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What the Dog Saw

May 29, 2018

I’ve been reading What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell.  The book is a collection of articles he wrote in the early years of this century.  Most of the articles are about mysteries, some obvious and some not.  He also makes a distinction between puzzles and mysteries, writing that with puzzles you have too little information, but that with mysteries you have too much information.  He tells us that some puzzles can be treated as mysteries.  Of course, when you do that, the distinction between the two disappears.

In the book, many articles are about people who analyze information and make predictions from that information.  One is about FBI profilers who develop a description of the culprit in a crime.  Once the police arrest the culprit, their prediction always seems correct.  Of course, some of them later may revise their original statements to make their predictions seem even more accurate.

Another is about intelligence services that attempt to predict what another country or its leader will do.  Some of their predictions turn out to be completely wrong.  The problem is that governments can only verify the prediction after the event has occured or has not occured.  The lesson here is that its usually impossible to forsee an event.

We also read about a professional sports scout who attempts to predict how college atheletes will perform in the professional leagues.  This prediction works quite badly, at least in the case of football quarterbacks.

Job interviewers attempt to predict how a candidate will perform on the job, assuming that people will behave the same in all situations, including the interview.  Unfortunately, this assumption is incorrect.  People’s behavior is not something fundamental about them.  They may well behave quite differently in real situations.

A stock market analyst attempts to predict what a particular security will do, based on knowledge of the company and past behavior of the security and the market itself.  Their predictions will be completely wrong whenever unexpected events occur.  Unfortunately, these events occur frequently, but cannot be anticipated.

People who analyze satellite images attempt to identify objects on the ground, without knowing what is really there.  There is an element of guesswork required.  Sometimes they guess wrong.

Pathologists who analyze manogram images attempt to identify cancer among a myriad of similar spots that are not cancers.  Their predictions are necessarily imperfect.

Clearly, there are more instances where interpretation must be done than we might expect.  Some of them predict future events, a process that can’t be verified until the event has occured.  Prediction of the future is often wrong.

Although not mentioned in the book, the quality of the information available is important, perhaps more important than the quantity of it.  In the case of a puzzle, we have some factual information, but one critical piece of factual information is missing.  The puzzle can’t be solved until that missing piece is found.  We all can tell when a puzzle has been solved.

In contrast, the information about a mystery is always incomplete and may come from unreliable sources.  It always requires interpretation by a professional.  Only another analyst can verify the prediction.  They often disagree.

As the book states, we can eliminate bad predictions by examining the type of statments made.  They are the same type used by astrologers and psychics.  This leaves us with the good style of predictions.  They still may be incorrect.

Beware of predictions is the best advice.  Sometimes, however, people or groups of people have to act with only incomplete information.  By doing this, they are taking a substantial risk.  The risk is always there.  There’s no way of getting around it.

 

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