Dr Livingstone, I Presume?

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You’ve all heard the famous line, “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” I’m probably quoting it wrong. I could check on Google, but who’s to say that’s right. I presume it would be; but I don’t know with certainty. On balance it probably is.

I have had reason to contemplate presumption a lot the last few months. We all do it, we presume things and we also assume things. They have similar but subtly different meanings.

Presume means: “Suppose something is the case on the basis of probability.”

Assume means: “Suppose something to be the case without proof.”

There is some reason behind our presumptions, we are basing it on probability; of course, we can still be wrong. Whereas assumptions have absolutely no evidence to back them up. That’s why it has the easy to remember mnemonic “Assumption makes an ass of you and me.”

This blog is about presumption. Because even though there is often reason to come to the conclusion we do; we are so often wrong. Think of all the detective stories you’ve ever read or seen as a film. All those ‘red herrings’, things are not always as they seem. We can have a lot of facts and evidence and still draw the wrong conclusion. Our presumption can still be wrong.

I used to be a professional photographer, many years ago. Not quite when there were glass plates and exploding powder for flashes, but not long after. I am still keen on photography; I just can’t easily do it. I understand the principles. One of which is the compression of distance that happens with a long lens. In other words, if you use a lens that is designed to make a distant object appear closer it also squashes together all the different distances, things that are close, middle and far off. The effect is as if an object near you is closer to a far-off object than it really is. This effect can be deliberately used in movies for a thriller effect. In a car chase the car behind can seem to be closer than it really is. It can also be used in portrait photos. If you have ever wondered why, you don’t look your best on a phone camera, it’s because they have wide angle lenses. The longer the lens (a lens designed to take far off images) the better you will look. That’s because it softens facial features. Flattens out the angles of our faces. Some new phone cameras have long lenses as an alternative, try using it. You may find that you no longer have to use Fairy Ears, an overlay of stars or the beatify setting. You could even have a photo of you as your profile pic rather than an avatar. Of course I’m presuming you’d prefer that, or am I assuming?

I have gone right off topic, no surprise there. The point I wanted to make was that presumption can get us into trouble. We have some facts, weigh them up and come up with a conclusion. But it can be wrong. It’s not until we are talking to someone who knows the truth that our presumption is shown to be wrong. Now this might only be me, but I find it hard to let go of a pet theory. Which means if I have come up with an idea based on the facts I knew, I am not ready to let go of it. It’s probably why a lot of arguments start. After all who wants to back down? We are often more ready to believe the conclusions we have drawn; even if based on our faulty presumptions, rather than change them.

You don’t have to think very far to come up with examples of what I am talking about. Covid, Brexit, vaccination, race, employment, disability, politics, media, etc.

My conclusion is this. Sometimes it is better to look silly and admit you have got it wrong rather than continue with a faulty presumption. After all for a presumption to be truth, it needs to be more than a series of probabilities. It needs factual evidence and testing.

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