Challenging Assumptions

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the habits and knowledge in your life that you don’t realize are arbitrary. All the things you “know” or do because that’s just what you were told or the example you had to follow and then never really thought about again. For example, you can just eat the whole dang apple. It doesn’t really have a core and the seeds can’t hurt you unless you eat a huge number of them, so you are wasting a whole bunch of apple if you eat around the center, fibrous bit and throw that away.

As a child, I never ate the center and seeds as a result of two childhood beliefs mixing. The idea of seeds growing inside me was always upsetting and scary (an idea given to me by adults) and the “apple seeds have cyanide in them” bit of trivia, which was very popular in my age group since spies consuming cyanide in order to not get caught was also a popular idea at the time. As I grew up, I grew out of the first idea and, in high school, had an incredibly pedantic chemistry teacher (who took great joy in telling students everything they thought they knew was wrong) who told us we were foolish for believing apples could kill you. It wasn’t until college, when fresh fruit was a rare part of my diet and I was near-broke enough to not waste any food, that I started eating the whole apple. Now that’s just how I eat apples. From the bottom upward, chomping away at a side along the way so I can get to the core without getting my face covered in apple juice.

Growing up in the family situation I did, some of my other examples are a bit more nefarious and dangerous than this simple and fairly common example. For instance, my parents let me get to high school, my first bit of education that wasn’t homeschooling based on some incredibly reactionary and conservative christian models, before even introducing me to the idea that “creationism” wasn’t factual. I distinctly remembered the moment I learned that they didn’t even believe in it. I wasn’t too shocked at that time, to be honest. I’d long ago figured out my parents weren’t trustworthy sources of information on almost anything and had already spent the five prior months of my freshman year of high school learning a huge number of different things that they had failed to teach me or failed to correct my childish/misguided religious beliefs (both of which they had instilled in me).

So this probably isn’t as big a part of someone’s adult life as it is mine. I missed a lot of moments where access to other children with varying upbringings would have corrected my view of the world. I was too busy with the basics in high school to get to most of the more advanced experiences that my peers were exploring. I mean, despite being enrolled in a private religious high school that required me to wear a tie to school every day, I was never actually taught how to tie a tie. Or shave, for that matter. So it probably isn’t super surprising that I’m still always looking for things I think I know that are just entirely incorrect because I missed the point in my development that most people learn differently.

I think I’ve caught most of them at this point (since I’m having a difficult time coming up with recent examples), and I have actively worked to cultivate an attitude of not assuming things work the way I think they do. I do a lot of research about ordinary things (like how oils and soaps work in cooking and cleaning, and how different pots and pans react to gas, induction, and electric stove tops) and do my best to understand the “ordinary” things I interact with on a regular basis. For instance, I never spend money on paper napkins but tissues are essential. Napkins are just worse paper towels and a bit of a racket while tissues serve a specific purpose that neither paper towels or toilet paper can handle as well (gotta protect my nose and eyes from paper disintegrates and abrasion).

Trying to confront these biases, habits, and assumptions is the work of a lifetime. Even putting in as much work as I do, I’m sure there are some that I’ve missed. If an idea goes unchallenged long enough, it can be difficult to realize that it’s actually an assumption rather than just the way the world works. It helps that my job has been testing software for eight years and there’s a lot of focus in the industries I’ve worked in to combat “expert bias” which can be easily extended past the realm of familiarity with software into the realm of “familiarity” with the world.

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