Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Why is math so hard?

Why is math so hard?   What can we do about it?  Answer - give up!

More precisely,  when the approach we're using keeps on not working,  instead of doing more of it, maybe we should rethink the whole approach and give up the way that keeps not working.

I had four years of math beyond calculus and tutored many students, so I feel qualified to present an opinion on the subject.

I love math and science.  I'm very pro math.

But, I'm also pro reality.  Reality is good, even when it's inconvenient.

Most people don't like math. That's also reality.

Why is that?

I think the main reason math is so hard is that you can't get by being "mostly correct" - you have to be entirely correct.

An English paper with a grammatical error can still be excellent.  A math equation with an error is completely wrong.

Surprisingly,  if you are compulsively neat and organized,  math itself is easy, and, I love it because problems have correct answers that don't depend on what the teacher thinks.    On the other hand, I can't stand problems like "What did Hemmingway really mean by the image of the fish?" because the answer depends on the instructor.

The reason math is difficult is that most students today have no experience being the type of compulsively neat detail-obsessive workers that it demands in order to work at all.   Unless you get 100% of an solution's steps correct, the answer isn't "mostly right", it's totally wrong.

It is as if we are trying to lay precise rail-road tracks across a thinly-encrusted swamp of sloppy behavior, and, frankly,  that simply does not work, and cannot be made to work.

So, the implications of that strong assertion are enormous.  So everyone is playing "Let's pretend."

Either we bite the bullet and figure out what it takes to accomplish "self-discipline", or we should abandon all pretense that we can "teach math and science" without it.  It cannot be made to work.

There is no point trying to teach concepts to students who don't have sufficient self-control to keep a column of numbers straight on a page.   It may in fact be possible to teach the concepts, but it won't by itself result in them being able to ever "do" math or science in any socially useful sense.

If my analysis is correct, then to get STEM education to work,  we need to have wide-spread specialized remedial courses in structured work and self-discipline.   It's absurd to expect our math and science teachers to have to do that on top of teaching math and science. 

To not damage Johnny's weak self-esteem,  we keep telling him in school that 85% is "just fine" until he manages to get out in the job market, which is now international in scope,  and discovers that "85% good" doesn't even make it into the "C" pile of candidates, let alone the "A" pile, let alone land a job, let alone allow him to do the job.

In mathematics,  the passing score for any concept should be 100% - - the only exceptions being questions that were poorly designed. "Sort of knowing" something will not cut it.  Getting "most of the equation right" except for that one term there will not get most of the answer right.

This seems to come as a surprise to people, students and teachers alike.
But our concepts of discipline,  structure,  order,  routine, rigorousness are the weak spot with the approach we've been using of "national power through individual genius capacity and creativity."

OK.  Then let's be creative about this framing of the problem.   Let's stop pretending most students in K-12 today are ever going to be very good at STEM skills.    Period.  They are not.

Yes, in the long run, we should improve things, but in the short run,  don't bet on it working.

Working separately, as competing individuals,   we are very unlikely to win or even catch up and break even with the Chinese.

Isn't there ANY way to build a reliable system out of semi-reliable parts?

Yes, is the answer.   Creative redundancy.   There is a whole engineering discipline of making reliable "systems" out of unreliable and flaky components.
If we cannot make our individuals reliable,   that doesn't mean we are unable to make combinations of individuals reliable.   
If we're going  to go that direction, then the dollars, priorities, and emphasis in education needs to change from attempting to maximize individual skills and reliability to maximizing combined skills and reliability of small treams of people working on problems together.
And, just like SEAL teams in the military,  maybe these teams should persist across years, learn to work well with each other, and then go apply for jobs as a team, not as an individual, and stay together on the job.

On the job front, one way to handle the logistics would be to incorporate the team as, say, an LLC and have the LLC take a job slot as a "consultant."  That can be done with today's technology.

The problem is the educational system, oriented almost entirely around work-units of size 1, that is, "individuals."

I'll argue that it is obvious ("without proof" ) that two people, working together,  and cross-checking each other's work,  should be able to produce a math homework paper that has fewer errors on it than one person working alone.

Not only should that be "fair", it should be encouraged.

From the point of view of "business" or "commerce",    the only thing that is needed in a particular "slot" or "job" is some agent (person or company) who can take a problem and solve it in the time available. 

Already we see this in the concept "pair programming", where two people sit side by side at one computer, and together attempt to solve programming problems.    It turns out, if done correctly, this is something like 5 to 10 times more effective at generating workable programs than "dividing up the work" and having each person work in isolation on "their own piece of it."

So, here's the trade off.  To catch up to the Chinese in productivity in problem solving in math or science in the real world,  which has, in fact, no constraint of "do your own work separately",     we have two possible approaches:
  • We could try to back-fill remedial high-quality self-discipline into our students and culture and also "learn math",  or
  • We could try to remove the "do your own work separately" constraint and start tackling problems as pairs of somewhat-sloppy but cooperating individuals. 

Neither of these is trivial or a cake-walk, but, of the two, the second seems more likely to succeed than the first.  At a mimimum, since we're that kind of place, we should explore some of each, have some schools try to go for structure, and others go for true-pairwork.

