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A Conversation with Dr. John Huth author of The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, Part 1. w/ Mark Hatmaker


Dr. Huth is Donner Professor of Science in the Physics Department at Harvard University. He is also an historian and resurrector of primitive navigation skills. The below is the first part of a lengthy and fascinating discussion on not just primitive navigational skills, but the consequences of allowing human skills or abilities to lie fallow. This conversation goes deep and is all the better for it. 
Dr. Huth, thanks for taking the time to have this talk, but first, I must ask, considering what your day-job is, how do you go from particle physicist to primitive wayfaring?

This comes from two incidents that happened in 2003.   The first was in August. My wife and I had rented a house for a week on Little Cranberry Island off the coast of Maine.   I’d rented a recreational kayak.   I sort of knew the area from the year before when I’d also kayaked there.   While I was crossing a two-mile wide embayment, a thick fog started to roll in.   I realized I would be hosed if I couldn’t keep my bearings, so I had to think fast.   Which way is the wind blowing?   From the southeast.  Good.  Which way is the swell running?   From the southwest.  Good.   There was the sound of water receding on a gravely beach to the northwest that I could hear.   Using these to keep my bearings, I knew that if I paddled for 20 minutes, I would hit some shoals where the waves were breaking in both directions – sure enough, I got there, and found my way around the island without a problem. 

Fast forward to Columbus Day weekend that year on Cape Cod.   On the Saturday I went out for a paddle in Nantucket Sound, launching from the beach outside my house.   Somewhat stupidly, I still didn’t carry a compass, but when I launched, I noted the wind direction, and the waves it was generating.   Again, it was from the southeast.  Funny how I still remember details like that.  It was sunny and warm when I set out, but maybe 30 minutes into the paddle, a thick fog again descended.   This time, it was a piece of cake.  The coastline runs east-west along Nantucket Sound, so if I was blanked out of sight of land, I just paddled north and hand-railed my way along the coast.   I got back to my house, pulled up the kayak, took a shower and then went off to the movies with my family.   No big deal.

The next morning, I was out paddling again.  The fog had lifted to show clear blue skies.   As I was paddling, the local harbormaster stopped me, and asked if I’d seen two young women kayaking.    After asking some more, it turned out that the two girls launched their recreational kayaks at the same time I’d launched, about a half a mile down the beach.   My wife actually saw them launch as she walked down the beach with a friend. 

When the girls didn’t return after about 45 minutes, their boyfriends, who were waiting on the beach got alarmed and called the authorities.   That day, the Coast Guard found their empty kayaks tied together.   The next day, the CG found one of their bodies floating in the water, but never did find the other.

I suffered from survivor’s guilt from that experience and didn’t know exactly what to do.  What can you do?   I started to become obsessed with finding my way using natural signs – I memorized the positions of major navigational stars in the sky, how to use the sun as a directional indicator, the behavior of clouds, winds and waves.   I also found that I wasn’t alone in this – that other cultures had developed ways of using natural signs to navigation.   After about a year of this endeavor, I found that I was looking at the world differently: every time I looked up at the sky I was able to ‘connect’ in a way that I hadn’t before. 

At some point, when I rotated off of being the Chair of the Physics Department at Harvard, I had a sabbatical and when I returned, I decided to see if I could teach these methods – first to a Freshman Seminar and then to a general audience of undergraduates.   Since there wasn’t a textbook, I had to write my own. 

You open the book with an exceptional thought experiment, while not hectoring in tone, it does seem to say, “Hey, eyes up! Off the phone! Look around! Where are you? What do you see? Be here, now!” Do you think that our increased ability to access technological toys leaves us a bit lost in the world, not merely physically, but also a bit, I guess you could say, philosophically?

Yes, most definitely.   There’s a term called “automation bias,” which is the idea that if some information comes from a computer, it must be correct, and that we shouldn’t trust our senses.  A lot of the time, there are no consequences as the information from a computer or the internet is often correct, but every so often there are cases where people ignore correct information from their senses and believe incorrect information from high-tech.   One example is a woman who drove off a boat ramp into the water because the GPS told her to do so, and despite the fact that she was looking right at the ramp.  Something is definitely lost – in addition to awareness, there’s a loss of the way our brains function.

Along with automation bias and navigation, there is the idea that our minds re-use navigational abilities in other forms – e.g. negotiating social realms.   Tying these together, there’s probably a lot of ‘substituting’ of relying on technology to substitute for things we used to do just with our minds and bodies.   Think of having a conversation with someone – there is the tone of voice, hand gestures, facial expressions and the like.   Now with the anonymity of the internet, coupled with simple words on social media, we’ve perhaps gained access to more people, but have lost a lot of the nuance in conversations. 

Your comments regarding the automation bias fascinate me. Beyond a blind obeisance to GPS, do you see other potential dark sides to an over-reliance on other aspects of technology? I’m not pushing a luddite stance, merely asking if you have other concrete examples of “This much, might be too much” for our own good?

