#T03 Beware the “either or” of binary thinking

a baby learning
a baby is learning about her world

Learning to understand the world

From our earliest days, we try to make sense of the world by dividing it up into categories:

me/not me, safe/not safe/, dog/mum

and so on.

These are called “binary” categories, because everything has to fit into one of the two choices.

“Would you like tea or coffee?” forces you to choose one of the categories.

You might prefer milk, but you can’t have it, because it is not available to you.

Binary categories are how we navigate people and things in the real world.

We use categories like:

like/dislike, good/bad,  hungry/not hungry, day/night, presence/absence, ill/well.

Binary thinking is quick and easy.

To survive we need to think quickly and easily about our world. However, binary thinking also oversimplifies the world.

Unless we live on the equator, day/night are not discrete binary categories. Twilight blends day into night; sunrise gradually turns night into day.

The same is true of many other supposedly binary categories.

Type two diabetes can show a range of symptoms, from mild to severe.

So can depression and  conditions like autism, dyslexia and bipolar disorder.

Thinking about spectrums

We are learning to talk about these conditions in terms of spectrums. The analogy comes from the light spectrum:

there is a continuum of wavelengths of light, each associated with a particular colour

The wavelength of light increases continuously from left to right from about 380 to 780 nm.

The colour changes imperceptibly depending on the wavelength.

We can use the spectrum to distinguish obvious landmarks such as red or blue.

Recognising the exact shade of red or blue is much more difficult.

Traditionally, genetics has been built on binary thinking.

Its founding father Gregor Mendel studied differences in pairs of contrasting characters.  Such as tall/short pea plants or round/wrinkled pea seeds.

It is easy to think that everything is like that.

In fact, everything is not like that.

In a population of individuals, most characteristics vary continuously from the minimum to the maximum.

Think of human height,  it is more like a spectrum than a binary category. Individuals can be any height, rather than just being either tall or short.

#T03 We need to be very wary the “either/or” of binary thinking. 

One of the biggest pitfalls of binary thinking,  is the binary category of nature/nuture. This is causing real problems in our contemporary thinking on genetics.

Of this, much more, later.