Degrees of Certainty

Posted: June 17, 2007 in Leadership

One morning I was having a discussion with my grandson about how late his bus had been getting lately. I noticed the bus was getting later and later lately; and I was concerned whether the children were having enough time to eat breakfast in the lunchroom before they had to go to classes. Rewind to a day last week: I had asked the kids waiting for the bus how many of them ate breakfast at school – one little girl raised her hand and I told her: if she didn’t have enough time to eat breakfast before she went to class she needed to tell someone. A day or so later I asked whether she had been having enough time to eat breakfast, to which she replied that they hadn’t for several days. She was backed up by some of the other kids in line. Why the increase in numbers of kids who ate breakfast at school: I don’t know, but it could be that none of them spoke up the first day because they were reticent to do so because they were shy. I did a follow up by cell phone on the way home; and was told that the bus was leaving on time (even though it was leaving much later than the former bus driver left).

Then I called the school and asked the woman in the office if the bus was there – it was about the time the lady at transportation said the bus was due to arrive. She responded that she couldn’t tell; but she would go down to the lunch room and check. (She said the kids were able to take their breakfasts out of the lunch room and eat them in their classrooms if they ran out of time. This was a surprise to me because I understood that they weren’t supposed to take anything out of the lunch room, period.)

I had decided that the only way I was going to find out for sure whether the kids had enough time to eat breakfast was to go down and see for myself.

Fast forward to this morning: on the way to the bus stop I told my grandson about what the lunch lady told me and he exclaimed, “really?” I quickly asked him if this was consistent with what he understood as lunch-room policy. He said, “No, we aren’t supposed to as far as I know. But the woman in the office is always right!”

“Oh, no, no, no!” I answered. “You never assume what you are being told is right unless you verify it is right if it is not what you understand to be the case. Then I went on to list the many degrees of certainty that I had devised in my mind some months ago: the least certain is suggested by I feel. Next is I think, followed by I believe. Then you can just make a statement about what you are sure of, followed by I am sure, I am certain, I am positive, I am absolutely positive; and, finally: there’s no doubt in my military mind. The next time I tried to review the list I substituted I am really sure for I am certain; which caused me to add another phrase to the list.

Another aside to this mental exercise is the admonition not to think that somebody is lying if there is a discrepancy between two accounts. If it turns out that the office lady is wrong it doesn’t mean she was lying. Lying is telling an intentional untruth. If you say something you believe is true, then it is not lying. There are a lot of people going around saying somebody lied if what they said turns out to be untrue. And it is a common saying to make a correction by saying I lied; when you meant to say I was mistaken. I was also taught to make corrections to people when you find out that what you said before was an untruth.

The point of this exercise was to teach my grandson the value of being skeptical of almost everything you hear, see, read, etc. unless you really trust the source you are getting pronouncements from. I also told him about second-hand and third-hand information; and how every successive hand-information is less reliable. “He-said, she said” is a common way to relate third-hand information – or is it conflicting accounts of an event? AND just what constitutes dishonesty is an important distinction from what constitutes an honest mistake.

Let’s hear it one more time with feeling, “It’s a sin to be cynical; but skepticism is a virtue!”


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