There are many examples, but here’s another: use of computers in medical diagnosis.  In the ‘old’ days, a primary care physician would go on multiple aspects of how the patient presents herself/himself, evaluate test results without a computer aid.   Now a lot of statistical data are available from computers to help diagnoses, but it’s quite possible that if a physician puts too much reliance on computers, they may cut themselves off from a more nuanced personal judgement that comes from seeing a large number of patients.   Take the tests for blood oxygenation – this is now done by a little gizmo that clips around your finger and tests for the light wavelength associated with hemoglobin in blood.    You get a number out.   On the other hand, just look at the patient – are they pale?   Are their cheeks rosy?   That gut-based measurement may be every bit as useful as the blood oxygenation monitor, but doesn’t boil down to a specific number that a computer could handle. 

Here’s another example of degradation of skills: most commercial airlines employ autopilots.  Every so often, the autopilot switches off when it cannot handle a situation and ‘hands-off’ the flying to the actual pilot.   But if the pilot has not been in a lot of situations, her/his skills may have degraded.   In at least two airplane crashes, autopilots turned off, and the pilots pulled hard upward on the stick, causing the planes to go into a stall.   It was at some extent likely that they had degraded their intuition for flying by over-reliance on autopilots and were not prepared for those conditions.  

I agree we shouldn’t be luddites and just cut out automation, but we do need to think about what weaknesses are we creating in our own cognition, and if we are going to use computers, how can we create ‘sanity checks’ that we’re getting useful information.  There is likely information we can add to what we know already to augment, and not replace our judgement.  Think of GPS directions as “suggestions” and not as something that should be slavishly followed. 

You take a deeper approach to getting “un-lost” than most. Where most such works are one tip or hack after another, you spend a good deal of time showing just how error prone we can be under the best of circumstances, even experienced woodsmen, which I think is a valuable approach. Can you offer your take on why making ourselves aware of how error-prone we are, looping recursive paths when lost for example, can make us better?

I spend a lot of time with my students understanding uncertainty.   How precisely can you take a bearing with a compass?  +/- 2 degrees?   +/- 5 degrees?   How precisely can you estimate distances by counting paces?   10%?    Already, an awareness of what kind of precision you’re capable of making will help inform you of your habits.   That is to say, fold into your working knowledge the idea of being uncertain and slowly creep up on ‘the truth’.   

The way I approach way finding is to allow myself to be somewhat fluid – and think…’hmmm, you know this doesn’t seem to line up with the map, I wonder why…”  Be very careful about asking yourself if you really know something and don’t fall victim to the dogma that your first guess is correct.

This happened once when I was bushwhacking in a remote section of New Hampshire.   The plan was to hike up along a creek bed to a saddle, and then cross over the side of a mountain to get to a lake.   We followed the creek bed, and then there was not much of a saddle, and we passed over a bump in the terrain that didn’t line up.   I felt a little confused, and then one of my friends who sort of knew the area said that we were in a different place than I had thought.   I became unsure, and wondered if he was right.   We were at the same elevation as a peak in the distance, and I took a bearing on the peak, and found the intersection of the bearing with the contour line that corresponded to the height of the peak.   It turns out my friend was right.   The next day, when I looked at another topographic map, I found that the course of the creek bed had been incorrectly drawn in the map I was using – that was the source of the problem.  

Looping back on paths – this can be cured by taking a bearing on multiple trees in the distance that line up on your desired path.   Follow to the first tree, then sight more in the distance, etc.  This tends to eliminate the ‘walking in circles’ problem.

There’s a Persian saying, “Fortune favors the efficient.”   It’s a good thing to internalize – fluidity of the mind, and an awareness of things that could go wrong are important traits. 

Here, I ask you to speculate. Do you think there is any correspondence between how observant one is in the natural world to how they navigate the inner world? That is, do those who are used to setting a bearing, watching for details along the way, paying attention to course corrections, etc. in physical landscapes, do you think building such skills might lead to better inner-navigation? Better goal-setting, dealing with set-backs, adjusting according to feedback, etcetera? 

In some sense, if you take the above discussion and broaden it to your thinking/cognition in general, it gives a guide to how to approach other problems.   

I’ll repeat the quip above

 “Fortune favors the efficient.”   It’s a good thing to internalize – fluidity of the mind, and an awareness of things that could go wrong are important traits.

Set-backs can be more important than successes – because we can analyze what went wrong, while we might not reflect at all on a success.  In the bushwhacking case, it caused me to realize that topographic maps are not infallible.   What about any source of information that we base a decision on – if it comes from an outside source, how can we be sure it’s correct?   Perhaps it’s only approximately correct?  What about our own biases?   Should we leap at the first piece of information that’s available and dismiss other information, particularly if it contradicts our biases?   It’s important to ask yourself these questions.  

I push the premise of the preceding question. If we accept that humans are an exploratory species that pushes and crowds into environments less than forgiving, is there perhaps an innate drive for us to explore and seek? With that in mind, do we lose something of what it means to be human if we give up seeking altogether or farm out the seeking skills to GPS and tour guides?

I think that, yes, there is an innate need to explore.   Maybe not all of us possess, but enough of us possess it to have humans inhabiting and adapting to quite harsh environments, all through our basis to think through problems and develop a kind of ‘scientific’ approach, where uncertainty, trial-by-error, and the development of intuition through experience are all part of this process.  If we cede this process of learning, we’re giving up any fluidity of the mind – and I suppose this is a kind of death.   At least to my thinking.

Here’s a quote:



Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.
[Part Two will be posted next week. In the meantime, to pick up a copy The Lost Art of Finding Our Way.]

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