The third state
An old popular TV show offers an alternative to binary thinking
Once upon a time, there used to be a BBC TV show called Juke Box* Jury (there was a similar programme on American TV, and quite likely other countries will have had their own version too). Every week saw the release of new songs, often by new artists, all vying for the top spot in the charts. Speculation was rife, and this show literally posed the question “Hit or Miss?” to a panel of celebrity guests, who had to pass their judgement after hearing each one of a handful of songs every week.
It seemed straightforward. Just like a coin that is flipped could end up showing heads or tails, a recording could end up being a hit, or a miss. Just two possibilities, and the guests could try and show off their expertise and insight when offering their considered opinion.
What they did was illustrative of much of our thinking in general. Claims are either true or false, people are either with us or against us, policies are either good or bad. We are faced with numerous yes-or-no decisions, from the trivial (“Fancy an early lunch?”) to the momentous (“Will you marry me?”).
The original Juke Box Jury disappeared in 1967, but it was revived a few times, and the format was also picked up for a slot in a children’s show thirty years later. This incarnation, intriguingly, introduced a third option for the jurors: they had a prop consisting of a big plastic hand on a stick, which they could hold such that the thumb pointed upwards (for a Hit), downwards (for a Miss), or simply wiggle it horizontally to express a ‘Maybe’. A song does indeed sometimes have a catchy riff in the intro, but the chorus is less inspired, or perhaps the singer has a superb voice, but the lyrics are a bit naff. That might make it harder to predict whether it will be a success or a flop, and the guests could thus express this uncertainty.
In the real world, however, another twenty years on, our public discourse seems to have remained stuck with a tendency for binary thought, with little room for nuance. We are expected to have a firm, unequivocal opinion on the skill of soccer managers, climate change, inequality, the talent of actors, gun control, government regulation and whatnot. Political opponents are inherently seen as evil simply because they hold different views.
Such a partisan divide even feeds itself, according to a recent paper by Federico Zimmerman, a neuroscientist at the University of Buenos Aires and colleagues. They explored what drives the formation of echo chambers in public debate through a large number of one-shot pairwise political discussions. In particular, they set out to test the idea that it is homophily, the tendency to associate with others who are similar (in this case, regarding political views), that is the principal cause. If this were true, then such attraction should be mutual between politically like-minded people.
However, that is not what they found. Participants with moderate or uncertain opinions were attracted by more extreme, more confident individuals, but this attraction was not reciprocal. Liking someone seems to be modulated by the consistency and certainty of their political opinions. The appeal of a lack of nuance and of binary thinking would therefore seem to reinforce the tendency towards increasing polarization.
This is the world view in which there is only one truth, a truth that can be identified and embraced. A song must be either a hit or a miss; a movie is either great or terrible; an ideology is either right or wrong. Life then becomes very simple. We can easily divide the world into ‘us’ (the people who are right) and ‘them’ (who are wrong): if you are not with me, then you are against me.
A third state
What if we considered the possibility of a third state — neither great nor terrible, neither right nor wrong, neither good nor bad — and took a leaf out of the latter Juke Box Jury book, where there was room for a ‘maybe’ alongside the hit and the miss? What if we acknowledged that, for some questions, the answer may not be unknown or unknowable, but even plainly indeterminate?
Even in mathematics — if ever there was a science where we would expect things to be clear-cut, one or the other — there are hypotheses that can neither be proved or disproved. Imagine the set of all integer numbers. How many such numbers are there? Well, an infinite quantity: whatever number you say, I can always come up with a larger one (or a smaller one, if you said a negative integer). Now imagine the set of all real numbers, i.e., numbers that require the use of digits after the decimal point. How many are there? Again, an infinite quantity. In fact, there is an infinite amount of real numbers between any two real numbers you care to mention. Even though both the set of integers and the set of real numbers contain an infinite quantity of elements, the set of real numbers is clearly (and demonstrably) larger than that of integers. But is there a set in between the two, with more elements than the set of integers, and fewer than the set of real numbers? That idea (known as the continuum hypothesis), it seems, can neither be proved nor disproved.
The mathematician Sir Timothy Gowers pointed towards this observation in a Twitter thread reacting to the surreal “2+2=4/2+2=5” controversy, concluding that “the idea that it must nevertheless be either true or false seems ridiculous”. If the domain of mathematics can have a hypothesis that is neither true nor false, then perhaps we should be willing to entertain such a possibility in our everyday world as well.
Sure, an unanswered question, and certainly one that doesn’t have an answer, may make us feel a bit uneasy. But it may be better to get used to this, than to require that every question has a clear answer. When we are comfortable with such a third state, it doesn’t actually matter whether it concerns a indeterminate, unknowable or unprovable answer, or in fact simply an unknown, or uncertain one. We don’t have an answer (or an opinion), and we move on.
Strong opinions can, of course, be useful. Strong opinions, weakly held allow us to move forward with our best guesses, based on imperfect evidence. They enable us to navigate uncertainty, rather than be paralysed by indecision. (The ‘weakly held’ part ensures that we don’t overcommit, and are comfortable with changing our mind when the facts change.)
But we don’t need strong, certain opinions on everything. Uncertainty and indeterminacy are an inherent feature of our reality. The other day, the radio played the 1970s song Black Betty by Ram Jam (if you know what a jukebox is, you probably know the song too), a cover of an old African-American work song. It occurred to me that I had never actually looked up what the song was about so I turned to the internet, and discovered the origin and meaning of the lyrics is subject to debate — ‘Black Betty’ could refer to a musket, a bottle of whiskey, a whip, or a vehicle for transporting prisoners, or perhaps something else still.
We are capable of enjoying the song without knowing what the title really means. If we can handle uncertainty and indeterminacy about a song, we ought to be able to do so in other domains as well.
*: This term may be unfamiliar to some readers. The jukebox was a mechanical contraption that played vinyl records on demand, usually requiring the insertion of a coin.
Originally published at http://koenfucius.wordpress.com on September 4, 2020.
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