Both of these require a cultural shift to support them.

At the current time discipline is not popular.   On the other hand "groupwork" is a dreaded four-letter work in academia as well, as in "Oh God, ... I just found out this course requires group-work. I wonder if it's too late to drop it!"

My point is, if we want to be sloppy about our personal work habits, and we appear to take that as a cultural norm,  and if we HAVE to be concerned about product reliability, which is demanded by the mission or a competitive marketplace,  then we have no choice that I have seen so far besides figuring out how cancel out that sloppiness by working together.

And,  we need to start trying to figure out how to treat a work-dyad as an acceptable filler for a "job" that currently is intended for a work-singlet. (a.k.a. employee.)

How do you pay a dyad? What about health care? Do both people always have to show up for work or can only one show up on a given day? Who cares?   If they both work "from home" does anyone even need to know it's a dyad not a singlet? If we gave the dyad a "name" and a "social security number" would that help?

That's where the problems rotate into with the dyad approach.  

Again, I didn't say it was easy -- I suggested it was easier than the alternative,  given where we're starting. 

The dyad needs a name, and a resume, just like a singlet-employee.    Presumably, the dyad needs a single paycheck.   Desk space is a problem unless the dyad works "at home."

While we're at it, let's say the dyad should be allowed to have permanent full-time access to the internet during any portion of training, education, examination, or activity during the actual job. That's realistic these days.

Here's a crucial point:  if we demand students perform amazingly well as individuals and graduate high-school and college as "singlets" before considering them for inclusion in a work team, there are two guaranteed results:

  • People who would make great team members and totally boost team energy and morale, say, but are mediocre working alone will never get a chance, as they'll drop out early as "failures". 
  • The people who do succeed as singlets are then supposed to do a u-turn and work as team members, which they just spent 12 or 16 years learning to avoid.
After 16 years of socializing people as fiercely competitive individuals, expecting them to make good team members is, frankly,  unrealistic.   It's as unrealistic as expecting tenured faculty members, after 7 more years of "doing their own work" in the tenure process,  to end up being "collegial."

So now the question is,  can  dyads of Americans,  with access to the world wide web, working just with each other and learning over time how to operate as a team,  trained as a team,  operating as a team,  outperform Chinese singlets working with what they learned and stuffed in their heads, without access to web?

My thought is,  yes.  

I guess, when you're coming from behind, "whatever works" is a good philosophy.  We have a lot of sports where doubling-up on your opponent is a winning strategy, don't we?

Besides .. it sure beats having to learn algebra for real.

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Monday, June 16, 2014

A question that Science and Religion can come together around

As the war between sects of Islam heats up again, it becomes ever more important to find a common ground we can all move to while preserving our most crucial interests.

Sunni versus Shia,  Catholic versus Protestant,  Christian versus Muslim, Muslim versus Hindu,  it's pretty much the same old battle we've had for tens of centuries, but with frighteningly more and more advanced weaponry.

Then we have the battle heating up between all of the above and the institution of Science,  which may be losing ground far faster than it realizes.

This is not good, given that passions are high and willingness to destroy entire countries and cultures is already on the table.

So let me present an alternative.   A middle ground.   A place in which, as in the Harvard Negotiation Project's book  Getting to Yes, we can each protect our interests even if we have to relax our "positions" somewhat.

 If we take science's numbers and Drake's Law, to paraphrase Carl Sagan, there have been "billions and billions" of civilizations others than ours that not only made it to this point of technology, but did so before the Earth was even born.

Even if most of those self-destruct, at least ONE probably survived and has therefore been around for over 5 billion years. One is all it takes.

If we assume that (a) faster than light travel is possible and (b) they have the same tendency to put sensors everywhere as we do, then "they" have not only already been "here", but their sensors and probably their intervention agents are still here, busy at work around us.

For reasons of pure hubris, humans seem to want to avoid counting "1, 2, 3, ..." to get to infinity ("God"), but prefer to count "1, infinity" as if God is only one short step above mankind. That's unsupportable logic.

The far more scientific question, rather than investigating infinity with theologians, is to investigate the nature of "2", i.e., what's right here, all around us, that's higher than us but still way way lower than God?

You in the back row? No, "Congress" doesn't count as an answer.

The burden of proof, it seems to me, is on proving that we are NOT surrounded by a consciously managed framework, no more mysterious than our interventions to sustain the coral reefs.

In scientific terms, religion becomes mostly people sensing that framework and adding fanciful details.

A task on which both Science and Religion, as institutions, could and should agree on is figuring out what the shape and nature is of the real but non-mystical active and adaptive framework that surrounds us.

In fact, documenting such a framework might, in fact,  be a major step in defusing the perpetual and very destructive wars of different religions, or even different sects of different religions, over what are essentially minor cosmetic details compared to the massive framework we will find if we simply stop fighting,  develop and calibrate suitable tools for "looking" for such a framework, and take the time to look.

