The danger of preconceptions and misconceptions

July 5th, 2017, Published in Articles: Energize


A recent visit to Moscow as part of as media delegation caused me to change my mind about the city and reminded me how easily we allow preconceived ideas to become entrenched in our thinking.

Mike Rycroft

Based on impressions drawn from numerous spy novels that abounded in the cold war era, I envisioned Moscow to be a bleak place, the streets covered with ice or snow, a few old and dilapidated cars and taxis around gloomy and dreary buildings.

The heroes of the novels stayed in hotels which had foyers populated with KGB agents, were spied on by the staff, and had rooms which were bugged and full of sensors. Their contacts stayed in uncompleted and unheated buildings, and spent a large part of their time queuing for food and essentials.

The reality was markedly different. Granted it was midsummer, and the sun rose at about 03h00 and stayed up until after 22h00, which created a bright atmosphere, but in general, Moscow is a very pleasant city.

The hotel we stayed in did have security guards in the foyer, but for the safety of the guests. The hotel staff did watch you all the time, and if you showed the least sign of confusion, they were immediately at your side to assist.

The rooms and passages were loaded with monitoring devices, but these were there to switch on lights and open doors automatically. In addition to the historical buildings, we saw numerous modern apartment blocks, shopping malls and sports stadiums. Moscow abounds with colour: even some of the transmission line towers are painted blue. So my preconceptions were actually misconceptions, based on outdated information.

The gist of this is how easily preconceptions can lead to misunderstanding, and how assumptions can lead us to make incorrect assessments, even when it comes to technical or engineering issues.

Sometimes our assumption of a solution to a problem is wrong. We are inclined to assume that a particular solution is the only one or the best one, and this often results in a particular mindset which blinkers us, and prevents us from even considering newer or different options.

Change is inevitable in the world of technology, and one has to be careful about committing oneself to a particular technology or worldview. Within a decade today, everything is different. Perhaps the optimum is to keep an open mind and embrace all possibilities, even ones that defy understanding, like quantum devices.

The current issue under heated discussion, the IRP is a case in point. I had the privilege of sitting through one of the stakeholder sessions held earlier this year, and although some of the comments made were valid and supportable, many seemed to be based on ideological or political rather than reasonable assumptions.

Committing to a single technology, no matter how inviting it may seem on paper, limits our options for the future, and the wrong decision could be disastrous. Besides which there is always the question of accountability. That is, who is responsible for implementing the energy plan and assuring that the lights stay on? Certainly none of the stakeholders and proponents of various plans would accept this responsibility. The accountable body is probably correct in hedging their bets by going for a diverse mix.

We are faced with a barrage of information or opinions regarding energy from many sources, and it is often quite difficult to remain neutral on the issue. News reports and blogsites are full of reports on this or that study proving one thing or the other, but they seldom list the terms and conditions, or basic assumptions made in the studies or opinions, and delving deeper reveals that things are not quite what they were made out to be.

With the mass of information available, there is the temptation to only read articles that align with our preconceptions or mindset, but this can lead us to technical bias.

The reminders of the old totalitarian state in Russia are still visible in some places, but the Moscow that I experienced shows how things do change and how new ideas can take hold and leave those who cling to fixed perceptions behind.

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