The deaf flea and itching ears

By Jerome Kalan
I write about what we sometimes take for granted and a few other things that is worth pondering over...

Fri, 07 Feb 2020
(Reading time: Approximately 8 minutes)

Part 1

There are variations of a little tale that I love that many of you may have heard or read before. I like the story because it is memorable and makes a really strong point in a simple way. It highlights something that too many of us too easily do without giving much thought to what we are exposed to.

Basically, the story is told of a scientist who called together a large number of people in and around the local campus of the university where he worked, to demonstrate his findings based on a simple, but effective experiment that he had been working on.

The crowd gathered around some brightly coloured orange plastic cones that were positioned to form a rectangle in the middle of the floor of the gymnasium where the meeting was taking place. A large, crispy white sheet was placed in the open space. The crowd was excited with curiosity. The scientist was well respected and had long lectured on his area of expertise, but had always wanted to make his mark by making a discovery or coming up with a theory that would be ground breaking and make a difference in the world.

Some of his colleagues, close friends and family had made a real effort to create an awareness among the local university and town population, using word of mouth, local print media and social media to advertise the big event. A few budding local journalists were in attendance to report on the buzz that was doing the rounds; cameras and microphones at the ready. The scientist appeared from a door in the corner of the large room and the noise simmered down. He carried a little transparent box and walked straight over to the rectangular space. He reached into the box and brought out a flea that he placed at the end of the clean white sheet on the gym floor.

Clearing his throat, he announced that he had made a significant discovery. He went down on his hands and knees and proceeded to slap the ground with his one hand just behind the flea and shouted, “Jump!!!” On cue, the flea jumped around 7 inches into the air and around 12 inches forward. The crowd was silent. People looked at each other, but no-one dared say anything at that moment. They expected there must be more. And there was…

The scientist stood to his feet. He said, “As you can see, the flea responded to my instructions and jumped when it heard me shout at it.”

He then proceeded to kneel down again, picked up the flea and unceremoniously ripped off one of the fleas legs. A little girl in the crowd gasped at what she saw as the wanton cruelty of the act. Everyone else had eyes squinted wondering where this was going. He placed the flea back on the sheet and then shouted a little more loudly than before, “Jump!” The shout was again accompanied by a hand slap to the ground just behind the flea. The flea jumped on cue, but this time not as high nor as far as the first time.

The scientist grabbed hold of the flea and ripped off another of its legs. The little girl in the crowd let off a little sob for the flea. The scientist put the flea down and repeated the shout and clap. The flea jumped, but with even less height and distance.

He repeated the process a couple more times, reducing the flea’s leg count further. The little girl developed a scowl on her face, moving from shock to being annoyed. There was a murmur in the crowd, some still wondering, some concentrating on what the big reveal might be. A few wondering why they had wasted their time…The poor flea hardly responded when shouted at.
Finally, the scientist got to the point where he ripped off every leg on the flea and placed it on the sheet. He shouted with all his might, “Jump!!!” He slapped both his hands on the ground behind the flea and even got up to stamp with his feet. Nothing happened.

A self-satisfied smile broke across his face. He rose to an erect stance, his chin and nose raised in the air as he opened his mouth to declare his findings. “As you can see, the flea responded less and less as it’s legs were removed. Until, at the end, it failed to respond no matter how loudly I shouted. And that goes to prove that a flea becomes more hard of hearing the less legs it has and goes completely deaf when all its legs are lost.”

Get the picture? It’s a perfect illustration of the old adage that “correlation does not imply causation”.

It amazes me how many people, even so-called experts, in a host of different ways, express opinions or make correlations that are actually so far from being true or correct, but are believed because what they present appears to make sense or seems logical or is spoken about with an air of authority.

Let’s face it, the scientist in our little story actually had an explanation that made some sort of sense and it seemed he had drawn a logical conclusion from “the facts” of his experiment. But, it takes just a little common sense to know that he had it wrong.

And yet, there are many things that we tend to believe when it is presented to us as a “deaf flea”. It is no wonder that the concept of fake news has received so much coverage. The amount of people who believe and then share the first thing they are told about something is shocking, even if the thing they’ve shared is completely untrue, wrong or inaccurate. Put a slightly sensationalist edge to something, and you can draw in a crowd without much fuss. And I don’t think I need to spell out the part social media plays in all this.

And it’s not just the intense, sensationalist messages that come our way. There are more steady, consistent messages being communicated enough times on an ongoing basis to people that gets them to start to believe a variety of things that they would not have believed before. They become so desensitised through the incessant repetition, they simply get used to it, because it seems to make sense and everyone else seems to be believing it.

So, there is ancient wisdom and prophecy that says that a time will come when people surround themselves with a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. Is that us? And is that now?

What is your “flea”? What do you indiscriminately believe because it looks or sounds logical or plausible? Or maybe you believe it because everyone else does. What correlations do you believe without testing it. You don’t have to look far to find things.

But, there is good news. It actually doesn’t take too much effort to start reading or listening to things that can help you start to more critically evaluate and consider the things that are thrown at you – things that you might otherwise be tempted to believe without question.
The real question is, do you care and can you be bothered to make the effort to counter the trend.

Or do you risk hurtling towards possible destruction by burying your head in the sand?
I hope the former.

Next time I consider the impact of dangerous correlations in the context of our workplaces...

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