Skip to main content

Blind Spot – Gordon Rugg with Joseph d’Agnese ****

I read this book with a mix of responses. One was fascination, the other frustration. The fascination came from the topic, which we catch a glimpse of in the subtitle ‘why we fail to see the solution right in front of us.’ Gordon Rugg, with the help of journalist d’Agnese, gives us a remarkable analysis of how we all – including experts – make errors in our decisions and research. But not limiting himself to saying what’s going wrong, Rugg also provides a method to root out the errors in the ‘Verifier method’, a suite of techniques to pull apart the way we approach, assimilate and make use of information to come to a decision.
The frustration is that the method is seen through a veil of vagueness. We are constantly hearing about this Verifier toolkit, but only get sideways glimpses of what it entails. I would have loved an appendix with a brief description of the contents of the toolkit and a couple of the tools explained in more detail. I appreciate that Rugg and his colleagues probably want to keep the toolkit proprietary (and the danger of having a journalist as a co-author is that they will tend to weed out the detail and weave their stories on people instead). But the book would have been better with a bit more depth.
Having said that, it’s pretty good as it is. The authors take what could be a rather dry topic and give it some life. We see how Rugg started with knowledge elicitation techniques – used, amongst other things, in the attempt to construct expert systems that are designed to provide an accessible bank of expertise. This first requires experts, who often don’t know how they do what they do, to initiate the system builders into their methods and knowledge. From there we move onto looking at the way errors occur in even the most detailed academic study and the gradual realisation that it would be possible to build a series of techniques that would help uncover these errors or, even better, prevent them happening in the future.
There are two major case studies to explore this – the (probably) medieval Voynich manuscript, which for more than 100 years has proved a mystery to all those who have tried to crack its strange script, and the nature of autism. In both cases, making use of the early version of the Verifier method uncovers gaps in expert understanding. While it doesn’t enable Rugg and his colleagues to actually solve the problems, it does provide impressive pointers to where there are currently failings and what should be done next.
All in all, the book will appeal to a very wide market. Whether you are in business (interestingly, the early writing style, before it settles down, is rather like a business book with numbered ‘lessons’ like ‘Experts often don’t know what they know’ in pull quotes) or any branch of academia… or just interested in the nature of knowledge, understanding and human error, there’s a lot here to get your teeth into.

Paperback 

Hardback 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…