If nothing else,  good tools should prove their capacity by revealing a number of places where external, but very real, human agencies are messing with affairs we always suspected but couldn't prove.

* The image above is from Harvard's Kennedy School

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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Spiritual Solutions to Economic Problems - Baha'i Consultation

Spiritual Solutions to Economic Problems - through Baha'i consultation

( Picture from The Consultation Institute )

The Great Being saith: The heaven of divine wisdom is illumined with the two luminaries of consultation and compassion. Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.
("Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas" [rev. ed.], (Haifa: Bahá'í World  1982), p. 168)

All Baha'is are directed to use "consultation",  in matters great and small.  But what exactly is consultation?   Why does it work? 

Below I give my own understanding of these questions, along with some references to other sources of information about Baha'i Consultation.

Consultation is at the other end of the spectrum from the classic, legacy, Western concept of a business meeting, where each person comes with their own agenda and attempts to outmaneuver and outvote each other and their goal is to "win" the meeting and get their way on some issue.   In a typical meeting the boss runs the meeting and presents his idea first, then asks for comments and opinions.  Generally people know what's good for them and all agree.  Afterwards no one has any idea why they just spent an hour when the outcome was known before they went into the room.   Communication is very one-way, top-down.  The idea identified as the Boss's idea wins.   Opposition may be brutally hammered down, and hard feelings or resentment carried over for years after the "decision" is reached. For the most part disagreement is self-censored.  The objective is a "win", even if the "losers" are totally outraged and outmaneuvered by trickery or power.

On the other hand, Consultation involves people assembling hoping to discover what is right, not who is right.      A wide range of views and opinions is actively sought from each person in the room,  even the quiet ones, and listened to attentively and politely.   The behavior is civil if not exemplary.   One goal is that, regardless of the "outcome" of the matter under question, everyone will leave the meeting at least as good friends, and preferably stronger friends, than they were when they arrived.    Members who disagree with the views presented by others have an obligation to speak their piece as they see it.    The objective is a heartfelt unanimous realization of the right course of action, with everyone behind it.

What's interesting is that the literature of management has done a complete U-turn in the last 100 years,   from advocating very tight top-down management to advocating multidisciplinary groups given discretion to find their own pathway.

The reason for this change in industrial practices is that the problems have changed.  In 1900 it was common for the top management to be experts in everything they needed to know, and the workers simply had to follow instructions to produce good output.    As the century progressed, the competition increased dramatically,   the complexity of problems increased enormously,  the speed required for solutions shortened, and no single person could possibly know enough to solve the problem by himself.    

Companies that tried to continue the "old way" of top-down decision-making, like the auto makers General Motors and Ford,   just couldn't believe they were being outrun by participatory decision-making companies like Toyota and Honda. 

Auto companies were not unique however.   A large number of large-scale disasters of management or operation were traced back to the suppression of dissenting views or lack of diverse opinions, including such things as the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion,  Three-Mile Island meltdown,  and most airline "accidents" that resulted in loss of life.   Further investigation showed that similar problems were occurring in Hospitals, where suppression of dissenting opinions was resulting in patient harm,  amputation of the wrong arm or leg, etc. where someone knew the situation was going wrong, but was unwilling to speak up.

Current best thinking in the field is in a book titled Teaming by Amy Edmondson,  a faculty member at Harvard Business School, who discusses the key concept of "psychological safety" required for a dissenter, especially of lower rank, to speak up when they see a problem.  It turns out it is not enough to get the right people with a diverse set of knowledge and viewpoints into the room, they must feel safe from retaliation if they share their opinion.

All of which brings us back to Baha'i Consultation,  which predates the current management wisdom by 150 years and gives clear instructions as to what is required.

 The prime requisites for them that take counsel together are purity of motive, radiance of spirit, detachment from all else save God, attraction to His Divine Fragrances, humility and lowliness amongst His loved ones, patience and long-suffering in difficulties and servitude to His exalted Threshold. Should they be graciously aided to acquire these attributes, victory from the unseen Kingdom of Bahá shall be vouchsafed to them.... The members thereof must take counsel together in such wise that no occasion for ill-feeling or discord may arise. This can be attained when every member expresseth with absolute freedom his own opinion and setteth forth his argument. Should any one oppose, he must on no account feel hurt for not until matters are fully discussed can the right way be revealed. The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions. If after discussion, a decision be carried unanimously, well and good; but if the Lord forbid, differences of opinion should arise, a majority of voices must prevail.

(`Abdu'l-Bahá, cited in a letter dated 5 March 1922 written by Shoghi Effendi to the Bahá'ís of the United States and Canada, published in "Bahá'í Administration: Selected Messages 1922-1932", p. 21-22)

So we here get the message that "intention matters."    Rather than suppressing human emotion and the role of the heart,  as in a legacy "business meeting" that should be purely rational,   consultation should include the full emotional and spiritual human capacity in a search for a pathway that looks right, feels right, and is right.

Trustworthiness,  scrupulous honesty,   and loving civility are virtues that are not just nice to have,  they are absolutely required for consultation to work successfully.     Even the famous "Toyota Way" is very clear that at the core is a a change of heart, not a change of tools.

