Fifty Years Ago in Etc

By Bonnell, Kenneth H. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Fifty Years Ago in Etc


Bonnell, Kenneth H., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


Finally, I have a practical suggestion to leave with you, and then I shall be ready to conclude my remarks. I think we can understand the person on the other side of the desk somewhat better if we will develop an ability which the old western cowboys carried to a high point of perfection. The experienced western cowboy was able to find a lost horse with uncanny ability. I understand that he did this by working at the job of trying to feel like a horse. He asked himself, "Now what kind of reason would I have for wandering away if I were a horse? With such a reason, where would I go?" Apparently, it is possible to empathize with a horse a good deal -- to feel like a horse to a surprising degree.

At any rate, the cowboy would imagine that he was the horse, that he had the horse's reason for going, and then he would go to the place he would go if he were the horse -- and usually he would find the horse.

I think this is something one is able to work at effectively in trying to help handicapped children. You simply ask yourself, "Now, what are the possible reasons for behaving as this child does? If I were the child, what would be my reason for doing what he does? Just what would I be trying to achieve? What would I be trying to avoid?"

You can go from there to ask a lot of questions, such as, "How could I achieve my purposes differently? What other motives could I have? What other effects could I try to achieve, and by what other means? What changes would I have to achieve before I would be able to use other procedures, or work toward other goals?" And so forth.

The next time you see a stutterer holding his breath with all his might when he is supposedly trying to say, "Hello!" see whether you can do what the old cowboys did, and ask yourself, "Why would I hold my breath if I were he?" It is a very simple thing to practice -- this thing of trying to get inside the other fellow's skin -- and I think that one can develop a great deal of skill in doing it. It is the kind of skill that the child on the other side of the desk will interpret by saying that he feels as though he were being understood. With the risk that a pun always involves, perhaps we might say that it is a skill that the child on the other side of the desk will recognize as horse sense.

WENDELL JOHNSON "BEING UNDERSTANDING AND UNDERSTOOD: OR How TO FIND A WANDERED HORSE"

Yet it might be interesting to inquire whether indeed scientific behavior implies no preferences. For one thing scientists must constantly choose among alternative theories, hypotheses, procedures, and conclusions. Their choices are not arbitrary; they are guided by a very consistent set of criteria. Scientists will consistently choose theories according to which more events can be explained by fewer assumptions, procedures which will give most results for least effort, conclusions which will enable them to predict more accurately, etc. To the extent that scientists follow these criteria, they have achieved a remarkable amount of agreement among themselves about the way things happen. And furthermore this agreement is not based on the veneration of authority or on the gagging of dissenting opinions. On the contrary, no matter what his accomplishments, a scientist's ideas are constantly vulnerable to criticisms by any one who cares to criticize.

This freedom of expression and criticism is important to scientists. Almost invariably where scientists can speak without fear of reprisal (however, scientists are often in danger of severe reprisals), they endorse free thought and disown any imposition of opinions by authority. Particularly the free exchange of information is a value with scientists, since science is a social affair and by its very nature must be cooperative and non-competitive.

These, then, are the values inherent in the practice of science:

1. Truth is preferred to falsehood. This does not mean "What I say is true, and what you say is false," as it often does in religion and politics. …

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