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Bad Science by Ben Goldacre: You Must Read It

08/09/2009 2 comments

Bad Science cover

Bad Science is essentially about what it says on the cover.  In it, Ben Goldacre, a Doctor and columnist for The Guardian, rails against the horrible misinterpretation of scientific studies often found in newspapers and TV-shows, makes fun of nutritionists and some of their silly claims and rants about misleading and unfounded health-scares, among other things. In all this, he is not just informative and thorough, but also very funny. Bad Science is a book that I could hardly put down, it was so interesting and so much fun to read.

While the book mainly focuses on medicine and medical science, it’s greatest merit lies in the way it explains and frames the scientific method. In the early parts, the book introduces some fairly basic criteria of what is scientifically sound and what isn’t. It slowly expands on these concepts and by the time you are done with it, you’ll be that much more capable of spotting faulty studies, skewed results and foul statistics yourself. The book also offers the perspective of scientific thought being readily available, easy to understand and basically something anyone can do, anytime. You don’t need a degree or a white lab-coat to apply science – and the fact that science is often portrayed as something exclusive to sophisticated, bearded and bespectacled men is one that Goldacre strongly contests.

What particularly struck a chord with me is one of the mottos that reoccur in Bad Science, which is: “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Simple solutions are very tempting, but once you dig a bit deeper, you often find that things are more complex and also more interesting than at first glance. This has been something of a central theme for myself and it is represented wonderfully in Bad Science. When Goldacre digs, he digs deep and with admirable persistence. You can follow some of this wonderful digging on the Bad Science Blog. (Also, you can get the T-Shirt with the above motto here.)

Quite simply, my conclusion is that Bad Science should be required reading for just about everyone – not only because otherwise you might never know enough about Homeopathy to make a smart decision about it, or always remain puzzled when clever people believe stupid things or forever think there is nothing wrong with the claim that certain foods are good for you because they contain a lot of oxygen – but also for the fresh perspective on scientific thought that it offers. Apart from that, you’ll have a good laugh while reading this book, and don’t the say that laughter is the best medicine? Or is that another example of bad science?

You can find the book here on Amazon. For more book recommendations, see my recommended books page.

Categories: Books Tags: , ,

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell – Why it’s an important book and why you don’t need to feel discouraged by it’s message

29/08/2009 1 comment
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Picture: Paperback book cover of Outliers

If you work hard, believe in yourself and persevere, you will be successful.

Sounds about right, doesn’t it? Also, how familiar is this storyline to you: Person from very humble beginnings makes an invention/starts a small business, has a very hard time at first and almost loses everything but manages to finally rise to the top and becomes very rich and successful.

That’s basically the standard success story that you can find in many, many biographical accounts of successful people. The message these stories carry is usually that success was achieved through hard work and personal sacrifice at times and, more importantly, that therefore anyone can make it.

A different perspective

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers has the subtitle “The Story of Success”, which may lead you to expect an elaborate version of the standard story mentioned above. On the book’s description on the back cover (“Outliers will transform the way we understand success”) as well as in the introduction, it is quickly made clear that Outliers approaches the subject of success from a completely different angle, though. In short, Gladwell argues that, when it comes to success, circumstances matter. In fact, circumstances that are outside of personal control, like when and where you were born, how your parents raised you and even your family and cultural legacy, may be more important to success than anything you can personally control.

One striking example of this comes from an observation made by Canadian Psychologist Roger Barnsley, concerning Ice Hockey players: The vast majority of Ice Hockey players in advanced leagues in Canada are born in January. Many more are born in February or March, but there are very few players born in the later months of the year. What seems completely arbitrary at first actually has quite a simple cause: The cut-off date for entering any kind of Hockey league in Canada is January 1st. A child that wants to join a Hockey team is assigned to one according to it’s birth date. As an example, a boy who turns 10 years old on January 2nd will be in the same team with other kids who won’t turn 10 till the end of the year. Obviously, a boy who is 10 years old has a huge advantage over a boy who is, say, 9 years and one month old. But if the two have birth dates that bracket around the cut-off date (e.g. December 2nd and January 2nd), they will be playing in the same league. The boy born early in the year will be taller, stronger, have better developed motor-skills etc. He will be seen as especially talented and his chances of being promoted to a more elite team are higher. This puts the players born close to the cut-off date on a fast-track to success from an early age (see also: Matthew Effect).

The Good News

The book offers many more examples, stories and studies uncovering unexpected and interesting connections between beneficial circumstances and success. All in all, this may be very discouraging. At times you could almost get the impression that we are living in a deterministic world after all. If circumstances matter that much, what’s the point in even trying? If I was born at the wrong time, in the wrong place and without extraordinary opportunities, what’s left for me to do?

Well, there is one chapter in the book describing the so-called 10000-hour rule and it contains a crucial message to everyone trying to “make it”. The ten-thousand-hour rule originates from a study conducted by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson and colleagues at the Berlin Music Academy. Examining the lifestyles and habits of the musicians the researchers found one fundamental, crucial difference between those considered world-class and those who were merely very good musicians. That difference is the time they had spent playing their instruments. The researchers found that the best musicians simply had been spending more time each day, since longer, practicing with their instrument. No musician was exceptionally good despite not putting in too many hours and no musician was sub-par despite investing many hours into practice. The study seems to suggest that there is no such thing as talent among musicians and the conclusion was that, on average, one must put in about ten-thousand hours of practice in order to reach the skill-level of a world-class expert.

Now, there are two things to keep in mind here: First, it depends on what exactly you do during those ten-thousand hours, i.e. how effective your practice/training is. This is something Dr. Ericsson has also studied and I will elaborate on this in future posts. Secondly, ten-thousand hours is a lot of time. As Malcolm Gladwell puts it: “[…] The people at the very top don’t just work harder or much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.”

To give a brief idea of how much ten-thousand hours are: If you deliberately practice a skill for a whopping three hours every day (including weekends), it will still take you almost ten years to get ten-thousand hours under your belt… Still, the findings from Dr. Ercisson’s and similar studies imply that there is truth to the whole “anyone can make it” thing.

Reorientation

Though I picked out this ten-thousand-hour rule as a hopeful example, the main message of Gladwell’s book remains: Circumstances matter and many contributing factors to great success are outside of personal control. This is, to my mind at least, undoubtedly true and I think it’s a message worth spreading. Don’t get me wrong: I believe in personal progress, I believe that humans are incredibly flexible and adaptable and that just because you have been one way for x years does not mean you cannot make a change anymore. I believe that you can positively change almost every aspect of your life, no matter where you come from and where you were born. Outliers does not contradict any of this, but it does show that we might be getting our ideas of what wealth and success mean from the wrong sources. What Outliers shows is that you will not be as successful as the worlds Bill Gates’, Warren Buffets, Richard Bransons etc. unless you are helped along by very beneficial circumstances. It shows that hoping to become like the biggest stars in the world might be too much like hoping to win the lottery, even if we are willing to make a great effort.

It also shows that we could be recruiting many more great athletes if we had more than one age-tier for young players to enter leagues and teams. Will someone get on that, already?

For more great reads, see my Recommended Books page.

Categories: Books Tags: , , , , ,