Why is Negative Capability important – for you?
(And why is abc ltd. now called The Space?)
It seems that uncertainty in all walks of life is on the rise. One’s instinct faced with uncertainty is to seek more information: search out facts and data to make sense of what is going on, perhaps turn to experts to help you understand that data. Post-truth is Oxford English Dictionary’s world of the year 2016 and research into our post-truth / post-fact world shows that it is no longer enough to lean on facts and experts to make sense of our confusingly uncertain political, business and personal environments. Nor are facts and experts useful in persuading others to join us in a course of action or to invest in a new way of thinking .
So what should we do?
We need to create ‘the space’.
What is ‘the space’?
At the start of 2017 BBC Radio 4 commissioned a series of programmes on the challenges of the year ahead. Nothing but the Truth was one such and examined the concept of post-truth. In it Dan Kahan, Professor of Law and Psychology at Yale Law School, discusses what he termed:
“the most depressing finding about the human brain ever.”
He described an experiment where he presented people with a set of data and asked them to interpret what it meant: what truth the data revealed. In some instances he’s stated the data referred to the link between gun control and crime. He told some other groups that the same data referred to the efficacy of skin cream. The panels he asked to interpret the data set were highly numerate – adept at the task – and yet where it ran counter to their instincts or ideologies they would work very hard indeed in order to ‘prove’ that it said the opposite. For example, numerate Democrats resisted the clear conclusions of the data presented to them that showed there was no link between unfettered gun ownership and crime. He described their reasoning process as:
“waterboarding the evidence until it tells them what they wanted to hear.”
Elsewhere on the same show, Stephan Lewandowsky, Professor of Cognitive Science at Bristol University, discussed The Backfire Effect. This describes the process whereby a group of people presented with new facts running counter to their current ideology or model of the world will tend to discount or ignore those facts and in a significant number of cases actually strengthen the opinion they already hold that the data clearly disproves. And this isn’t just an interesting finding ‘in the population’. It’s an effect we all tend to exhibit…you…me…and is most strongly displayed by those who have a level of expertise in the field in question. So if some strong evidence pops up to undercut a belief you have about your job, for example, you’re likely to strengthen that belief because of the data disproving it.
Think about that for a second!
This is a form of Confirmation Bias, the recently much researched phenomena that has been anecdotally reported for some time, as Francis Bacon (1561–1626), noted:
“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion … draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises, or else by some distinction sets aside or rejects.”
So faced with increasing uncertainty our skillset and mindset must be to create a space – ‘the space’ – protected from ideology, existing personal feelings and instincts. Because when uncertainty strikes, the instinct is to take the facts we’re faced with and waterboard them until they tell use what we already believe, rather than make sense of what is actually happening. Hence The Space: a company dedicated to making ‘the space’ for what is right to emerge, for the truth to be discovered…or at least be given the benefit of the doubt.
Why Negative Capability? Because facts do not equal truth
If facts do not equal truth as we experience it, then should we ignore them? Well of course not. They’re just as important as ever. What is also just as important, though, is to develop a skillset and mindset that helps us see them in a clear-eyed context.
John Keats said:
“Negative Capability…is when [a person] is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
The instinct to reach after facts in the face of a threat or uncertainty or problem will not lead to ‘the truth’. A skillset and mindset to create ‘the space’ whereby a possible truth might emerge is the first, necessary step. Only then is one in a position to seek, apply or understand the facts or data to test that possible truth, solution, plan, strategy or concept.
This is the purpose or The Space: to pioneer the understanding and application of Negative Capability as the new essential skillset and mindset to thrive amidst the increasingly uncertain environments that we all encounter in our professional and personal lives.