Jack Uldrich
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Unlearning Lesson #10: See What Isn't There

Posted in Unlearning

You don’t understand something until you understand it more than one way.”

– Marvin Minsky

Question #10: Does a rusted nail weight more or less than the original, non-rusted nail?

It weights more. This finding, discovered by Antoine and Marie Lavoisier in the late 18th century, was a rather startling because it drew attention to the unobservable notion that a rusting object was somehow drawing the attraction of an element that people could not see. In this case an iron nail is attracting oxygen molecules and converting the metal into iron oxide.

This idea of “not seeing” what is there is an important element of unlearning. Consider the case of Abraham Wald. During World War Two, Wald and a team of researchers were charged with protecting Allied bombers from German anti-aircraft guns. As part of their work the researchers diligently recorded where on the body of the plane each returning bomber was struck by gunfire. The most common areas were the wings and the tails.

In response, the researchers advised the military command to reinforce those bullet-struck areas. Everyone, that is, except Wald who suggested that those areas of the plane not struck by gunfire—largely the fuselage—be reinforced. His recommendation was met with incredulity by his peers and superiors.

Eventually, Wald convinced them of the wisdom of his logic. The mistake his peers made was that they were observing only those planes which safely returned. What they were not seeing were those planes that didn’t return. Wald reasoned correctly that if a plane could safely return with bullet-ridden wings and tailfins then those areas didn’t need reinforcement and, counter-intuitively, the parts of the plane without bullet holes were the areas requiring additional armor.

Similar situations occur every day. Millions of people play the lottery because they see photos of smiling winners holding humongous checks in the newspaper or on TV. What they don’t see are the millions of losers who consistently drop $1, $5 or more to play the game every day.

Academic and corporate research often fails prey to a similar prejudice. For example, in the wake of the horrific 1999 Columbine High School massacre in which 12 students were gunned down, scores of academic researchers received grants to study student aggression. Their conclusion was that aggression lead to bad behavior and that bad behavior was uniformly associated with negative consequences.

One problem with these findings was that the vast majority of these researchers were only looking for negative consequences. Subsequent researchers have now discovered that aggression can also have positive consequences. Many people—but especially teenagers—perceive aggression as a “cool” trait and reward those individuals who exhibit it with popularity. (Interestingly, according to recent research, popular kids are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs and, therefore, have a different but no less serious set of problems than the “quiet, loner-type.”)

The moral of the story? Just as a Tetanus shot can help prevent an infection from a rusty nail, unlearning can help inoculate you against other rare but difficult-to-see threats.

Homework Assignment #10: When parents don’t allow their children to walk home from school or down to a friend’s house and, instead, drive them because they are concerned that their child could be kidnapped or otherwise harmed by a stranger; what aren’t the parents seeing? (Hint: Think obesity and diabetes.)

P.S. If you would like to read 38 additional “unlearning lessons,” consider picking up a copy of my new book, Higher Unlearning: 39 Post-Requisite Lessons for Achieving a Successful Future.

Interested in another “unlearning” lesson? Check out this older post:

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