Barenaked Ladies: An exercise in understanding why we are all subjective

You may wonder, what’s this “fluff” about a concert all-of-a-sudden appearing on this previously low-activity blog? The answer is simple. Time to get the blog rockin’ and rollin’ again.

I haven’t shared enough of the insights and experiences that my dear readers seemed to enjoy in the past. It is time to restart, with a lesson/insight from spending a few hundred dollars – and almost a day of time – to go see one of the bands I enjoy with my family. The Barenaked Ladies have been rockin’ for 29+ years, and I first saw them about 24 years ago. They still have it…. but that’s not what the blog post is about. It’s about whether it was “rational” to spend that much money for my family and I to see a band play for just a few hours.

To some, spending this much money and time may seem irrational. If you’re not a fan of this particular band – or of going to concerts in general – your first thought may have been “Morgan is crazy, I would never do that!”

You may have different preferences. That’s what makes you different than me, and it would be mighty boring if we were all the same. Yet there’s this thing about “rational” versus “irrational” that gets people a bit confused.

If someone were to come along and judge this as an “irrational waste of money,” they might actually be thinking rationally to conclude that there are better ways to spend it. Win for rationality! Yeah!

But hold your horses: there’s this little X-factor in there that messes it up. Their rationality is based upon their preferences. And those preferences are never rational. If you don’t believe it, come visit one day as we have a family argument about whether broccoli is “good” or “bad.” It doesn’t matter how much evidence any side provides.

I can hear the health nuts responding: but wait – if you want to live longer and healthier, then of course Broccoli is good – the evidence shows that it is! Unfortunately, you can’t escape the trap, even with that kind of argument. That’s because you’re just shifting the role of preference from whether a food is desirable or not, to a broader question of which is more important to you: 1) your longevity and health; 2) enjoying yourself here and now by not filling your mouth regularly with food you hate; or 3) some combination thereof.

If you’re still in doubt, try to justify a desire for longevity based on pure rationality. The arguments fall down pretty quickly, especially when you start looking at a graph of world population and realizing that what’s going on with population is likely not very sustainable for long. (Exponential growth of anything never is, because it’s exponential – if you’re not familiar with the math, look up that term).

World Population since 1300 AD: an explosion
World Population since 1300 AD: An Explosion Illustration by Matt Lemmon https://www.flickr.com/photos/mplemmon/3203403780 – licensed under Creative Commons, right to use with attribution https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

In my day job, I work with scientists and researchers. I do the best I can to help them with things like writing better grant proposals – and even enjoying their careers more by getting more of the good stuff done and not working as hard to do so.

However, one of the largest stumbling blocks I run into that prevent both goals from occurring is this particular belief many researchers have been taught to hold that “as scientists, we are to strive to be objective at all times.” Yet if anyone observes the grant reviewing process for long, it becomes clear quite quickly: on the surface reviewers are very good at constructing rational-sounding arguments for the scores they give a proposal, but if you dig deeper, there’s always some subjective preference underlying why they did or didn’t like a proposal. If a grant writer doesn’t get this, she is very likely to trip over hidden, unexpected landmines.

Yet hard as I try, so many clients are resistant to the idea that we actually have to embrace a measure of subjectivity to be successful. Objective “rationality” never by itself wins the day when it comes to grant proposals, careers, productivity, or much of anything else that truly matters.

There’s a lot more on this topic to discuss, but I’ll leave you for now with this set of questions: 1. Do you ever find yourself working to rationally/logically justify something, which at the end of the day is really just a preference? 2. Is it worth the time and energy cost to do so? 3. What if you were to simply acknowledge that you are a subjective human who has subjective preferences which you can’t escape, and instead of pretending to be I, Robot, you embraced that part of your humanity?

If you chose to do so, it can be quite an amazing journey.

* I have to put a disclaimer here for the skeptics who may freak out and say I’m advocating for abandoning reason. To such persons: if you use your reason to analyze what I am saying (and not saying) here, and you do so in a truly objective way, you will conclude that I have said no such thing as abandoning reason. It has its place. But many people have come to far over-rely on reason, while ignoring their own subjectivity by pretending it doesn’t exist.

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