There is a spiritual dimension as well to a perfect consultation.   While the persons consulting are present, they also need to be, effectively,  polished mirrors or hollow reeds,  reflecting the love of God into and among the persons present, to illuminate the dark corners and allow a solution to emerge.    The solution discovered is as likely to be along a totally unexpected dimension that allows a win-win-win to occur between "sides",  revealing the pathway to "unity above diversity" which more "dissolves" the problem than "solving" it.    The solution comes through the firebox of the hearts reflecting love, and not through some sort of mental or fully-rational process of mathematically ranking options or other such computations.

As Daniel Goleman's books Emotional Intelligence, and more recent Social Intelligence have documented scientifically,  humans are not really poorly functioning rational engines, but highly tuned beings hard-wired to operate in emotional synchrony with tremendous shared insight.
If there is no shared love,  there will be no solution revealed.

If there is shared love, love of God and love for each other in a shared destiny on this one planet we all inhabit,   then true miracles can be revealed through the most unlikely members,  and we can move towards the Most Great Peace.

A  summary of quotations from the Baha'i Sacred Writings can be found here:  and a brief informal video introduction to consultation for those who prefer video is here:

A classic Baha'i book is John Kolstoe's Consultation: A Universal Lamp of Guidance.

A Baha'i inspired book of techniques for handling logistics of meetings is Trip Barthel's Transforming Conflict into Concensus - 9 keys to Synergy.

Although the emotional and spiritual qualities are required for truly finding Spiritual Solutions to Economic Problems,    valuable approaches for group dynamics can be found in
 Getting To Yes (Fisher, Ury, and Patton) and
The Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (3rd Edition) by  Sam Kaner.

I discovered in writing this that there is a group called The Consultation Institute in the UK,  which is somewhat interesting since I was considering starting my own non-profit  501(c)(3) in the USA to do just that.     I don't know anything else about them, but here's a link to them and I do like their charter!

The Consultation Institute

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Asking the right questions about God and Science

I think it would help cut through the dust and noise if we asked the correct question about "God".

Let me respectfully offer a candidate question that seems to me better than the questions and frameworks typically used.

As science evolves, the legacy "billiard ball" models of "life" are yielding to more nuanced models of something that is hierarchical, multi-level,  with both near-term and long-term feedback loops, and somewhat more diffuse than would be simple.

Our own bodies turn out to be massive structures of mostly independent entities,  "cells", some of which like white blood cells are not even "attached" but wander around on their own.

This is profoundly important.   The mulltilevel cooperating swarm model has also proven to be extremely successful in design of computer networks and "supercomputers".   But in particular,  computer architectures consciously utilize "layers" of "systems" which hide significant details on purpose between layers.

Thus,  the application software which "writes to disk" no longer needs to know the details of which sector of which cylinder of which disk it is writing to, or if it is even a real disk or a virtual disk, located here or in Singapore.   Those details are delegated to lower-level processes to manage, with blessed relief.

And multi-level evolution of "the fittest" embraces simple single-level models, but also embraces all levels of altruism as successively higher levels of organization co-evolve,  which, net, improves the survival of their lower-level agents.

So, entirely without needing to get into spirituality or extrapolation 200 orders of magnitude or more to "God",  there is a very real question that Science is mostly ignoring of whether, in fact, such levels of life extend above humans as well as below them,  even by just one or two.

Now, a key principle of Cosmology is that "we are not special".   We, Earth, Mankind, is not "in the center of the universe", or at the very edge, or the highest form of anything, etc.  This should be taken as the base case, and anyone wishing to deviate from it bears the burden of proof, not the other way around.

Given that, and the model of life that we clearly both exemplify and copy into silicon,  we have to ASSUME that there are, in fact, at least a FEW levels of hierarchical life "above us",  where "above" means in this very specific framework.

So,  we must ASSUME until proven otherwise that we humans are, akin to white blood cells, going about our lives happily and mostly unaware that we are, in fact, part and parcel of a much larger "body" and "being" that is also, simultaneously going about its own business, probably on a much larger time-scale than our own.

I have not touched the nature of God here, or any "religion" -- I have entirely based this reasoning on solid science and cosmology and debunking legacy models and frameworks that make mankind more "special" than proven, or that make "life" more atomic, binary, and magical than proven.

There is more evidence every day that human "beings" are, in fact, caught up in a web of distal causality where the experiences, lives, actions, decision, and happiness of "other people" nearby has a surprisingly strong "impact" on our own psychology and physiology.  It is AS IF the boundaries of "our bodies" is not, in fact, our skin, mathematically.   It behaves as if we are actually PART, biologically, of larger entities with their own somewhat insulated levels of life.

Perhaps "religions" and "cultures" and "nations" and "peoples" are, in a very real mathematical sense, alive.  Perhaps earth ("Gaia") is itself alive with an independent consciousness.  Perhaps the entire galaxy is alive. 

