the soundbite is the reference, not the story

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bland-altman plots of abdominal tissue apparent diffusion coefficients, compared from free-breathing and navigator-triggered MRI scans. the outliers, outside the dashed lines, arise from attempting to track breathing motion. our conclusion in this paper is just to let people get on with breathing. good advice.

the rise of popular neuroscience has most visibly taken the unmistakable form of malcolm gladwell, with books such as blinkoutliers, and the tipping point selling extraorinarily well to a market that responded well to his clear writing style, and his explanation of both intuitive and counter-intuitive ‘aha!’ moments. and i for one very happily devoured such books; other books in similar veins i would recommend are bounce, by matthew syed, the wisdom of crowds by james surowiecki, and the gift of fear by gavin de becker (this last one is a little different, and i shall return to it in a later post).

there is something that appeals to me in the idea that the quirks of human nature have reasons, can be tested and explained. and there is a thrill in discovering something that seems wrong, but which can be demonstrated as true. the difficulty with popular science books, that i read in my spare time, is that i tend to read them for entertainment and often don’t engage the critical faculties i use when reading scientific literature in a professional role.

for those who haven’t read outliers, you may still have heard of the “10,000 hours” rule that is a central thesis of the book – in simple terms, the idea is that siad time spent dedicated to an activity, be it sports, programming, music, or anything else is required to become an expert in that activity. in the book, gladwell looks at bill gates, steve jobs, and so forth. these ideas are expanded on a lot in bounce, and provides more sporting examples within the same idea.

the difficulty arises because while the actual idea from outliers is quite complex and qualified, the use of a round number is so attractively simple it gets immediately reduced down to something that loses the nuance of the wider discussion. and this, i feel, is a microcosm of the difficulties of science journalism: if something is catchy, it becomes over-caught almost immediately. gladwell does some research, and  argues that alongside the personal characteristics of determination and strong interest in the subject, a degree of circumstance (a combination of simple luck as well as design) is required to truly excel, to become an ‘outlier’. the idea of ‘10,000 hours’ of practice (or, as matthew syed rightly stresses, deliberate practice) is an observation of the fact that ability, or ‘talent’, is not sufficient for conspicuous success. required, but not sufficient; a familiar concept to those acquainted with mathematical proof, or formal logic.

this idea, though, simply doesn’t make it to the point of being passed on. it quickly – and most likely unconsciously – becomes “10,000 hours of practice is needed to become an expert”, and that in turn becomes “10,000 hours makes you an expert”, and suddenly the reason the research made sense is lost altogether. and then you get pieces like this here, which begins with:

10,000-hours of practice will make you an expert

The Deceived Wisdom is that a 10,000-hour rule applies to become an expert or virtuoso. The idea was made popular by Malcolm Gladwell apparently based on the research of psychologist Anders Ericsson of Florida State University. Ericsson never mentioned 10,000 hours and says there is more to perfection than simply putting in the hours. Most people do a relatively limited amount of practice to ‘perfect’ their art, whether wielding a cricket bat, playing chess, singing or programming computers. It can make you perfectly competent – but not necessarily excellent.

this piece rejects the idea – which wasn’t the original idea – by essentially saying “this is wrong” but doesn’t give any more information. that last sentence makes a wonderfully sweeping claim that ‘most people’ do a ‘relatively limited’ amount of practice, but offers no indication of what proportion is meant by ‘most’, what demographic is meant by ‘people’, what constitutes ‘limited’ (other than, we presume, being less than 10,000 hours), and then the quotes around ‘perfect’ aren’t qualified either.

such pieces of ‘journalism’ – and they are not such – add no information, and doesn’t attempt to solve the problem of what is uncharitably called ‘deceived wisdom’ (it feels likely that no deception was involved, just carelessness) by going back to the source and providing up the information that is useful and interesting. all this does is play to those who enjoy contradicting others with a knowing smugness; the sort of people who say “well actually, it’s a little more complicated than that” without actually contributing anything useful.

we live in a world of twitter and cascaded information that is shrunk and packaged for practical reasons. we have access to more information – facts as well as opinions – than ever before in human history. but soundbites are the reference, the placeholder. they are not knowledge itself, but they point you towards where something is that you might find interesting to read: you need to go back and read the original. as a regular person, you have no explicit responsibility to do so in the way a journalist does, but you expose your own ignorance and laziness whenever you uncritically pass on ‘something you heard’. it is more difficult to add to a discussion, to build, than to subtract. that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

ze frank says: well, it’s a little more complicated than that

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