“I Have a Theory”

By: Chris Brennan

Theories are important. Theories give us room to stretch the metaphorical legs of our intellect and explore ground that we haven’t been over before, or that we might have seen at a distance but not explored. I remember as a young child, around eleven or twelve years old, being on Scout trips and not having the foggiest idea what was beyond the small, cleared area around our camp site. I had “ideas” (a hypothesis if you will) about what the terrain might look like, or if there was quicksand just over the hill that I had to avoid. Without going out there to see, though (investigation/experimentation) I would have no idea. So I went. I went and looked and sure enough I found quicksand! It almost swallowed me whole. Or, at least to my eleven year old mind, it was there and it certainly tried to drag me in.

Now of course as a grown man (and even by the time I was 14 and at the same “terrifying pit of death”) I came to understand that it was simply a deep mud puddle. For my eleven-year-old mind the theory existed, I explored and experimented, and with the highest mind of a scientific nature I proved my hypothesis correct. I lost a shoe in the process and had to hear about the “costs” of my research from my dad. The thing was the theory was wrong. I had experimented. I had sought to see if the theory was right. The problem was that I only had a limited amount of knowledge, and once I got the answer I was seeking, I stopped looking. Consider for a moment if I hadn’t gone back. Consider what my world view would look like if at eleven years old I stopped questioning. In my mind there would still be a deadly pit of quicksand on the top of a small hill in the Cook County Forest Preserves just off 143rd Street.

We have to have theories. We have to explore. Even more as adults than as children, I think, because if we simply assume that those things we have not proved or cannot prove are 100% accurate because we want them to be, we are caught in a cycle that will inevitably lead to disorder – to our world view not matching the facts of the universe we are in. It’s the second law of thermodynamics in action, the creation of entropy.

What is entropy? It is the tendency of a closed system to move from a state of order to disorder; it is the expenditure of energy in a non-usable means. What is a closed system? It is any entity or collection of entities confined by a boundary. If the system is closed there is no way to refresh the energy, so overtime, the energy that is being used to keep your coffee hot in the cup (heat energy) dissipates into the environment. How do I keep my coffee hot then? I have to keep it on the hot plate and let heat energy flow into the coffee. Does all the energy go into the coffee? Nope. A big hunk of it is wasted into the atmosphere. We cannot escape entropy; all we can do is try to slow the process down. For those who prefer their science in rhyme let’s see what M.C. Hawking has to say about this.

Our minds work the same way. If we have a closed system (a closed mind) then those things that we believe to be true become factualized and guide our observations, our decisions, and our actions. The earth IS flat, our planet IS the center of the universe, and there IS quicksand on top of that hill in the forest preserves. Individual intellectual entropy is bothersome because it means that people are closed off to new ideas, and that same tendency may hinder those closest to them: family members, children, and close friends. Generally the reach of the individual’s intellectual entropy is limited.

The idea of intellectual entropy in groups scares the daylights out of me because it can have horrible downstream consequences and it is simple to avoid. Group belief systems have resulted in genocide, executions, persecutions, pogroms, and the waiving of individual rights throughout history. The Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Galileo, the National Socialist party committed mass genocide in the 1940’s, and a section of fanatical Islamic clerics think that society should exist the same way it did when Muhammad wrote the Qur’an in the 7th Century. The beliefs that these groups had were not open to outside information, they were closed systems, and they have all lead to periods of disorder. Group intellectual entropy is a dangerous thing.

These rules of entropy are no different in the fire service than they are anywhere else, but I think as a whole, we are a group that spends too little time on theory. We spend our time on strategies and tactics because they are sexy: breaking stuff is fun. We don’t spend the same amount of time in the study of, or consideration of why, we do what we do. Theory is the land of the Affective Domain of learning: attitudes and beliefs. These attitudes and beliefs affect (see where the domain got its name?) how we chose to execute our tactics. The heated debates about Victim Survivability Profiling, Transitional Attack, Positive Pressure Attack, and a host of other ideas are all examples of people leading with their Affective Domain. I’ve been guilty of this too. We all have beliefs from time to time that we hold as sacred, if for no other reason than we have held them for so long. We have to turn a critical eye, not merely to the new information that we are presented with in articles, books, and classes, but to the information that we hold dear.

I think it’s worth noting that in a study released in 1982, “Skill Retention and Its Implications for Navy Tasks: An Analytical Review,” the observation is made:

The quest for efficiency influences training philosophy. For example, since the teaching of “theory” takes considerable time and since its usefulness is doubted, it has been eliminated from many courses. Yet, theory enables people to conceptualize and to explain phenomena and to structure their reasoning. It may also serve to enhance memory. Therefore elimination of theory in a training program may aggravate the level of skill deterioration.

I said earlier that intellectual entropy was simple to avoid. I think it is simple, but it is not easy. So how do we avoid it? We MUST constantly be open to new theories, new ideas, and new information. We have to seek out ideas that run contrary to what we believe. Rather than be lazy, or accept a bias out of cognitive ease as Daniel Kahneman writes about in Thinking, Fast and Slow, we must constantly refresh the intellectual system with information that causes us to question what we know and what we believe. Each and every one of us has the ability to do this at the individual level. If enough of us are pursuing outside stimuli and new information then we can bring in new methods, ideas, and theories to our organizations that can help slow the development of entropy.

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