The point is, to be scientific, until proven otherwise, the cosmological principle asserts, with the power of Occam's Razor,   that we MUST ASSUME that the upper extremum of "life" does NOT stop at US, or that that WE are the "highest creation of God."    Just as we MUST ASSUME that the Earth, despite being our home, is NOT the center of the solar system, or the galaxy, or the universe.

The burden of scientific proof, in fact, is on anyone who wants to go against the Cosmological principle and assert that, in fact, somehow, we and our viewpoint ARE, magically, special and define an end point, let alone the upper end point, of all that is or could be.

Seeking to understand or model what is ten thousand levels above us ("God")  is probably a tad ambitious, I would suggest, and not really necessary and in fact does not help the research.

First, let's solve the problem of how to detect and analyze ONE level above us.

We KNOW there are "things" we "belong to" that are geographically and perhaps in time larger than ourselves -- things such as "family",  "neighborhood",   "culture",  "a corporation",  "a country", etc.

What is less obvious is that these much larger things around us may be, in fact, themselves alive and conscious.  

Despite our theoretical legacy view that the scale of "life" stops at humans,  nevertheless we have all seen circumstances where larger things APPEAR to "take on a life of their own".

The singularly profound concept I'm arguing for here is that that perception is correct, and that things DO take on a "life of their own".    

We need to take a leap and change our definition of "life" and "alive" to admit those observations that otherwise would be viewed as "exceptions" or heretical.

If you truly cannot let go of the biology texbook definition of "life", then at least consider the larger mental model to be "MAWBA" -- "Might as WELL be alive.",  which is a superset of what Biology texts tell us is "alive", and also finally includes viruses, phages,  and the increasingly dominant life form on this planet,  "corporations".

We should seek more diligently to find redefinitions of "life" which include this hierarchical, mutli-level type model used by software engineers (because it WORKS), and then seek to find out not WHETHER, but WHICH higher level large movements, structures, behaviors, around us that we have been perceiving as something else are, in fact, mathematically,  independently alive entities that we are "part of " in the sense our white blood cells are "part of " ourselves.

INDEPENDENT of those arguments, I would then suggest that the various "religions" of mankind could be viewed as clumsy attempts by uneducated laymen to attempt to put into some kind of words the socially observed reality that "SOMETHING LARGER IS GOING ON HERE".

Religion asserts that as a fact,  though embellished with a variety of details that vary by location and time.

Science seems to be busy with its eyes down the microscope tube, looking for ever smaller "God particles".  

I suggest we should combine forces of Science and Religion and look "above" instead, and try to make sense of what we see going on in the newspapers in a framework of "metalife", of things that "Might as well be alive" because they behave like they are. (Eg, "corporations").

I seem to perceive that this exploration of the regions "above" is avoided by scientists on the sometimes explicit grounds that it would give aid and comfort to religious idiots.  Such childish emotions have no place setting national research policy on the single most important SCIENTIFIC question that could organize the data in a totally new way and reveal causal relationships we always noticed but never fully understood.


One of the immediate applications of this framework would be to consider a core message of Christianity, say,  paraphrasing only slightly " For Christ's sake,  act like you're parts of the same body!"

Specifically,   if we ARE in fact parts of the same meta-body,  then what we see around us in the daily headlines is essentially an autoimmune disorder,  with parts of the body, in good faith, not recognizing other parts of the body as being legitimate, and consequently attacking them as being "not us".     

Our human eyes are seeing the differences, but not the same-metabody signature being broadcast on our own internal IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) system.

Perhaps, viewing this as an autoimmune disorder, and many events as, essentially, anaphylactic shock,   would let us have the insights required to actually CURE the disorder.

To quote the title of a Baha'i book:   Peace: More than an End to War.

It is important to grasp that I am NOT saying that the situation is "like unto" members of one body, or similar to, or analogous to that.   I am making a MUCH stronger statement.    I am asserting that we ARE, in a true mathematical and physiological and biological sense,  all members of one (or more?) meta-bodies, despite,  like white blood cells, not being fixed in geographic location or attached at the hip to each other.

In that case, if that is true, then things that happen to even "the least of these" happen to __me__, although the time-scale for the impact to percolate through the metabody to me may be longer than I usually wait around to examine.

Also,  but now working from possible scale-invariant design architecture,  ( stronger than analogy), we notice that human cells are extremely difficult to grow in the lab because a human cell, if removed from its metabody (our body),   goes into flat decline and shortly commits apoptosis, ie, pushes the do-not-push big red button and commits suicide and dies.

Humans, disconnected from each other, in say solitary confinement or worse, in public aloneness, similarly go into flat decline and often commit suicide.

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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Is being an academic a disabilty (part 2)

The fancy term for knowing your own limits is "meta-cognition" -- that is, what you know ABOUT what you know.

According to Dror:

When it comes to experts, the following errors are common:

  • over self-confidence
  • do not listen
  • discourage, frown, and 'punish' disagreement
  • take undue risk
  • Escalate commitment when challenged
  • Wishful thinking
  • Confirmation bias  (search for and see supporting facts but not conflicting facts.)

Again,  these are all errors that all humans tend to make, but non-experts may be much more aware of their own tendency to make such errors,  and recover from them gracefully the next day.

