The Weight of the Iron Block 

Cadillac Motors (January 1978 – August 1983) was a good learning ground for me. I’m not speaking about professional learning — engineering stuff and the like — although there was some of that as well. I’m referring to learning things about people. For instance, there was this thing we did with a small iron block. If we had a newcomer, we would casually steer the conversation toward how much the block weighed. We’d lift the block, heft it in our hands, look pensive and throw out a weight.

“About a pound,” one person would say.

“More like twenty ounces,” another person would say.

“No, no; I think it’s closer to one pound,” a third person would say.

This would go on for a few minutes, and then the discussion would turn into a bet. Everyone would write down their guess for the weight, and we would then march down to the lab to weigh the block. The one farthest from the actual weight would buy coffee for everyone.

And so we did that; each person wrote their guess on a piece of paper which they folded and carried down to the scale, we weighed the block, and then each would show what they wrote down. The block was eight ounces, and everyone was within a few ounces of the actual weight . . . except for the new guy. His guess was high by at least four or five ounces.

You see, he was swayed by hearing other people in the group guess high. He probably knew the block didn’t weigh a pound but still guessed high because of what he heard.

It consistently worked, and yes, it worked on me. I guessed high because the discussion made me unsure of what I knew, and it made me unsure because of three reasons. One, everyone else seemed fairly sure about their opinion. Two, I didn’t want to be the one to be way off from the “norm” of the group, to be an outlier. Three, they all had more seniority than I had and I accorded them a measure of “knowing” better than me.

There were other lessons while I worked there, some of them not pleasant, but it was all an invaluable education.

Why do I bring this up?

Let’s talk a bit about the iron block and what happened.

Basically, everyone agreed to lie to — or, if you prefer, to mislead —an individual for the gain of the group. The ruse is immediately evident to the target, but the cost is fairly low, and the target can’t really complain that much. They were free to choose a weight representative of what they thought and could have gone with what they knew to be (likely) true. A good laugh is had, and the target is drafted into the group as they wait for the next target.

Note that everyone — except the target — in this scenario knows the weight of the iron block.

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Let’s consider other possibilities.

Consider we still have the iron block, but no one knows the weight. Assume that guessing the correct weight is important to the group. We now have a situation where people will use their own judgment and experience and a host of other factors to arrive at a guess that they will then present to the group. These are all independent guesses based on people’s own examination of the iron block.

It is highly probable the majority of guesses will cluster close to the actual weight with fewer and fewer guesses populating the outer bands on either side. A classic bell curve distribution.  You could see this in action on the show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” where trusting the vote of the audience was usually a good bet. This is a case where group consensus works.

What if someone speaks up and says “I have weighed the block. It’s exactly (X) ounces”?

A few more things come into play, but let’s examine just two considerations and their interactions. One, is the individual trustworthy and, two, is the claimed weight reasonable?

One might imagine that if an individual is known to lie, people might ignore the information and continue with their own assessment. But, if the weight seems plausible, one might cautiously buy into the claim because they can’t see a reason why the person might lie as it doesn’t benefit the group and hence themselves.

Another possibility is the individual is not known to lie, and the weight seems plausible. That’s almost a no-brainer. You trust the individual and the weight.

What if the individual is not known to lie, but the claimed weight seems unreasonable? Now you’re in a quandary because you want to trust the individual (easier than coming up with your own guess) but what he claims doesn’t make sense based on what you know.

Some will decide to trust the individual while others will still go with what they think is right. Of course, if the weight the individual claims is ridiculously off, it’s again a no-brainer; you don’t even try to explain why the individual might claim the impossible weight; you just ignore it.

Just for fun, let’s take a group of individuals and imagine different scenarios.

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Scenario #1 – no one knows the weight of the iron block, group bias toward high or low.

Say a majority in the group have an interest in the guess being heavier than it is — or lighter; it doesn’t matter which. Why? Imagine the guess is tied to allocations of funds or resources. Whichever way the group leans, the bell curve will shift toward that preference.  

The bell curve distribution is still useful, especially if you know there is a bias to the group. This assumes you’re an independent observer; if you’re in the group, you’re probably not aware of any bias.

Scenario #1a – a few have weighed the iron block, the group still has a bias toward high or low.

The majority still has a bias, but a few people know — or claim to know — the answer. A couple of things might happen. One, people might reassess their bias if they trust the people who profess to know the weight. Two, people with the bias might ignore the people who know the answer, preferring instead to hold to their bias (belief).

We’re now moving away from the bell curve distribution. Meaning, as the observer, you can’t rely on the distribution to tell you much about the weight of the iron block.

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Scenario #2 – no one knows the weight of the iron block, there is no group bias, but some members of the group would personally benefit if the weight was guessed on the high side (or low; it doesn’t matter which).

In this scenario, a few individuals have an incentive (self-interest) to sway the guess of the group. These individuals might employ their charm and oratory proficiency toward swaying the guess along their own personal preference.  

Or, if they have no charm, they might enlist the aid of someone who does; say, a respected member of the group. In this case, all that person has to do is convince this respected member and indirectly sway the opinion of a significant number of people.

Once again, as an outside observer, the distribution tells us nothing of the actual weight of the iron clock. However, if you know of the bias, you could infer something about the guess. If the bias was for a heavier guess, you could infer the actual weight is lower.

