June 2013

Batya Ungar-Sargon


Blind Spot: Why We Fail to See the Solution Right in Front of Us by Gordon Rugg

If you are a person who has ever listened to a teacher explain something and thought, with barely concealed frustration, "But that makes no sense!" only to learn later, perhaps months later, perhaps decades later, that indeed, you were correct to suspect, for in fact, it doesn't make sense; if you are a person who has managed to hang on to that inquiring mind, the mind that refuses to take examples for the rule that generates them, or who won't be told that things must be this way, when you can clearly see that they must be that way -- Gordon Rugg's book Blind Spot: Why We Fail to See the Solution Right in Front of Us is for you.

Blind Spot is a book-length introduction to Rugg's "Verifier Approach" -- a method for deducing the errors in expert reasoning. Experts, Rugg says, make more errors than novices, "because they use the results from mistakes to close in on the truth." The book chronicles a number of Rugg's successes; it is essentially a series of case studies of the Verifier Approach. Rugg has devised a "toolbox" for approaching a complex problem that many experts have failed to solve, or keep making mistakes in solving, which he deploys to find the error in reasoning that has led to this failure. The toolbox involves things like proper representation of the problem, or zeroing in on the areas where experts from one field are relying on research from another. He tells a horrific tale of a mother who was convicted of killing her two babies because the pediatrician misunderstood the statistics of the likelihood of two babies dying from SIDS in the same family. Many experts rely on statistics, and many are not statisticians. It's a good place to start looking for errors.

Rugg's tone is conspiratorial; both Watson and Holmes, he plays the uninitiated as well as the teacher. He is the opposite of condescending: it's us versus the problem of not knowing. For Rugg, knowledge is a coy mistress who must be bested at her own game, an Irene Adler wooed by a worthy adversary. In describing the moments in which he has vanquished, Rugg struggles to control his excitement and his genius. In his generosity, he truly believes that everyone can access the intuitions that have led to his major discoveries; step eight of the Verifier Approach is "Home in on the things that feel wrong." These discoveries are numerous, and monumental. From decoding the mysterious Voynich Manuscript, to making headway in cases such as autism and dyslexia, Rugg takes us through the ins and outs of his own reasoning, tracking the mistakes made by others and himself, to arrive at conclusions that are both deeply intelligent but also, paradoxically, almost magically, very natural-seeming.

One of the book's recurring metaphors is a moment in military history in which Hannibal entrapped the Romans by using their strongest expectation -- that their foes would turn to looting -- against them. In "one of the worst 'oh, shit' moments in military history," Rugg writes, Hannibal "had hidden the ambush in Romans' own minds." The metaphor's solution is clear: Science is war against the unknown, baby!

The problems come when one doesn't even know one is "in the grip of a fallacy," as Rugg puts it. It's all well and good with something like Zeno's paradox, where everyone can see a mistake is being made. But what about those crucial fallacies in which errors are used as truth, and no one knows? Enter Gordon Rugg.

You know how when you're reading a novel about a really good shrink, or watching The Mentalist or House or Medium, and you are overwhelmed by the feeling of, "I wish they would analyze-diagnose-mentalize me"? Rugg's book will make you feel that way about your processing hardware -- your brain -- while also giving you tools to self-analyze, for Rugg is first and foremost a teacher. We learn by example from his interest in the "low level inbuilt preferences that nudge us toward favoring some explanations over others, some questions over others, some ways of tackling problems over others. Such behavior..." Rugg writes, "has far-reaching implications for the types of error we're predisposed to make." Such as confirmation bias -- the all-too-human tendency to "focus on evidence that agrees with [one's] own view, regardless of whether it might be an even better fit with very different views. That's what sealed the Romans' fate at Cannae: if they had taken a mental step back and asked whether there could be other explanations for what was happening, they might have managed to get out of the trap before it closed."

Despite the prevalence of errors that one comes to learn are almost certainly peppering one's own thought, Blind Spot is an optimistic book, and one that brought a smile to my face many times. In explaining what Rugg calls "the mathematics of desire," he writes that "Attractiveness, it turns out, is also context-sensitive: for instance, in peaceful times, women tend to prefer less ruggedly masculine faces (e.g. Robert Pattinson), whereas in times of risk and conflict, they tend to prefer more traditionally masculine faces (e.g., Daniel Craig)." Rugg also defaults to the third person singular feminine pronoun, a charming tic in a book that is mostly a description of how scientists think.

In explaining how to measure novelty, or how information-rich something is, Rugg pauses to clarify, "if you're wondering why anyone would care about quantifying novelty, you might want to think about how Google became one of the biggest corporations in history. Every time you do a Google search, the search engine determines the rarity of each keyword. It assumes that the rarer keywords are the more significant ones, with higher information value, and places them on the first page of your results." In analyzing how memory works, Rugg writes that "memory isn't like a photograph, which may become faded but is basically a faithful record. Instead, it's more like an artist's sketch, where the artist makes decisions about what to include and may misinterpret a feature of the scene." It is this sort of utterly clarifying yet utterly intuitive explanation you can expect on every page of this delightful book.

The whole book in a way is a response to the logical fallacy of the slippery slope: yes, it's true; experts make errors. Yes, there are predispositions toward certain errors, glitches, if you will, built into the very hardware of human thought. People report things falsely. Experts become only tacitly aware of what they do. And yet, Rugg writes, there are ways of rigorously taxonomizing those human mistakes that yields knowledge. Not only are mistakes not the grounds for a post-modernist relinquishment of knowledge, or for some Derridean collapse of knowledge with its opposite, the mistake, but quite the opposite -- the discovery of errors in reasoning are one of the methods whereby knowledge most enjoys being seduced (like every good love object). Perfect knowledge is ever unattainable, but a path that takes us close is the Verifier Approach.

While reading Blind Spot will not make you an expert in Verifier Approach, nor will it make you an expert wooer of knowledge, it will make you more aware of the errors in expert reasoning, even your own, and it will make you more sensitive to the possibilities, and likelihoods, of the reason knowledge eludes your grasp, and its predictable patterns for doing so.

Blind Spot: Why We Fail to See the Solution Right in Front of Us by Gordon Rugg
ISBN: 978-0062097903
304 pages