Thursday, January 04, 2007
Just finished reading Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. Yeah I'm always a few years behind the latest books and TV shows and whatnot, but I eventually get around to them. The thesis of this book is that real, genuine experts on any complex subject often don't know what factors exactly that they use when evaluating something they are looking at or listening to, and that the attempt to systematize this knowledge can lead to disaster, often thanks to too much information.
This is another typical pop non-fiction book that uses a lot of anecdotes, clearly one written by taking several medium-length pieces Gladwell may have written for The New Yorker, but the various clouds of stories are tied together a little better than a lot of other books by newspaper columnists that I've read. Cautionary lessons from one chapter, where one learns about inate biases, as in Chapter 3: The Warren Harding Error: Why We Fall for Tall, Dark, and Handsome Men, and we carry these warnings about unconscious bias in our minds as Gladwell describes more subtle subjects like the Amadou Diallo shooting and why the police made a series of deadly mistakes.
An interesting thing I've found looking up reviews of the book is that a lot of people criticizing him seem to be completely hung up on the chapters dealing with race, with a lot of words wasted on a chapter describing a study that showeed that all things being equal, car dealers would offer a better price to a white male than to a white female, a black male or a black female. Something new, though is that Gladwell has a well-maintained blog in which he refutes a lot of such nonsense, and thoroughly so, as in this post: Bad Stereotyping.
It's neat that the author is able and willing to continue to think about and defend the material in his book , I always found that as weoon as I finished the hard work involved in writing a longer piece I would not want to have anything to do with it after that. Perhaps I should just practise more and actually set out to write a longer work and really flesh out some idea.
A common misconception about the theme behind Blink is that people believe that Gladwell is arguing that gut feelings are more reliable than careful judgment. This isn't at all what he's saying, though. Every story he brings up is about someone who had some amount of natural ability to detect whe nsomeone is lying by looking at his or her face, or some talent for selling cars, but who then spend an enormous time and effort recording their successes and failures, and eventually isolating the important factors and being able to ignore spurious information. However, the subconcious brain is always a few steps ahead of the conscious realization of these important factors, but one needs to put the work in inorder to properly develop this so-called intuition.
There is an alalogue to the technical world here, in which management always wants to believe that they can get an expert on some system to be able to write down all of his knowledge and transfer it effeciently teach it to some bright young new hire. But what is not factored in is the ability to know a system well enough to be able to guess what part of some software system a bug originates in by knowing teh connections and dependencies.
Intuition in the software world is not valued because it's not measurable. When you try and force the art of computer programminginto a cut and dried process of engineering you'll cut off the most valuable asset that the true experts bring to the table.