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Is you glass half-full or half-empty?

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01 May 2017, at 1:00am

Dr DAVID WILLIAMS examines the concepts behind how we view the world around us and asks: are we discovering knowledge or constructing it ourselves?

MY COMPUTER NOW HAS A RATHER ANNOYING “ASSISTANT” - Cortana – who sits at the bottom of the screen imploring “ask me anything”. When I asked “what is the meaning of life?” she took four seconds of “thinking” before she (why do I ascribe a female gender to her?) came up with the answer, “Some say 42, but I don’t know why,” and then led me to the Wikipedia pages on the “Meaning of Life.” That took me from the Absurdism of Keirkegard’s The Sickness Unto Death back in 1849, which I must admit I hadn’t delved into much, to Zooroastronism which apparently “combines a cosmogonic dualism and eschatological monotheism” although Wikipedia tells me that “bettersourcing [is] needed” – enough said! Interestingly, I didn’t find 42 in the Wikipedia piece – maybe he/she/ it (not to be gender-biased this time) hasn’t read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But there I am, I’m afraid, going off on a bit of a tangent as is all too often my wont! Let’s get back to where we started. Is Cortana a glass half-full or a glass half-empty person? Interestingly, she avoids the question and takes me straight to an interesting paper by McKenzie and Nelson from the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review of 2003 entitled: “What a speaker’s choice of frame reveals: Reference points, frame selection, and framing effects.” This tells me of an intriguing experiment where a group of students was shown a glass full of water and then asked to leave the room. The water was removed until the glass only contained half as much. The students re-entered the room and had to say if they thought the glass was half-empty or half-full. A different group was shown a glass one-quarter-full, which on their re-entry they found had been filled to the half-way mark. You can imagine the differences in what the students said. As McKenzie and Nelson note, the answer depends on the context in which the question is asked. So then, what is reality? Does it exist out there separate and independent of us or is everything we think of as “the world out there” really just our construction of what we perceive it to be? Are you a naïve realist or more of a constructivist? Not someone keen on Meccano or Lego bricks, you understand, but rather someone who always looks at his or her surroundings with an eye to how that very looking changes things. How that very question we ask might change the answer we are given.

A positive light or negative shadow?

Does “How is little Timmy today?” frame the beginning of our consultation in a more positive light than “What is the problem with little Timmy today?”? Now there’s an interesting little study! Does posing our introductory question in the consultation as looking for a problem cast a negative shadow on our interaction with the owner? In 25-plus years of consulting, I don’t think I ever asked that question. How remiss of me! Our students get introduced to communication skills at the very beginning of their course together with improving their animal handing expertise, but I’m not sure that question is posed – I must ask them next term. Life today is very different from 30-odd years ago when the only animals we saw for the first two years were on their backs with their legs in the air ready to be dissected. And nobody thought to instruct us on how to talk to clients; you just picked it up while seeing practice and then taught yourself by trial and error. Thinking about it, maybe that is the best way of getting to grips with talking to owners – one can be taught the Cambridge-Calgary model in the lecture theatre and try it out with actors in a consultation skills workshop, but it’s not until you are doing it every day that you construct your own way of interacting with people. That is how we learnt to communicate with others in nursery and playgroup, isn’t it? That’s how we learn about the world around it – by constructing our understanding of our surroundings ourselves rather than being given that knowledge on a plate. Indeed, radical constructivists like Ernst von Glasersfeld – whose book Radical Constructivism, A Way of Knowing and Learning I’m ploughing through at the moment (or does that very phrase show how I’m constructing my understanding of his work?) - would say that knowledge isn’t out there to be discovered; it’s in our heads being constructed as we think. Truth be told (if there is truth to be told!), my wife’s way of looking at things is very different from mine. Her construction of our family life varies widely from mine. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year I think, though my wife would probably tell you that I live in a completely different solar system, or even inhabit a parallel universe! But my world and my world view must be very different too from that of my students and the clients who bring their animals to me. And I guess that trying to step into their shoes, as it were, might be a rather futile task – even a potentially dangerous one – if I think I can really understand their perspective fully. Maybe just realising that my world cannot be their world is better than trying to imagine myself into theirs with all the possible misunderstandings that might bring.

Six years of separation

I tell the students on their first day at St John’s that all that separates us is six years of exams and a bit of life experience – and that is what college will give them. A bit naïve you might think, as is my suggestion that their prime aim should be having a first-class life here rather than necessarily getting a first-class degree, though the two aren’t necessarily incompatible! A big concern of mine is that students, and indeed some of my fellow staff members too, seem to have a much tougher time of it than I did at vet school. Money worries didn’t really exist with the full grant I got, given I came from a single-parent family. There seemed far less stress on
working oneself into the ground to pass the hundreds of tests that seem to rear their ugly heads every few weeks now, rather than the end-of-year exams we had which could be forgotten about till a few weeks of cramming before them, or at least that’s how I remember those halcyon days now. Or was it just that having a glass-half-full attitude even when there were problems seemed to make them much less of an issue? Indeed, life back then, and even now most of the time, I think seems neither half-full or half-empty
but rather brimming over – I do hope the same is true for you!