Scenario #2a – throw a monkey wrench in there;  say that the person with the self-interest is unable to convince the respected member, but perhaps offers a bribe to enlist the respected member’s help in swaying people’s guesses. The respected member might not want to lie, but they’re offered money to build an orphanage. The respected member might reason the good done by the orphanage outweighs misleading people.

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Scenario #3 – no one knows the weight of the iron block, there is no group bias but some members of the group would benefit if the guessed weight on the high side (or low; it doesn’t matter which) while other members of the group would benefit if the guess was the opposite.

In this scenario, a few individuals have an incentive (self-interest) to sway the guess of the group but in opposite directions. These individuals might employ their charm and oratory proficiency toward swaying the group consensus along their own personal preference.  

Or, if they have no charm, they might enlist the aid of someone who does; say, a respected member of the group. In this case, the group will be subject to competing lobbying by different respected members. The integrity, honesty, and track record of the individual respected members come into play. People will side with one or the other.  

Once again, as an outside observer, the distribution tells us nothing of the actual weight of the iron clock. Not only that, we now can’t even infer anything about the weight because the majority of the guesses are solely driven by a biased interest and we don’t know the distribution.

Scenario #3a – assume all as in scenario #3 except that — same as in scenario #2a —multiple respected members are being bribed with orphanages and shelters for abused women and other worthy causes.  

Note two things:
1) the individual respected members now have a personal gain tied to their position as trusted members of the group.
2) the person(s) with more money is likely able to offer more incentive (bribes) to further their interests.

Scenario #3b – assume all as in scenario #3a except that some of the persons with a self-interest who don’t have enough money decide that a way to counter the monetary deficit is to denigrate the respected individuals arguing for the other side. At the same time, they try to enhance the image of — and respect for — their own bribed individuals.

Well, to do that, they need yet another entity. Let’s call this entity The Press.

So, The Press reports on the good and bad things associated with the various respected individuals and that helps sway the group to lean one way or the other.

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. . . you can see where I’m going with this, right? Let me speed through it.

The Press begins to report stuff, but The Press has its own bias. I mean, it purports to report fairly, but humans being what they are, there’s always editorializing. Still, overall, it’s reasonably balanced. Besides, the group knows which members of The Press hold which bias and adjust accordingly.

Well, crap. If you are the person with the self-interest, this is not helping at all.

What you really need is for the group — or at least the majority of it — to fall in line with your own self-interests. But, why would they? They have nothing to gain from it. In fact, they probably have something to lose if one assumes the goal is to accurately guess the weight of the iron block.

What’s one to do? I know, this is getting long, so let me summarize.

Fear. You use fear to sway people by exaggerating the negative impact of the other position.

When someone calls you on it, pointing out facts, telling your supporters that the weight of the iron block can’t possibly be what you say it is, you accuse them of lying. You point to other times they have lied (or made a mistake; it doesn’t really matter). You omit some information while distorting other or even fabricate stuff that makes your group feel better about themselves and about supporting you. Here, it helps if you buy/create your own Press outlet.

At the same time, the “other side” is doing the exact same thing.

Soon, people on each side no longer trust anything the other side has to say, and there’s real animosity between the groups because they each view the other as a threat to their family, safety, and way of life.

It’s now a game of inches because the normal distribution of people says some will believe one thing and some the other so that half of the group is on one side and the other half is on the other side.

The direction of the group literally hangs on the lie de jour, with each side trying to sway the middle toward their own view . . .

. . . and at this point, no one remembers the initial goal; to guess the correct weight of the iron block. Each side is a surrogate for the people who have a preference for the weight to be either high or low. 

There’s one other important thing to note; people have completely abdicated the responsibility to reason things out for themselves. It’s what people do. It’s easier being told what to think, what things mean, what to believe instead of reasoning things out, seeking facts, confirming what one is told. 

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And that, dear readers, is where we are today. Some will get red in the face, puff out their chest, and point to the other side and say “they are much worse!”

At the moment, one side might be worse than the other, but the road to where we got was built by both sides. And the “leaders” on both sides only have one interest in mind.

It’s their own interest, not the group’s, and certainly not the welfare of the group.

We, the group, are being asked to choose between sides that have no interest in our welfare other than as a means to their goals and interests which are, usually, counter to the interest of the group.

Frankly, I can’t see an endgame where things get better. If anything, they’ll get much, much, much worse.

If you ask me what we ought to do about it, I have a modest proposal.

Whatever group you’re in, take care of your own liars before pointing at others. Adjust your goals to include the benefit of the entire group, not just people on your side.

There is a chance that if you do that, you will prevail in the end because while people are not always great at reasoning, they’re also not stupid.

Take me, for instance. I’m not likely to ever vote again — other than on local issues — because I know it doesn’t matter. Neither the current assholes in power nor the previous assholes in power worked toward my interests and those of the public at large. It took me a long time to realize it while all along hoping I was wrong, but now I know for sure; our current system is not even two sides on the same coin. It’s the same side no matter what coin you put it on.

I’ll happily debate anyone on this, but come prepared. Tell me why your side deserves my trust. Just don’t say “the other side is worse.

 It really isn’t.

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