Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Straight Thinking 101, part 3:

When is a “Fact” a Fact?


Early this morning, I caught Donald Rumsfeld on CSPAN, thanks to having to baby-sit a misbehaving’ PC that ate my Corel Draw 8 CD at 1 am – and won’t give it back.

Rummy was in fine fettle for an International Business Leaders’ Forum, and straightaway said two things that caught my ear:

(1) The Media-tried and convicted “Unilateralist” Dubya has assembled the largest coalition ever assembled – 90 countries – in the War on Terror. And, he did so while refusing to entangle himself in conditionalities that would make the coalition pointless and ineffective.

(2) In situations such as the world now faces, decisions have to be made under pressure of the very highest stakes, in a very limited window of time, and with high uncertainty, in the light of sketchy and often contradictory information.

That takes us right back to the relevance of our Acts 27 case on straight thinking in collective decision-making. For, as we saw last time, the Centurion of the Imperial Household had gone with the experts and the majority, only to see the ship – having set sail on a gentle south wind to creep along the coast to a more commodious harbour – caught up in a 14-day, hurricane-force Nor’easter. [The Greek word is”typhoon”!]

Now, with the ship in a damaged and sinking condition, Paul the Apostle/Appeals Prisoner again intervened, with a prophetic message. This time, he had a far more receptive audience.

And, duly, the ship soon approached land:

Acts 15:27 On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land. They took soundings and found that the water was a hundred and twenty feet deep. A short time later they took soundings again and found it was ninety feet deep. Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight.

In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, "Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved."

So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it fall away.

Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. "For the last fourteen days," he said, "you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food--you haven't eaten anything. Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head."

After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. Altogether there were 276 of us on board.

When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea.

When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could.

Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf.

The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. But the centurion wanted to spare Paul's life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land.

The rest were to get there on planks or on pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land in safety. [27 – 44.]

Notice how the Apostle’s prophetic leadership injected hope into the confused and desperate situation, and gave the Centurion the wisdom to spot and pre-empt the seamen’s ruse that would have abandoned the passengers to the hazards of the sea. Here again, we see “experts” acting in their own interest.

Then, the soldiers (who would have been executed if prisoners escaped) wished to kill the prisoners, as they had the power to do under the laws of Rome. Again, we see self-interested, even unjust advice and intent to abuse power (over a prisoner who it was obvious was innocent!). The Centurion demurred, putting his life in the hands of Paul.

Thus, all 276 souls were saved, but only because good advice was discerned and acted on, in the face of self-interested and even deceitful counsels by experts and power-brokers.

Clearly then, what the “facts” are is often hotly contested in a crisis, and so there has to be a decision on who to trust. Thus, we see the critical importance of integrity, and of the courage to stand alone when bad counsel is being given.

What disasters could have been avoided if the Centurion had taken sound, but unpopular advice at the first! But, he did learn from experience, whose counsel to trust.

So, when we see the multitudes of yakking and mutually contradictory opinion-makers, experts, advisors and consultants of our time, we would do well to heed the issue: no advisor is better than his facts and reasoning.

Further, where we must go on balances of probabilities – as is true in most real-world cases -- it is sounder to go with prudence and with the counsel of men of high integrity, when much is at stake.

Had this been heeded in many of our region’s countries, it would have saved us much grief.

Next time, let us explore the issue of the balance of probabilities a bit more, for down that path lies a great deal of wisdom.

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