and escaped. Its all a cover-up." It has become unfashionable to dig into the mundane details. If one is hooked on to the party line one can always come up with opinions that are popular - "government people are corrupt, politicians are corrupt, Women in BPO have sex indiscriminately 24 x7 , there is no God, ". Then one never needs to be specific. One can fire cliche after cliche from the canon and simply move on. Subscribing to the most popular assumptions becomes an important tool for a person to be considered normal.


Anonymous said...

Good post. Most of the times people like to display their impulsive opinions. When they do they end up making assumptions and keep building a train track of opinions as they go. Whatever happened in reality will be forgotten or not looked into, in the mood for supporting their opinion.

Thiru said...


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Anonymous said...

"kannal parpadhum poi, kaadhal ketpadhum poi, theera visarippadhe mei"

"What you see with your eyes is a lie, what you hear through your ears is a lie, thorough investigation is the only thing that can reveal the truth"

as for the motivations behind assumptions, it is just social conditioning. I am sure it can be changed, but it is not going to be easy.


Deepak Chembath said...

You must have heard this. To Assume is to make an 'Ass' of 'u' and 'me' :-)