Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The streetlight and the keys

There is a short story intended to be humorous and enlighten us about the human mind.  As copied from Wikipedia (since other people tell it better than me),
A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, "this is where the light is."

This is supposed to be about the stupidity of looking in the obviously wrong place just because we can find something.  But is that the actual situation?

Let's step back and actually analyze the situation.  We may be biased against him from the start because he is described as drunk.  We label him and see his actions through that lens.  Let us instead imagine that a complete sober Einstein is doing the crawling.

Is it still stupid?  Maybe.  What are the alternate courses of action?

He could not look, but that will be of no help.  He could try in the park, where he apparently cannot see.  So now he is under the streetlight.

What are his chances of finding his keys?  You may say no chance at all, but why?  We don't know that he actually lost them in the park.  Maybe he misspoke and meant that he noticed in the park.  Or simply that he only noticed when he was in the park and is back-tracking, searching where he at least has some chance to find them.  Maybe he kicked them as he went along and now they are near the light, even if they did not start there.

So far what we have is a choice between a few bad options: not searching, searching where we cannot see, and searching where we can see but they have a low probability to be.

The smart thing to do is to break out of these three scenarios.  Find a flashlight.  Get better tools so you can broaden your search.

Alas, that is rarely the lesson people take away.  They are content to look at the surface and declare the search to be stupid, failing to recognize that of the available options, it is hardly the worst and is not guaranteed to fail.  They criticize the attempt without offering the alternatives.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I appreciate the points you made here, but I couldn't help pull away a slightly different moral of the story than you did.

The seems to me that he is using the only available tool to him, even though it doesn't serve him. It is a way of saying we have the right tools, but not in the right places. I saw it as a critique of society, of our blindness to the solution even as we have good tools for the job. We just can't figure out where to best employ them.

It also seemed to me important that the protagonist was a drunk. It seemed a deliberate story detail designed to make the moral of the story more ambiguous for those inclined to laugh at his plight. Yet it is that laughter which incriminates their ignorance.

Your points about acquiring more and better tools seems ...beside the point. There are apparently appropriate tools and even willing helpers (the cop). What the situation lacked was good sense and a well organized society.