THIS is a true story about the cows that would not bulge. Despite subjecting them to electric cattle prods, they stood their ground in an act of collective defiance. The cows stood at the door of the slaughterhouse and would not go any further. What went wrong? No one had the answer.
Would the owners tear down the structure and build a new one? The cost would be prohibitive. They could not afford it. They sought the help of Temple Grandin, livestock expert extraordinaire. She was a professor of animal science at Colorado State University. She was autistic. She came, she saw, she found the cause and solved the problem.
No, the place was not jinxed or inhabited by poltergeists. It was simply about understanding the cow or the science of cows. Cows, like all animals, were “hyper-specific” according to her. They were drawn to minute details, unlike humans. Any slight change in the environment, in light, sound, smell, whatever — things that were insignificant to humans — made a lot of difference to animals. The entrance to the slaughterhouse was too dark. Unlike humans, the cows could not adjust their pupils to sudden change such as that. It was traumatic for them. The solution? Open the doors, provide more light and the cows came marching into the slaughterhouse.
This episode is narrated by Zachary Shore in his incredibly interesting, yet provocative book, Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions. There are many such episodes in the book, stories about how people, smart people, made stupid mistakes. They were very well informed, even well-intentioned, but they made unimaginably stupid blunders.
Shore draws examples from history, works of literature and contemporary events to remind us of our follies in decision-making. Those silly mistakes were made by emperors, conquerors, soldiers, thinkers, statesmen as well as ordinary men and women. The outcome of certain decisions would have been catastrophic had it been made by leaders. Empires crumbled because of that.
Luckily for the slaughterhouse owners, their mistakes would have only cost them a dip in profit had they rebuilt the structure. And the cows would have died pitifully knowing they had to suffer being electric-prodded and slaughtered thereafter. Grandin knew about livestock better than anyone. She believed the fact that she was autistic made her understand animals better. Autistic people are more sensitive to changes around them.
Don’t take her lightly. She did more than whispering the truth to the slaughterhouse owners and saved their money. Legend has it that when Dustin Hoffman was researching for the part of the autistic elder brother (Raymond Babbitt) in the 1988 movie, Rain Man, he went to her for advice on how to play the part.
Moral of the story: a person like Grandin sees things differently, unlike most of us. In this case she is seeing things from the perspective of the animals. She does it the animal way, to put it simply.
Even animals need to be understood. Humans must not assume animals can be coerced to do everything at their command.
Similarly, we fail miserably in dealing with fellow human beings simply because we make assumptions about them. We believe they are all the same or they are all like us. No one thinks alike. So, stop imposing our values onto others.
That is why John Gray’s book, Men Are From Mars, Women are From Venus is still selling like hot cakes. Gray reminds us of our blunders in handling intergender issues. We are guilty of projecting our own expectations. We miss the big picture because we assume the other sex is like us. In the case of male and female, not unlike east and west, as Rudyard Kipling famously said, never the twain shall meet. We are guilty of “mirror-imaging”.
Leaders make blunders believing they know best about everything. That is why governments made spectacular mistakes. The era of government knows best is over. The time when leaders are perceived as always right is not applicable anymore. The dynamics of society are transforming. Things are never the same again. It applies to all governments of the world.
Knowledge and information is being democratised as never before. Nothing is sacrosanct or sacred any more. Everyone has access to information, at any time. How the information is used is another matter. Truth is elusive and no one really cares.
In today’s world, it takes more than a well-lighted slaughterhouse even to get the cows marching in. Twitter @Johan_Jaaffar JOHAN JAAFFAR - NST Columnist 6 SEPTEMBER 2014 @ 8:07 AM