Experts, on the other hand, have a much higher level of investment in their reputation,  and there is no natural internal limit to the justified self-confidence they have in one area that lets them know they have crossed outside the boundaries of what they know and what they only think they know.

Among nurses,  there are often comments about specific doctors who consider themselves only a short step below God,  whose egos are so large that "they come into the room before the person."

But that's anecdotal and just jealousy right?  Wrong. Let's find some objective data. I'm a private pilot and follow this sort of thing.

Example:    Doctors have the highest rate of small aircraft accidents after any other group or profession, except teenagers.

Crash Risk in General Aviation,   by Guohua Li, MD, Dr.PH and Susan Parker, MPH,
JAMA. Apn1 11,2007-Vol297, No. 14 p 5196-1598.  ( )
which also cites
Booze CF Jr. Epidemiologic investigation of occupation, age, and exposure in
aviation accidents. Aviat Space Environ Med. 1977;48:1081-1091.

I can't right off find the statistics for teenagers, but I do recall noting it as I read it a while ago.

Note -- I can't find such data adjusted for the fraction of flight-hours which are by doctors, to get the accident rate per hour flown by occupation.     It's possible that doctors, being wealthier than average, tend to own their own planes and fly more than the general public, which would bias those rates upwards.  On the other hand, it's doubtful that teenagers own their own planes at all, or that they fly very much,   and MD's are not known for having a great deal of free time for leisure activities.   So it's also possible that MD's actually both own their own planes but fly only infrequently, so the accident rate per hour flown is even higher for MD's than the statistics would imply.

A more likely explanation, in my mind,  is that MD's are significantly more unaware of the limits of their own expertise,  and therefore take more risks than other general aviation pilots.

While others may find the behavior described by "ego" or "arrogance", the point is that the doctors are, in fact,   somewhat crippled by the unintended and invisible-to-them side-effects of their own expertise.

We can talk more later about the behaviors which result from an effort to maintain their own self-image in the face of conflicting data.   What is expected, given narcissism in general, is that all errors and unexpected outcomes are automatically blamed on others, or events outside control,  anything except blaming them on oneself.    The emotions related to questioning ones own identity become so high that fits of rage are reported by surgeons, say, when anything goes wrong, including hurling instruments across the room and screaming at others present, etc.

This, in turn has two social side effects.

  • It reduces the probability that the MD will learn anything from the mistake.
  • It reduces the probability that anyone who associates with the MD will point out their mistakes in the future.
Thus begins a feed-back process which increasingly isolates the expert from realistic negative lessons from outside.

The result, getting back to the start of this post,  is that an expert with a huge investment in reputation, face, and accuracy becomes increasingly isolated from social interaction and particularly isolated from ability to allow personal errors and shortcomings to be visible in public.

It's certainly well known in the hospital I.T. department, for example, that it is extremely hard to get many doctors to learn new software if it requires that they have to go through the required awkward and fumbling state in public,  let alone in the presence of their peers.

In other words, my original comparison group, the "giggling gaggle of girls", has much more freedom to explore, make mistakes, ask questions of each other,  and figure out collectively and even enjoyable how new things works, and can acquire new skills together in a totally non-competitive way, helping each other learn.

Experts, on the other hand,  may suffer severe disabilities in their social ability to operate in such a learning group.   They have, effectively, a trained incapacity in this regard.

And, because they lack awareness of the limits of their knowledge, this incapacity extends far beyond the areas they would be expected to be experts within,  to all other kinds of interactions in life.

To some extent, all people and most higher animals are quite aware of "face" and try to no do things that would embarrass them in front of their peers.   I've certainly observed that among bird flocks, cats, and dogs, as well as humans.

Also, to a very large extent, what people are inwardly terrified of is being thrown out of "the flock",  of becoming unwanted, undesired, an "outsider", or one of the "them" category that disparaging describes those outside the in-crowd.

The result is that the LAST thing in the world people want is some sort of effort to surface, reveal, tell-all, and show errors and flaws.      This, of course, makes something like the Toyota "lean" process, or Six-Sigma,   which is precisely designed to surface such problems,   astoundingly difficult, if not impossible to implement for corporate change agents interested in rooting out and fixing these deeper, hidden problems.

So, again,  those experts who have fallen into this trap, perhaps through no fault of their own, get a triple dose of the deeper anxiety everyone feels about being "found out" to be "a fraud" or "less than one has pretending to be."

The result is to build higher and higher protective walls and shells around oneself, and to avoid, at all costs, situations in which one might accidentally slip and reveal some internal flaw.

These days, in the corporate world and in politics,  often it only takes a single mistake, a single comment uttered in an unguarded moment,  caught by an open microphone,  to end an entire career and flag someone as expelled from the "in group."

The result has to be an intense loneliness and constant state of both rage at the stupidity and errors of those around one, and fear that one's own flaws will become visible.

Again, it is not surprising that the drug-abuse and suicide rate among MD's is quite high.  They have become emotionally and socially crippled by external forces and training, and are in every sense of the word disabled, unable to participate in the normal social activities of daily living that many people take for granted.

