Observation and Interpretation


A few weeks ago a good friend of mine pointed me to a book he had just read and was enthusiastic about. Since the book is in German and is so recent that no English translation is as yet available, I hesitated whether I should order it. However, I overcame my hesitancy and ordered it through bookdepository.com—a British internet bookseller that I have found to be very good. [The advantage when compared with amazon.com is that they do not charge any postage for shipments anywhere in the world!] The book is written by someone called Martin Urban, and is entitled: Ach Gott, die Kirche: Protestantischer Fundamentalismus und 500 Jahre Reformation (Oh God: the Church: Protestant Fundamentalism and 500 years of Reformation).

I find reading German more difficult than reading Dutch and English, and it will therefore take a while before I will hav it read this book in its entirety, the more so since I will be quite busy in th next few weeks with appointments in my own country, and in Germany, Belgium, Denmark and the US. But I can usually still find a little bit of time for reading.

In the first few short chapters I found a few items that I found vry interesting. One of those things was captured in the header above one particular paragraph in chapter 2: Zehn Prozent Beobachtung, neunzig Prozent Deutung. Literally translated: Ten percent observation, ninety percent interpretation. The author argues that usually our opinions are formed through a rather uneven process. He bases this on insights he acquired as a scientist, and as a journalist who grew up in a family of theologians.  The way we form our opinions, he says, is to a major extent the result of how our brains function. W have our senses through which we absorb information, but then our brain takes hold of this and begins to interpret on the basis of earlier experiences and all kinds of influences, many of which we are not even aware of. This, in the end, determines what we think about a given topic

I have no idea whether Mr. Urban is totally right and whether this 10-90 relationship can be scientifically proven. However, I believe he is certainly right in his argument that we are in most instances far less objective than we realize. It would be very desirable if,  in forming our opinions, we would be much more aware of our background and personal history, our wishes, interests and the intellectual baggage we carry along. Often unawares, we sift the information that comes at us, and we select from it what we find attractive or useful and pay less, or no, attention to what we do not like or do not find useful.

We currently see a vivid illustration of this in the United States. Trump-fans see their president in a totally different way whn compared to the people who are completely fed up with him. The anti-Trump camp immediately notices anything that confirms and will reinforce that negative view. I admit that, even though I do not live in the US, in am in that latter category.

A Seventh-day Adventist sees and interprets many things that happen around us differently from how a non-believers with another background sees these. Usually there is no careful analysis, but an opinion is quickly formed. Our background is quick to add the ninety percent of interpretation to the ten percent observation. The same is true for different streams in the church. And this is precisely what hampers any dialogue. We see, hear and read selectively. We absorb what fits into the framework we already have and interpret this within the context of what we already (think) we know. ‘Liberals’ accuse their often more conservative fellow-believers that they operate according to this process. But ‘liberals’ should also be willing to admit they often do the same.

Of course, this cannot be applied to every individual in equal measure and not all of us will fit into such a 10-90 pattern. And, fortunately, there are many people who do their best to be as objective as they can be. However, the realization that much of what we observe is colored by our (often subconscious) selection of what we take in, before we subject this to our interpretation, that has also been colored by all kinds of factors—that realization should urge us to be less dogmatic, to more often doubt our own correctness, and to give one another more space for having different thoughts.