Counterintuitive Thinking

In case I forget to ask you later, somewhere in your Notes today, please tell me what specific example in the lecture provided you with the clearest understanding of what I mean by counterintuitive, and why.

Before we begin writing a semester-worthy Research Position Paper on a counterintuitive topic, you’ll be wanting to know what I mean by counterintuitive.

I haven’t always had an outlet for my particular slant on life, but I know now it’s not particularly special or uncommon. A some point in Catholic grade school I started to wonder if maybe God was made in man’s image instead of the other way around. I know already from your “Why is there a Universe?” essays that some of you have similar suspicions. 


Maybe because we can’t comprehend eternity, we call eternity God. And because we can’t comprehend infinite space without bounds, we call the limitless universe God. We can’t accept the lack of justice on earth, so we imagine heaven where the scales are all balanced. If so, God doesn’t resolve the incomprehensibility of anything; deity is just a way to think about things we can’t understand.


What we believe to be the case is probably not. Call this a scientific way of thinking. Every conclusion, as soon as it’s proven, is subject to fresh dispute. That may sound like a recipe for despair, or it may sound like progress. For those of us who describe our religious views on Facebook as: “Faith in unanswerable questions,” it’s nothing special.

Speaking of Facebook, you’ve probably noticed this interesting social development:

Facebook has more gender categories than the Olympics

Instead of forcing users to identify as merely male or female, Facebook first introduced a third massive category of “custom” gender options including “transgender,” “cisgender,” “gender fluid,” “intersex,” and “neither.” That satisfied users for awhile, but it’s been replaced by a drop-down menu that still lists several options:

But the search field also permits users to customize their gender identification any way they like. I’ve chosen “Who’s asking?” just to be playful, but for users uncomfortable with binary gender categories, this flexibility must be truly liberating.

I don’t know whether this will solve or further complicate a problem social media has always had of not knowing what to call us when they recommend us to others. You’ve probably noticed oddities such as, “David Hodges would like you to view their page.” Now that I’m allowed to select the pronoun I wish to be addressed by, Facebook can comfortably call me “he” and my pages “his pages.”

To be totally honest, I don’t get to choose my true preferred pronouns, which are “we” and “our” as in, “We would like you to view our page,” said the Queen, or the Editors.

The Facebook gender evolution reminded me about Olympic athletes from ages ago whose genders created questions or disputes. Chinese gymnasts of earlier games, required by the rules to be at least 16, are thought to have been as young as 12 or 13 (girls, not women; not exactly a gender problem, but a category problem). Also loudly whispered was the question: were the 14- and 15-year-old competitors fed hormones to delay their advancing development from girlhood to womanhood so that they could still be girls when they became Olympic women?

On the other extreme, were Russian athletes in strength competitions actually genetic gentlemen competing against the ladies, or again steroid-fed women whose physiques were artificially masculine?

The Olympics stopped routine gender testing in 1999, but individuals can still be tested if their appearance causes enough dispute among rivals. Indian sprinter Dutee Chand endured hormone tests that determined the amount of testosterone her body naturally produces gave her an unfair advantage against the other women in her event.

Now finally, there are some women competing in bobsled contests, but still the gender divide is fairly complete: Men’s Downhill, and Women’s Downhill. How long can these binary categories last when in the rest of our lives we’re invited to be more selective in which gender we “present” to the world? And if gender is truly fluid, or doesn’t matter, or is disputable beyond proving, would it be better or worse to eliminate the categories altogether and open all events to all genders and ages?


My Shopping List is an Argument

I will certainly tell you many times this semester that every written document is an argument. I challenge students with this premise all the time because it sounds so implausible, but I’d like to present a shopping list as an example of what I believe to be a written argument, written for a particular audience, which becomes a battleground for dispute in the hands of any other reader.


As long as I (the intended audience) have this list with me, my reader is unlikely to argue with its premises. But even so, I may decide to substitute Haagen-Dasz for Breyers if the price is right. However, if my wife takes the list to the store on my behalf, she may present compelling counterarguments to my “editorial position” on the following grounds or others:

  1. Who needs premium ice cream?
  2. Will he even notice the difference between conventional kale and organic kale (Is there actually a difference?)?
  3. We already have plenty of drawstring bags.
  4. We don’t have room for 24 more seltzer bottles.
  5. Since when do we buy beef specifically for the dogs?
  6. Even if the per-pill price is significantly cheaper, I can’t believe we’ll use 1000 ibuprofen before their effectiveness expires.

