Saturday, February 19, 2011

Wrong is the new right, always

Writer Vladimir Nabokov was a self-taught expert on butterflies. He would have gained rock-star status if only professional lepidopterists had taken his idea seriously: Polyommatus blues, a group of butterflies, had originated in Asia, moved over the Bering Strait and headed south all the way to Chile in a series of waves. After reading David H Freedman’s Wrong, I thought of possible reasons why this telling research on the evolution of a group of butterflies was nipped in its bud. Nabokov didn’t do any academic gigs; his ideas weren’t published in any top-of-the-heap scientific magazines and peer-review journals; he didn’t have the Internet to “blog” his ideas.

While my arguments might seem shaky, they stem from an equally uneven book. The book’s subtitle “Why Experts Keep Failing Us – And How to Know When Not to Trust Them” is a dead giveaway of the Gladwell-isms that are buried between the covers. Here the word “experts” is a veritable kitchen-sink that includes “scientists, finance wizards, doctors, relationship gurus, celebrity CEOs, high-powered consultants, health officials, and more”.

It’s painfully obvious that Freedman would skewer those at Wall Street for pushing unwitting investors to the edge of a financial precipice with questionable investments while masquerading as experts of finance. It would have put things in better perspective if Freedman had cared to talk about the financial deregulation that Ronald Reagan perpetrated in the early eighties.

Where Wrong breaks new ground is in its take on the scientific community. And as long as Freedman sticks to the scientists, the book is a rip-snorter. By limiting their research to a handful of people, the scientists extrapolate the numbers. The implicit assumption is that all humans are equal and that if 20 out of 30 displayed similar characteristics, the next group would be similar. Another fallacy to which scientists are prone is animal tests. “A drug that fails animal tests but that would have worked fine in humans is a drug lost to the world. Sample this: It is frequently claimed that penicillin might easily have become one of those mistakenly discarded drugs because it sickens rabbits and guinea pigs in large or in oral doses. It’s this arbitrariness that suggests a layman should approach these studies with a fistful of salt. Freedman does a piercing diagnosis behind these trials: “The way science works is, when you end up backing a theory, you can’t afford to be wrong or your grant will suffer.”

The strengths of the book are Freedman’s Mobius-strip like arguments. The writer believes that the public is a sucker for stripped-down advice for which the template is “The [number between six and thirteen] tips [or secrets, rules, etc.] for [aspect of the world the reader would like to master].” Example: “The 6 Myths of Creativity” or “Seven Paths to Regulating Privacy”. He laments the frenetic pace of living that makes us mistake junk food for nourishment and consider Dale Carnegie our saviour with his How to Win Friends and Influence People, 73rd on the all-time global list of best-selling books in any language.

This perspicacity is most visible in the book’s most important chapter “The Internet And The Technology of Expertise”. Of all the sacred cows that he slays in the book, Freedman reserves the maximum relish for Google. Freedman takes off from Eric Schmidt’s damning quote of Internet turning into a “cesspool” of false and misleading information and cites Google’s famed ranking algorithm as a possible root of all online evils. The frequent failure of Google’s results to provide links to trustworthy advice can be frustrating. “The ranking scheme is highly susceptible to being gamed by people who master the art of manipulating webpage language, code and links so as to boost a page’s ranking far above what its usefulness, relevance or popularity might reasonably merit.” Thus, it’s hard to find clear, consistent medical advice online.

Moreover, all that talk about the Internet being a level-playing field where ideas can be discussed in a free-flowing manner is pure balderdash. Freedman cites the initiative of Richard Gallagher, the editor-in-chief of The Scientist, in 2008 to introduce a forum in the magazine’s website where the readers are given a free hand to debate story ideas. A year later, Gallagher confesses to Freedman that the forum has been “a real disappointment in terms of members of the community posting on new topics”.

Freedman, however, loses the plot in the latter half of the chapter when he cries hoarse over the “online wisdom” of recommendation engines like Amazon, Netflix and other retail sites that serve to suggest products one might be interested in. Freedman’s gripes are symptomatic of how much we are expecting a nascent technology that has just entered its twenty-first year to deliver.

The book has four appendices in which Freedman harks back to ancient times (as early as 2500 BC) when Egypt had seen the development of something beginning to resemble mass expertise and went to reckon that Earth was a spinning globe that orbited the sun, and that the position of the stars could be charted to enable predictions of when the Nile would flood. Somehow, this charting of expertise, diverting anecdotes and ironic asides aided by epigraph-like quotes at the beginning of each chapter coheres into a compelling narrative. But, the reader needs to discount some enormous castles built on the shakiest of sands.


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