Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sand Tigering – Making Subtle Distinctions Can Be Such A Hassle

Exchange between Paul Farmer (Harvard medical doctor, infectious disease expert, anthropologist, and MacArthur genius award winner) and an elderly Haitian TB patient.

This woman, who had followed the prescribed medical regime and been cured of TB, tells Farmer that she believes her TB was inflicted on her by someone’s sorcery.

Farmer finds this startling. If she believes that sorcery was behind her TB, why did she take her meds?

With a smile, she responds, “Honey, are you incapable of complexity?”

(Based on a passage in Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World, Tracy Kidder’s marvelous book published in 2003.)

Farmer saw this as an example of how people often hold contradictory views simultaneously. Sure, many people do that, often unthinkingly, and they are frequently incapable of seeing the contradictions. But, it seems to me that the elderly TB patient’s comment revealed something more. Where Farmer saw contradictions, she didn’t. Her view was more subtle than that. She recognized that the world isn’t black or white, there is truth to be found in many places, even in opinions or belief systems that may seem totally incompatible or contradictory.

Pity the Poor Sand Tiger Shark

Which leads me to the poor sand tiger shark. There’s a standard picture posted on the web by amateur collectors following a hunt for fossil shark teeth. Several large or rare teeth prominently occupy space in the picture – each carefully placed to stand out. But, to one side of the picture will be a chaotic lump of teeth, seemingly spilled in haste. The teeth in that lump are more likely than not from sand tigers.

Why? Because distinguishing among sand tiger species is hard work. It can be excruciatingly difficult with many species in the fossil record often differing in marginal ways. In the Chesapeake Bay area, for instance, fossil teeth are found from some 15 different sand tiger species spread among 4 different genera. (Bretton Kent, Fossil Sharks of the Chesapeake Bay Region, 1994)

Sand Tigering

From that practice with teeth, I’ve added a verb to my patois. Creating an indistinguishable lump of anything because the differences among its component parts are hard to identify, and then slapping a crude label on it, is sand tigering. We all do it. It’s so much easier to sand tiger than to draw careful, fine distinctions and run the risk of discovering truth where we didn’t expect, or want, to find it.

Sand tigering seems to be done with some greater intensity these days. In fact, in these stressful times, there’s Olympic-class sand tigering going on – for example, corporate bonuses (myriad practices lumped together, all bad), Republicans (all Rush Limbaugh), or government intervention in the economy (socialism). Hey, I'll admit that I sand tigered opponents of the Paleontological Resources Preservation law (an anti-government selfish cohort).

In light of all of this, there’s one question that each of us needs to answer:

“Honey, are you incapable of complexity?”

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