It is not surprising in this context that the development of Hospital internal Electronic Medical Record systems is running a few decades behind other industries.    The talk is concern about patient privacy, but the actual far deeper concern is that, by capturing everything electronically, it will become far easier for mere mortals,  even administrators,  to mine the data and detect and reveal weaknesses and flaws.

Moreover, in the corporate world these days,   administrators and managers are often those who have mastered the art of taking credit for anything good that happens, and deflecting blame for anything bad that happens, while keeping the spotlight focused anywhere but on their own performance.  (I'm speaking as an MBA who taught MBA's here,  and has been "in the kitchen.")

So,  the largest threat to such administrators is the brightest MD's, who can see through puffery and see what is actually going on.   Given the politics then, it is precisely such MD's who present the greatest threat to the continued position of the administrators, and it precisely such MD's that said administrators constantly seek any bullets, or flaws, or errors to use to "take them down."

So MD's have the curse of training that emphasizes inhuman perfection,   the dangers of expertise in general,  attorneys ready to pounce on anything that even looks like a bad outcome regardless how correctly it was managed,  and a sociopolitical environment that is constantly threatening to expose and demolish their careers and lives.

One last curse of MD's, CEO's of large companies, and military officers is that they have to make rapid decisions based on insufficient information, with huge or fatal consequences if they guess wrong.    On the other hand, they have to make a STREAM of such decisions, one after the other, in an environment where "paralysis of analysis" is also a sin of omission that may have worse consequences than a "bad decision" that at least can be detected and reversed shortly.

Humans have finite capacity to worry about things, so these experts must take situations that are full of conflict and doubt and FORCE them into a state marked "decided, do not reopen or worry about this any more,  or you'll ruin all subsequent decisions."

They are forced to master the art of putting uncertain decisions out of sight, out of mind, and not constantly worrying about them and revisiting them, or they'll simply be overwhelmed and quite literally go crazy.

But this also means they have yet another source of blindness and resistance to the arrival of new, contradictory data, which calls their prior decision into question.

Enough on MD's for the moment.

In my next post I'll look at the problems of expertise in the Executive wing, among managers and CEOs.   Again,  we'll see that those people who the outside world thinks have the most power and privileges in the world are among the most limited and the most crippled in their capacity to function as a healthy human being and member of society.

(more in part 3)

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Is being an academic a disability? (part 1)

I began to wonder about the total impact of higher education when I had trouble setting up a video conference with some senior faculty in a prestigious university,  and discovered they didn't actually know how to do that.

I believe it is true, based on my observations, that a "gaggle of giggling girls",  pre-teens,  has a greater ability to master the intricacies of technical equipment, in particular a "cell phone",  than does the average senior faculty member at a university.     If you don't like the "cell phone" example,  use the mastery of completely free Voice-over-IP services such as Skype for long-distance calls, or calls around the planet for under 5 cents a minute.

I pick on females not because I am trying to be stereotypical, but because I am directly challenging several stereotypes at once, regarding females,  faculty,  and technical mastery skills.

I am not addressing activities that are of no interest to senior faculty members,  such as sharing their day to day lives on Facebook.   I am talking about simple communication, a basis for collaboration, as well as ability to master new technology given several years to find time to do so.

I believe this is a profound data point.   It calls into question many of our core assumptions, including the focus and evaluation of how we educate or youth.

In particular,  this instance highlights part of what appears on investigation to be a much larger problem -- the downside of academic education, and the downside of expertise.

In any rational measure of mastery of a cell phone as an "Activity of Daily Life" in today's society,  it appears that senior academics have to rate in the "disabled" category.

If it were only academics,  this would be important but, well,  "academic".   Sadly, the downside of expertise appears to apply as well, perhaps even more so,  to two very important groups -- business management,    and medical doctors.

And, of course, then if you are considering automating the electronic health record at a large academic medical institution,  you have all three to deal with, perhaps in the same group of people.

While it can be somewhat fun to disparage experts,  managers, and academics,  let's try to stick to known facts here, and see where our mental models need updating, and then look at what the policy implications are of all this.

First,  there are well-documented problems with experts and expertise.   A great deal of research has been done by the military,  and lately by those following financial disasters,  on how it is that some truly smart people can behave so stupidly, or  how a fully-trained, highly-motivated observer can miss exactly what it was that was right in front of them.

One well-respected researcher in this field is Dr. Itiel Dror, at University College London. Here's the abstract of a paper he published last year:

Dror, I (2011) The Paradox of Human Expertise: Why Experts Can Get It Wrong. In: Kapur, N and Pascual-Leone, A and Ramachandran, VS, (eds.) The Paradoxical Brain. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK. (In press).

