Observing Our Thoughts

Fact and opinion. Evidence and analysis. Observation and conclusion. Whatever we call these concepts, we put them to use constantly. We gain information through our senses every moment of the day. At times, we then select bits of that information to process, to mull over. We draw conclusions. There is no doubt that the two ideas go hand in hand. One cannot live without the other.

But it is important to understand the distinctions between the two concepts. It is vital to understand their individual roles and how one informs the other. Otherwise, alarming situations may arise.


[ 1 ] Seeing
[ 2 ] Using the senses
[ 3 ] Taking in information
[ 4 ] Facts
[ 5 ] i.e., “This is what I see happening before me”


[ 1 ] Processing
[ 2 ] Using the mind
[ 3 ] Making sense of information
[ 4 ] Interpretations or judgement
[ 5 ] i.e., “I think this is why something happened”

An observation

for example—

[ 1 ] There are small spiral shells on the plants.
[ 2 ] The shells are pale in color.
[ 3 ] There are some white and brown spots on some of the plants.
[ 4 ] All shells but one are on a single plant.

[ 1 ] The shells are snails.
[ 2 ] The shells have been bleached by the sun.
[ 3 ] The snails are eating the plants.
[ 4 ] The snails favor the taste of this one plant over that of the others.

These observations (for the most part) are difficult to argue with, though they can always be more accurate—for instance, “The shells are a warm, pale color with some streaks of pinks, browns, and occasional stripes of grays.” At first glance, the conclusions also seem accurate.

But what if someone acted upon these conclusions, and these conclusions were mistaken?

— 1 —

Perhaps someone with a soft heart sees these little snails drying out in the sun. In pity, she gently plucks them from the leaves of the ice plants, then gently deposits them on some ice plants in a shady area. Under the canopy of a huge cypress, they’ll be protected from the sun and also retain more of their moisture, which is vital to snails.

This type of behavior is natural for these snails. This activity is called aestivation, meaning that the snails become dormant to protect themselves from drying out. Something in their little bodies trains them to reach for the light and fall into this state during the day. This is necessary because they are cold-blooded creatures and they rely on heat sources (like sunshine) to keep themselves warm. If they are moved to a shady area, their internal measurement of light and warmth is interrupted. Once night’s cold sets in, they may not survive…especially without the day’s warmth to carry them over to tomorrow.

— 2 —

Or perhaps a gardener walks by and sees these little pests nibbling on the greenery that gives the coast a vibrant wash of color. His plant-caring nature declares that he remove these pests so the plants can thrive. So he plucks off the snails and crushes the shells so the creatures will not create more offspring that will further threaten the plants.

Upon closer inspection, the plant on the bottom left also has the white and brown discolorations, yet there are no snails on the plant. What if this is a sign of an insect-type pest? Or perhaps a bacterial pest? Or it could be that humans who occasionally pass by disturb this plant that is close to the edge of the path, so these are simply marks of abrasion. If the snails didn’t harm the plants, then the removal of their presence does nothing for the plants.

In both cases, the snail population is interfered with. In one case, there is a higher chance of death, and in the other, certain death. At least they are only snails, or so some may think.

But what if we apply this philosophy to other life forms? To people? What becomes of the consequences then?

Some may argue that in the case of humans, we gather extensive evidence. We assemble more facts (often from a variety of sources), we weigh the facts, we research before we arrive at careful conclusions. It is easy to communicate with humans, so we can ask them directly about what happened or didn’t happen. Unfortunately for the snails, they do not talk in a manner that we can easily understand, so we must make assumptions about them.

But this is a faulty conclusion, too. Just because we have the means to gather extensive evidence does not mean we will. It is easy to assume that the shared observations of multiple people are facts, yet their sources of facts may be questionable or even influenced by things seen or heard later.

And can we assume that the massive amounts of facts gathered is truly enough to draw a conclusion from? When can we confidently say that we’ve gathered 50% of the evidence, or 75%, or 90%? What if 50% of the observations come from a group that shared the same point of view? What if 90% of people all saw the same thing, yet someone in the missing 10% was the only person to observe a critical fact that everyone else missed?

And just because it is easy to communicate with humans, we do not all communicate clearly. Bias colors the way we talk to each other, or who we even deign worthy to talk and listen to.

When the issues of majorities and minorities, mass media, or uninformed rhetoric come into play, the tragedies that arise from faulty conclusions can be tragic.

Of course we cannot say to avoid conclusions entirely just because they might be wrong. (That would be an apt example of a faulty conclusion.) As written earlier, observations and conclusions go hand in hand; we cannot have one without the other. But once we are aware of the conundrum that exists before us, we are able to take some action to minimize the damage.

[ 1 ] 

Be aware of the differences between observations and conclusions. Don’t act upon conclusions (snails are harmful), act on observations (over the past few days, the areas of the plants that the white snails have been on are turning black and wilty.)

[ 2 ]

Give your observations time to solidify. Don’t jump to conclusions early. If possible, seek outside help in finding facts that you may have missed.

[ 3 ] 

Accept that conclusions are just as likely to be wrong as right. If the facts point to a new idea, be willing to revise your conclusions.

[ 4 ] 

At the same time, don’t be paralyzed by indecision. Share what you know so others will see the other sides of the story, too.

We can still act before a conclusion has arisen. If we observe something bad happening, provide what aid is possible to alleviate its effects. (Separate the white snails from the wilty plants.) Find ways to deter those bad effects from touching the lives of others, even if it means using multiple methods. (Remove the wilty bits of the plant and keep an eye out for more wilty bits in the coming days. Be active in observing whether nearby plants begin to exhibit the same wilty behavior.) In the meantime, take the opportunity to learn more about the situation before an interpretation affects the way we see it. (Observe, has the black and the wilt stopped spreading? What can we learn about this particular white snail, about its habits, and are there ways to deter it from coming back to your plant?) But don’t assume the cause of the bad and act upon that assumption. (So don’t destroy every snail you set your eye upon.)

Such careful consideration will take time, time that it seems no one has enough of. It can be difficult to tell yourself to slow down when danger and fear is growing. But we owe it to everyone to be thorough and careful and thoughtful. The impact of misguided action may be just as big as the impact of inaction, if not bigger—and the magnitude only gets harder to measure when we are unaware of our faults.

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