Blind men and an elephant

ElephantImage credit: WELS net, “Elephant crossing” August 5, 2006, via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a WALL!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho, what have we here,
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a SPEAR!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a SNAKE!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he:
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a TREE!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a FAN!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a ROPE!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

This poem by John Godfrey Saxe called “The Blind Men and the Elephant” is about the blind men who are trying to comprehend what an elephant is. Each of them approaches the animal from a different side and the animal seems something else to every man, depending on what part of the elephant they touch. Based exclusively on their own subjectivity and completely ignoring all other opinions or the bigger picture they draw wrong conclusions about the real nature of an elephant.

In my opinion, something similar may happen in research. Driven by our own research agendas we may sometimes lose out of sight all other perspectives or the general context. We may be biased to a certain extent, but this should not limit us as the blind men from Saxe’s poem. A researcher, in my view, should remain as objective as possible, open-minded to the research of his/her colleagues on the same topic, and keep in mind the overall picture.

Iaroslav

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