Six Men and an Elephant

Once there was a sociologist who wished to study how human beings gather information from their environment. In one section of his study, he hired six blind men to accompany him to the zoo. Their assignment was to use their available senses to generate descriptions of the animals. (The sociologist hoped to compare these descriptions with those from other persons who had different sorts of disabilities.) Everybody was having a fun time and the sociologist had written lots and lots of notes when they arrived at the elephant park. Then the sociologist's cell phone rang--his wife had car trouble a few miles away and demanded that he rescue her. He encouraged his subjects to investigate the elephant in his absence and then give him the results upon his return.

The six men moved toward the elephant after the sociologist left. The first one grasped something long, soft, and flexible. He lifted it up a caught a breeze smelling of alfalfa and peanuts. "It rather reminds me of a rubber hose," he said. The second man grasped something that felt like a fat, knobby, rough pole. It smelled a little like sap--perhaps the elephant had been rubbing against a tree earlier in the day. "It even reminds me of a tree," he said. The third man walked into a wall of flesh that billowed in and out regularly. He could hear the thumping heartbeat when leaned against it. "I've never experienced anything quite like this," he said. The fourth man wrapped his arms around another tree-like pole. "I would have thought the elephant would be a little softer," he said. The fifth man reached out but didn't feel anything. He walked forward a little farther and fell into something soft and warm and exceedingly foul. "This elephant is disgusting!" he cried. Some passers-by laughed at the poor man extracting himself from the manure pile. Angry and hurt, he told the other men, "I quit!" and walked home. (He was fortunate that home was just a few blocks way because none of the taxi drivers would give him a lift.) The sixth man veered off-course. The elephant was nowhere to be found. "That jerk of a sociologist is playing a joke on us," he said. "There's no elephant here." He tried to persuade the others to leave with him but they refused. They thought they'd found the elephant. "Go ahead and stay then," the sixth man said. "But the joke's on you." He turned and left for home.

The sociologist returned shortly before the zoo closed to find three men holding onto an elephant, one man gripping a tree, and two men missing. He turned to the fourth man, who had mistakenly wrapped his arms around a tree trunk, and asked what he was doing. The man replied that he was holding on to the elephant. The sociologist had difficulty convincing him of his error--after all, the fourth man's experience was nearly identical to the second man's. Finally the zoo employees ushered the whole group out of the gate. The sociologist questioned the first three men about their experiences and jotted them down. "What about me? Don't you want to hear about my experience?" the fourth man asked. The sociologist said no, since he was only interested in hearing about the elephant.

Fads come and fads go, as everyone knows, and sometime later pachyderms became quite faddish. Wanting to capitalize on this, the sociologist's publisher asked him to write a popular science/philosophy book based on the elephant section of his study. The book enjoyed modest success and the sociologist and the three men who studied the elephant were invited to various talk shows, interviews, cocktail parties, and marketing opportunities that made them all rich and famous. The three blind men were able to afford the latest in sight-improvement treatments, technologies, and surgeries, restoring part (if not all) of their sight. They got together once in a while for dinner on the sociologist's yacht. One time somebody brought up the other three men and wondered what happened to them, but then they all realized that none of them really cared.