In 1985, my wife and I owned and operated a cabinet shop. We did some interior renovations, but our goal was to settle into building and installing custom furniture. Wanting to play by the rules, I met with the town officials and the Building Inspector where our shop was located. I also did my best to comply with any and all State regulations that applied. Keep in mind that while Al Gore may have known about the Internet in 1985, I didn’t, so finding those regulations wasn’t always an easy task. One particular conversation surprised me back then, but I don’t think would surprise me today. I was trying to get some information from the folks at Environmental Protection. Our conversation went something like this:
“I operate this shop, and I periodically spray lacquer finishes. I end up with leftover material and a lot of lacquer thinner that is used in the cleaning process. I’m curious about what I have to do to properly dispose of this stuff.”
I figured that I would have to set up some kind of fireproof collection system and hook-up with a disposal service. Instead, the remainder of our conversation boiled down to:
“I’m going to assume that you have a dumpster. As long as you have some debris in your dumpster, pour that stuff over top of it, leave the lid open on the dumpster and let everything solidify or evaporate.”
It turns out that the person I was talking to was either responsible for or at least more concerned with groundwater contamination than airborne contaminants. Of course what goes into the air often comes down in rain water, but our shop was very close to the Massachusetts state line, so maybe the guy in CT was willing to take that risk. It didn’t matter, I didn’t end up spraying very much and this approach made my life much easier.
The reason I am no longer confused by that conversation is because I understand that, when it comes to questions, both the person asking the question and the person being asked influence the answer.
Several years after we closed our cabinet shop, I was waiting in the Orlando airport for my flight back to CT. Severe thunderstorms in Florida had the airport operating on backup power which supplied electricity to everything except the air conditioning – it was getting hot. The gate attendants kept slipping our departure time in 15-minute increments as we boiled in the concourse for hours. I finally asked one gate attendant where our plane was. It was in Miami. I asked how long it takes to fly from Miami to Orlando. It takes an hour. I asked why he kept incrementing the departure time by 15 minutes and he said “we don’t want you to become discouraged to the point that you cancel your flight.” I changed my flight to one leaving early the next day, left the hothouse and returned to the hotel I had been staying in. Back then you could do that without a fee. Today, the airlines probably want you to change your flight so they can collect a cool $150.
Sometimes, questions are asked and / or answered in order to give a false sense of security or certainty or clarity about a situation. I was once asked to attend a School Board meeting because the school officials wanted someone in the room who would be in favor of the budget they were presenting. I am a sucker for educational spending, but I explained that I was only one voice. That was OK. For each of a long number of accounts, several people would speak out against the proposed spending level. I was usually the lone person who spoke in favor of the request. That didn’t matter because when they wrote the minutes; they felt comfortable saying: “audience reaction was mixed” for each item. Ultimately, there was enough opposition to send the budget to a town-wide vote, but for the moment, the School Board thought that they were controlling the process by manipulating the input. I think this is an example of epistemic-closure at work (click on that link if you’re having trouble falling asleep). In other words, if we control the information gathering process and the reporting process, we can somehow control the results, or at least feel better about the process.
I prefer accurate and complete information, I like facts and I really like it when things are controlled by laws of nature. I have been known to hold onto an optimistic outlook long after popular wisdom has said that it’s fruitless (still a Steelers fan this season) but I do like to know that what I am doing or about to do is the right thing to do. I still do home-improvement projects, but they are mostly confined to our house. We have pulled a building permit for every home-improvement project we’ve ever done, and all of those projects meet or exceed the requirements outlined in the building code. I still like having a dumpster, in fact, for years the picture of our house in Google Earth showed a dumpster in the driveway, but I don’t have access to one on a regular basis. Despite the absence of a dumpster, I have been known to let small quantities of paint thinner evaporate, usually on sunny days when the wind is heading toward MA.