Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Dead Donkey: How seemingly unimportant facts lead to radically different conclusions

A little over a year ago the internet made a mountain out of a mole hill, like it always does, and expressed shock and outrage that the Google Street View car apparently hit and killed a donkey. We found out about this because the entire event was posted on Google Street View, or so it would seem. Below I have a few screen shots of the entire event.
Picture 1: Approaching the donkey.
Picture 2: The dead or dying donkey blurred under where the car is.
Picture 3: Looking back, the donkey roadkill now lying in the road.
There were several news sites (warning some of these links may lower your IQ) that devoted whole stories to the apparently deceased donkey. The whole thing really took off when "Dr." Sheldon Cooper tweeted about it. There were statements from Google, denials, counter arguments, conspiracy theories, accusations of a cover up, further denials, evidence sent to select people, but not released to the public, more accusations of secrecy and conspiracy, more denials and still more statements. The whole thing was quite comical.

So what actually happened? Did the Google Street View car run over the donkey? So consider this. The whole event happened in Botswana. So why it that important? Because in Botswana, unlike in the US, they drive on the left side of the road. That seemingly unimportant minor fact changes how to interpret what happened. Any US driver who looked at Picture 1 above would think that the camera view that I selected was the "forward" direction because it meant the car was driving on the right side of the road.

But because we know that in Botswana they drive on the left side that would mean Picture 1 is actually the image from the the rear facing camera, that is after the car passed the donkey. This mean that in Picture 3 above, which I gave the caption, "Looking back..." is not actually looking back but is looking forward and should actually be the first image in the sequence.

So some people, even people with advanced degrees, looked at the evidence and assumed that it clearly showed the Google Street View car hitting and critically injuring if not killing a poor defenseless donkey. Even after Google's explanation some people persisted in arguing that it clearly showed the death of a donkey. But just knowing that the pictures were taken in Botswana and that they drive on the left instead of the right means that what happened was the donkey was taking a nice dirt bath, getting a good backscratching, when it was disturbed by the oncoming Google car. When the car drove up the donkey stood up and walked off the road. You can go explore the whole Google Street View images here and convince yourself.

So what is my point in all of this? If I had wanted to share the story and not use it to make a point I would have just posted a link on Facebook and let people like it or ignore it. But I am writing about it on my blog which means that I intend to draw a conclusion and make a point with it.

The thing to remember is that by knowing one seemingly minor, but critical fact, the interpretation of what happened quickly changes. We were not there to witness the events and all we have are a few snapshots of what happened. At times we have a relatively minor cultural preconception (in this case, that the "forward" direction has the car on the right side of the road) that we use to orient ourselves when we first are given the evidence. But sometimes this minor cultural preconception, while very useful, if not necessary in our own culture, causes us to look at the sequence of events and draw an incorrect conclusion (i.e. the donkey dies).

But if we consider the same evidence, but this time in context, and with a few minor and seemingly inconsequential pieces of information, the conclusion we arrive at is very different (the Google car interrupted a nice dirt bath). So there are times when we are confronted with certain problems and while they may seem very unsettling or faith shattering at the time, if we stop and take the time to orient and reorient ourselves properly, what we previously viewed as a problem suddenly becomes a non-issue.

There are many times people are confronted with problems or issues in regards to their faith and their religion that seems to be unsettling or maybe a bit shocking at first. But if we take the time to understand what is going on, to know the context, and to listen when someone gently points out that they drive on the left side instead of the right side, that seemingly minor fact may be the key to reorienting ourselves so that we can clearly see that what was a problem before, really was not a problem. Sometimes it is easy, other times it is hard and takes time, but there are answers and there are explanations that will come. But we need patience, humility and a particle of faith, and the answers will come.

[Extra credit: Try and figure out this apparent murder in Google Street View. Hint, look at how the cars are parked and then go up and down the street and look at the "murderer" and the "victim" from different angles (points in time) to reconstruct the sequence of events. Which images came first and which images came later? Think traffic laws.]

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