When I was in elementary school, I learned that there were nine planets in Earth’s solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.
Today’s elementary school students learn that there are eight planets in our solar system – Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – because, as of August 24, 2006, Pluto is no longer considered a planet.
I make this point to remind us that knowledge is partial, circumstantial, and contestable. What we “know” is filtered through our own particular experiences, the contexts in which we find ourselves, and the people with whom we discuss those ideas. As such, the decisions we make are always and already based upon incomplete information. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to bother us all that much, as we have several coping mechanisms that help us deal with it.
Consider the following:
- The CEO of a software development company has created a number of committees whose goal is to rethink the various aspects of the company’s upcoming restructuring. She understands that staff will only contribute their time to the committee about which they are most passionate. She also understands that they will likely be passionate about more than one. So she gives them the opportunity to choose up to three, and then rank them in order of preference. That way, no one will be too disappointed if they end up on their second- or third-choice committee.
- A researcher is studying the impact of a particular reform initiative on marginalized students and their families. He knows that asking closed-ended, “yes-or-no” questions will not generate the most useful data. So he develops several Leikert-scale questions instead, because he knows they will provide a more nuanced and representative answer to the overall research question.
- A young couple with two small children is considering moving out-of-province. There are excellent reasons to go, and excellent reasons to stay. So, they draw up a list of pros and cons for each option, and use it to help them make the best decision for their family.
All of these scenarios include unknown elements, and offer no guarantees that things will work out as desired. Yet, they are still good examples of how people create effective decision-making systems that allow them to use the incomplete information they have to make (hopefully!) good choices in their lives. Which brings me to our most recent election…
Today, Canada’s 41st Parliament begins. The party in power is not the one that the majority of Canadians chose to put there. One reason for this discrepancy is that our voting system (i.e. decision-making system) considers knowledge to be absolute, decontextualized, and irrefutable: whoever gets the most votes in a riding is the winner. Period. Time and again, this system leaves us indifferent, at best, or outraged, at worst. Yet, whenever the issue is raised of reforming the system to a more representative and proportionate one, people panic and, if given the chance, vote against it.* Why? Why is it that we so readily use sophisticated tools to make decisions that primarily affect only ourselves but, when it comes to making a decision that affects the entire country, we prefer a system that was “invented when people still thought the earth was flat”?** Are we really that selfish? I’d like to think not, but I do wonder, sometimes.
If Canadians continue to resist voting reform, we might as well go back to teaching students that Pluto is a planet…
… and the world is flat.
* I mean, not even adorable kitties could save the voting reform referendum in the UK!
** This quote has been attributed to Larry Gordon, former Executive Director of FairVote Canada, but I haven’t been able to find the original source.