Question Your Assumptions

In the 1976 movie The Bad News Bears, the coach (Walter Matthau) points out the folly of assumptions. He writes "ASSUME" on the chalkboard, then adds slashes "ASS/U/ME" while saying, "When you ASSUME—it could make an ASS out of U and ME!"

It's the hidden assumptions that can get us into so much trouble.

Consider this story. A man's son is in a terrible accident. He rushes the boy to a hospital where his son is whisked away into the operating room. The surgeon, upon seeing the boy exclaims, "Oh no! This is my son!"

If you haven't heard this one before, you may be puzzled. How could this boy be the son of the man who rushed him to the hospital and of the surgeon in the operating room?

Answer: the surgeon is the boy's mother. Now how many of us assumed the surgeon was a man?

For a long time, mathematics, the queen of all science, was assumed to be perfect. That is, it was complete and consistent. Then in 1931, Kurt Godel came along and proved that mathematics is not complete. Godel proved there were theorems (or statements) that could never be proved to be true or to be false unless new assumptions were brought in. But if new assumptions were brought in, then there were other theorems that couldn't be proved one way or the other.

So how did Godel make an ass out of mathematics?

He created a mathematical statement that essentially said (after gross simplification), "This statement is false." Now clearly this sentence cannot be true or false—therefore it cannot be proven.

(See Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter for a beautiful account in layman's terms and without the gross simplification.)

Another place where we get stung by assumptions—but where we delight in being fooled—is at a magic show. Magic tricks are based on the strong human tendency to make assumptions. Let's consider an example. A magician places his beautiful assistant in a trunk and she disappears. A second later the assistant bursts out of a closet twenty feet away. The trick is, we assume she is the same person. But the truth is that she is a twin.

Obviously, rocket scientists have to be very careful about checking their assumptions. Sometimes, the mistakes they make can be catastrophic, other times just embarrassing. Remember one of the mistakes we made with Alan Shepard? We assumed that Alan wouldn't have to pee during his countdown, suborbital flight, or splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. But this assumption ended up turning his spacesuit into an expensive diaper—and probably added a little more splash during his splashdown.



"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction."

Albert Einstein

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