Diarists Lie

On this topic, please remind me to argue that a diary is written for a very specific audience and therefore is as manipulative and artificial as any other piece of writing. (If you need a preview of this demonstration I will direct you to Francine Prose’s wonderful examination of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, titled Anne Frank The Book, The Life, the Afterlife, in which she argues convincingly that the Diary was extensively edited by Frank for the sake of future readers.)

Mitt’s Audience

On this topic also, I could share with you the video captured at Mitt Romney’s campaign fundraiser during the runup to the 2012 presidential election. If you can imagine him making the same speech to any other audience, then you haven’t started thinking seriously about how exactly we craft what we write to suit our intended readers.


Duchamp’s Readymades

Marcel Duchamp made very few pieces of art, but the few he made were enormously influential, in part because they challenged the question of what makes art art.

Here is the artist with Bicycle Wheel, a rude combination of a wheel and a stool combined in such a way that they are both deprived of their function. They no longer serve any purpose and therefore can be nothing but either art or trash. 

After a pre-pandemic visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where I had revisited some of his work, I found myself handling paring knives and graters in the kitchen, and asking myself the seemingly simple question: is this item art?


It’s certainly beautifully designed and crafted, but my instinct tells me its functionality prevents it from being art. My working definition is that art is something created for no other purpose than to be observed or experienced. Still, I’m disputatious, so I didn’t let that first impression stop me. It certainly didn’t stop Duchamp from calling this art:


He didn’t create it, design it, weld it, or change it in any way except to sign it and remove it from the place where it would have had a function. Placing it into an art gallery, for Duchamp, and for the rest of the art world, effectively transformed a wire bottle rack into a piece of art. So maybe my definition still works. Maybe not. Do you have a better definition for art you could pursue as a counterintuitive topic?


Tim’s Vermeer

While I was puzzling over ready-mades and washing dishes, I was reminded that I hadn’t yet seen a documentary that had been on my list.

The Dutch painter Vermeer is well-known for his remarkably realistic interiors in which people and furniture are carefully arranged. He handled perspective perfectly, long before other painters had a clue how to realistically portray actual items in space.


Inventor Tim Jenison thought he might have an idea how Vermeer accomplished his remarkable achievement. He knew, as many did, that pinhole cameras had been used by artists for years to project images onto walls for reproduction.


LINK: “How to Turn a Room into a Camera Obscura

Jenison is an inventor, not a painter, so he wondered more about how such a “machine” might help him accomplish a job than about whether the result would be art. This early question eventually led him to discover that he too could accomplish remarkably “artistic” results through mostly mechanical means. First, he built a room like the room in Vermeer’s “Music Lesson.”


Then, he dressed models in appropriate clothing.


Then, using mirrors to reflect images of the room just in front of his canvas, he mixed paints to match what he saw before him, and, without any artistic training, he produced facsimiles of the images he placed before the mirrors.

Link to the video

After years of practice, trial, error, and corrections, he has upset a lot of people by painting this:


One More About Art

Alexa Meade has a different way of representing three-dimensional objects as two-dimensional objects. She paints directly on the objects, turning them from objects into paintings.

This isn’t a painting of breakfast. It’s breakfast, painted.


And this is not a painting of a man on a bus. It’s a man on a bus, painted.

Man on Bus

Here’s how it looks when she’s working on it.


Here’s how it looks when other people look at it:

At the installation

Let’s apply a different way of thinking to some real-life social and ethical issues.

Bariatric Surgery

Do you have a strong feeling about bariatric surgery? I don’t. I’m sympathetic toward people who can’t seem to keep their weight under control despite their best efforts. I’ve conducted enough skirmishes with my own body to appreciate that our appetites are not merely desires we can control with “will power.”

I also don’t think “will power” is a commodity we all have access to in the same supply. So a person whose body conspires to withhold every calorie, who also lacks the psychological ability to deny himself, or the physiological signal that tells the rest of us we’re “full,” is just cursed and needs some help.

So, why does this story from the Wall Street Journal disturb me so much?

“As the World’s Kids Get Fatter, Doctors Turn to the Knife.”

Child Bariatric

Daifailluh al-Bugami, 3 years old, is awaiting bariatric surgery. Daifailluh is among a rapidly growing number of kids in Saudi Arabia undergoing radical surgery to control their weight. In the last seven years, Daifailluh’s doctor has performed bariatric surgery on nearly 100 children under the age of 14 from countries in the Gulf region.