Expertise is correctly, but one-sidedly, associated with special abilities and enhanced performance. The other side of expertise, however, is surreptitiously hidden. Along with expertise, performance may also be degraded, culminating in a lack of flexibility and error. Expertise is demystified by explaining the brain functions and cognitive architecture involved in being an expert. These information processing mechanisms, the very making of expertise, entail computational trade-offs that sometimes result in paradoxical functional degradation. For example, being an expert entails using schemas, selective attention, chunking information, automaticity, and more reliance on top-down information, all of which allow experts to perform quickly and efficiently; however, these very mechanisms restrict flexibility and control, may cause the experts to miss and ignore important information, introduce tunnel vision and bias, and can cause other effects that degrade performance. Such phenomena are apparent in a wide range of expert domains, from medical professionals and forensic examiners, to military fighter pilots and financial traders.

How can this be?

To illustrate, Dr. Dror suggests that you attempt the following task.
There is no rush and no time limit.   Don't proceed until you have
completed this task and feel confident you have not made a mistake.

Count how many 'F's are in the following text:


=========== stop here until you are done =======






V  ... take your time






V  ... double check your work


















======== ANSWER BELOW.

The correct answer is six.  There are six F's in the text.  


Don't feel bad if you got it wrong.   I counted three.

 This is an example of a kind of problem that expert readers have that beginning readers, such as your young children, probably do not have.

Most people have learned to read for "content" and they have learned, implicitly, that the word "of" does not have much content, so their mind basically uses "white-out" on the words "of" and they disappear from our view.

The problem is that EXACTLY the same type of inability to see what is, in retrospect, in plain sight, happens to all kinds of experts -- including doctors,  CEO's,   and academics.

In fact, the more they have trained their senses to notice certain things, the LESS likely they are to notice other things that they have, at the same time,  learned to ignore.

So, can you see what's in front of you?

Identify the person in the image,  then turn around, back up 3 or 4 paces, turn around and see what you see.   From normal viewing distance, this is clearly Albert Einstein.  From across the room, this is "clearly" Marilyn Monroe.

There is a larger version at MIT where this "hybrid image" originated.

My point here is not just for fun --- people who are "close to" this data see one things, and people who are not "close to" this data see something else entirely.

We are surrounded by issues that are invisible in plain sight,  and sources of disagreement that are due to our perspective that we don't expect to be there.  Being an "expert" doesn't free a person of having the same types of problems, but it does decrease, substantially, their willingness to consider that an interpretation different from their own, especially by a non-expert, might have any value at all.

Back to the core point of this post -- Almost everyone has problems with their eyeballs, which are recognized and dealt with by "glasses" or "contact lenses" and not really considered disabilities. Some people don't like to admit they have a problem, and prefer to wear contacts, or avoid wearing glasses whenever possible.

However many people, and in particular experts, have a different type of problem with seeing that is an unavoidable side-effect of their expertise.   This is more subtle, and potentially much more dangerous, but also flies in the face of their own self-image of "expert" and therefore is not admitted, adjusted or compensated for.

The first step in dealing with a disability is recognizing that one has it, and also realizing that the world has not ended just because of an issue with one small sub-system of what it means to be human.

(end of part 1)

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Monday, December 12, 2011

What's that called again?

What do you call it?  That thing where people get together,  compare notes, and leave with everyone knowing more than when they arrived?

There are many low-odds high-damage risks, way too many to deal with them all individually.

There is at least one certain high-damage risk, that corruption will infect high-places and passivity infect low-places, and stupidity and paranoia will infect us all; that we will turn into squabbling children instead of mature adults, and resort to screaming instead of reasoning and learning from each other.

There is a big difference among risks, though: if we could solve the "reasoning together" problem, it would give us the necessary tools to prioritize and solve the other problems we face. Productive civil discourse and learning from dissenting voices can open our eyes.

We don't have that many more trillion dollars to spend defending ourselves from risks. We should select the few we plan to address wisely, not impulsively. I suggest that protecting civilized discourse and learning from each other should be in the short list.

Yet for all the emphasis on fundamentals,  over time variously learning Latin and Greek, or music or Math and Science,  we remain far from the ability to learn a thing or two from every person we disagree with.

We seem to not teach that it is easy, as a human, to be sure of things that turn out to be false, and to approach our certainty with a grain of salt, and at least civility towards those who come out on a different side of issues.

It should never be about "which side is right", but about what "we" can learn from "them", despite the "obvious fact" that "they" are "wrong" about so much.   It's not a question of tolerating "them", it's a question of honestly accepting,  despite all evidence, that maybe "they" might have some fact, some data point, some wisdom that we are totally blind to, and tolerating our differences while we work at while investigating what that actual news might be.   And expecting the same from them.

"Put your heads together and come up with your best answer" should not be about one "side" dominating and trampling down the other until it "wins."

Learn how to learn at least one thing from each other!   Not "I'm smart and you're either obviously evil or obviously stupid!"

"There is nothing I can learn from you" is not a statement about them-- it's a statement about a gap in your ability to "eat the meat and spit out the bones."

We don't seem to teach that in school.  It doesn't seem to just flow from learning math and science or logic.  It doesn't seem to have a recognized name we all agree on to refer to it.   It's some kind of core value of civilization,   a necessary factor in the totality of us having more wisdom than the brightest individual one of us.

But,  we're missing it and we need it.  Now more than ever.

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