Saturday, June 25, 2005

Dining With Jeff - New York Times

Patricia Nelson Limerick, a prominent historian of the West, is a guest op-ed writer for the Times. Today she mentions (registration required) the John Adams/Thomas Jefferson reconciliation and correspondence over the 12+ years before they died. She goes on to cite her husband, now dead:
"When I find myself puzzled and even vexed by the opinions and beliefs of other people, I invite them to have lunch. Multiple experiments have supported what we will call, in Jeff's honor, the Limerick Hypothesis: in the bitter contests of values and political rhetoric that characterize our times, 90 percent of the uproar is noise, and 10 percent is what the scientists call 'signal,' or solid, substantive information that will reward study and interpretation. If we could eliminate much of the noise, we might find that the actual, meaningful disagreements are on a scale we can manage."
Acting on this rule, she's invited Bill Moyers and James Watt (Reagan's Interior Secretary) to lunch. Will be interesting if it comes off. I suspect many, perhaps most, Americans of the non-political class would want to believe in the hypothesis; I certainly do. I remember one of the management classes I had focused on eliminating noise from communication--one exercise was to "confirm" what you heard; try to restate in your own words what you thought the other party was saying. It often works, at least in work contexts. We often jump to conclusions. I often drove my employees up the wall by asking them to take baby steps--describe a little piece of a problem until I was sure I understood it, then go on to the next. Surprisingly often the problem would disappear or the fix would appear in the process.

But it's easy to over-estimate this. If Gerry Adams and Rev. Paisley sat down for lunch in some Belfast pub (Paisley might well be teetotal), even under the guidance of the best possible facilitator they'd still have irreconcilable differences.

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