Euthanasia for Kids

This one takes questions of age-appropriateness to an extreme. From the New York Times: “Belgian lawmakers gave final approval on Thursday to a measure that would allow euthanasia for incurably ill children enduring insufferable pain. King Philippe is expected to sign the measure into law and make Belgium the first country to lift all age restrictions on legal, medically-induced deaths.

“Under the measure, approved 86 to 44 by the lower house, euthanasia would be permissible for terminally ill children who are close to death, experiencing ‘constant and unbearable suffering’ and can show a ‘capacity of discernment,’ meaning they can demonstrate they understand the consequences of such a choice.”

As you can imagine, despite the majority in the legislature, the prospect of letting kids decide to die, and helping them do so, has some very vehement opponents.

Why do I consider this question counterintuitive?
There are more than two points of view here.

  • Some might object to assisted suicide period.
  • Others might insist we all have the right to end our lives if they’ve grown intolerable.
  • Those in the middle might think it’s acceptable for the very elderly to end their lives slightly prematurely but be appalled at the prospect of ending a child’s life.
  • All three points of view are counterintuitive.

What’s counterintuitive about them?

  • We can’t actively promote killing ourselves without feeling the natural resistance of our bodies to preserve themselves.
  • We can’t logically insist that our loved ones continue to suffer after they’ve concluded that their lives are worth more to us than to themselves and very little to either.
  • And if we want to claim that the elderly have a right that is somehow unavailable to youth, let me suggest this:
    • Distance from birth is one way to calculate age; distance from death is another.
    • By the second calculation, the child with the terminal illness is older than you and me.

When a Raise is a Bad Thing

Your classmate Naima works in healthcare. Yesterday she shared with me a brilliant counterintuitive insight. Eligibility for Medicaid, the government’s program that provides healthcare benefits to the poor, is determined by the applicant’s income as a percentage of the Federal Poverty Limit (FPL). Make less than a certain percentage of the limit, you qualify for benefits; make more than that percentage, and you don’t. (Notice the clever use of that semicolon!)

What that means to some of Naima’s clients is that they can’t afford to get a raise. The amount of additional money they might make would not match the amount of healthcare benefits they would lose by exceeding the poverty-limit threshold. They have to make ridiculously complicated choices. Could earning more get them out of a bad housing situation? Or help them afford healthier food? Or help them escape violence? Maybe. Probably. And wouldn’t that improve their health? Probably.

And if they were healthier, wouldn’t the loss of the healthcare benefit matter less than the improvements to their lives? Who can make that calculation? Who can afford to make that calculation? 


If you want to change the world . . .

change the metaphors we use to describe it.

Here is a sleeping dog:

Sleeping Dog

But add just two little black dots, and here is what a predator sees when considering whether to attack the “sleeping dog.”

Dog Awake2

Now that you’ve seen the extra set of “eyes” above the dog’s eyes, you can never un-see them. Practice finding that in your arguments. Give your readers a perspective they can never un-read.

If you haven’t already done so in your Notes today, please tell me what specific example in the lecture provided you with the clearest understanding of what I mean by counterintuitive, and why.

About davidbdale

Inventor of and sole practitioner of 299-word Very Short Novels.
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4 Responses to Counterintuitivity

  1. thecommoncase says:

    My favorite counterintuitive example was Alexa Mead’s art


  2. capched says:

    Counterintuitivty – Capched

    You expect something to go one way but it ends up going in the complete opposite way.

    EX: Your intuition when you give a thirsty person water is for them to drink it, but they end up throwing it away instead.

    A shopping list is an argument. You’re arguing with yourself. Getting something better than what is on the list: If you can find better evidence, it validates that the original idea is an argument because it’s possible to overturn it. Art is also counterintuitive. Paintings may seem what it’s not.

    Euthanasia- Assisted suicide. If you’re suffering too much you can ask the doctor to give you options of ending your life. Euthanasia for Kids: A child has to be suffering unconditionally, close to death, and have enough discernment for life. It’s counterintuitive. Let a child live because of selfishness?


    • davidbdale says:

      Capched, I notice you left your Class Notes here for WED FEB 03 instead of at the Agenda for Class 04 WED FEB 03. I’ll try to remember to grade your Notes for today appropriately, but if I forget, and you get a 0/3 for this class, please remind me.


  3. cfalover says:

    The best counterintuitive example for me was the shopping list example. You may write down specific groceries to get when you go shopping, but then once you’re there you may see a different brand and then in fact, you’re arguing with yourself. You are trying to prove that this brand is a better deal, but the list says otherwise. This is very counterintuitive.


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