Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Is there anything worse than a critic? :)

Michiko Kakutani's review in the NY Times of Malc's new book had one part that really makes me wince. Books like Gladwell's (and T-Fried's) can legitimately be criticized for pushing the stories or research too far, but I don't have too much of a problem with it. Part of being a critical reader would be tracking down the original research if something really bothers you. A lot of the social psych stuff that Gladwell cites is widely known (i.e., not stuff that is sitting off in the academic corner waiting to be discovered) and already debated. Similarly, Friedman has more formal training in middle east politics (B.A. in Mediterranean studies from Brandeis and Masters in Modern Middle East studies from Oxford), and on-the-ground experience, than I do so I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and check out things that don't seem right to me. I have more problems with Carl Sagan than with Malc or T-Fried :)

On the other hand, I've never been comfortable with the "10,000 hour" heuristic that Malc talks about, even if it is at least partially credited to Nobel-winner Herb Simon. [Herb Simon anecdote: When I was on sabbatical at the Software Engineering Institute at CMU I wanted to attend a seminar by Anita Borg (Mary Shaw was there also). There was a group in the room and the time for the seminar was close, so those of us in the hallway were getting antsy. Finally, one of us opened the door and asked if the current occupants were "about done". Eventually they left. Yes, it was Herb Simon and his graduate students. I felt a little bad about being part of that angry hallway mob. Actually we weren't angry, and we weren't a mob, but it is the only time I've seen a Nobel laureate kicked out of a room]

Back to Kakutani's review. This paragraph about the airline accident is frighteningly ignorant of the huge amounts of human factors research that has been done in this area.
Mr. Gladwell similarly raises the notion that cultural traditions may play a role in plane crashes, that the 1990 crash of Avianca Flight 52 over Long Island might have had something to do with the pilots’ being Colombian. He quotes Suren Ratwatte, a veteran pilot involved in “human factors” research, saying that “no American pilot would put up with” being held up by Air Traffic Control several times on its way to New York for more than an hour if he or she were running short of fuel. And drawing on the work of the psychologist Robert Helmreich, Mr. Gladwell argues that the pilots came from a culture with “a deep and abiding respect for authority” — which suggests that the first officer was reluctant to speak up when the exhausted captain failed to do so, and that both men failed to talk forcefully to the air traffic controllers, who were tough New Yorkers, unaccustomed to the pilots’ polite language.
The relatives of the 583 people who died on two 747's at Tenerife and those that died in a frozen Potomac river because of poor communication between first officer and captain might disagree with Kakutani. This phenomenon is so common that NASA Ames has studied the heck out of it.

Let's end this on a good note: A front-seat view of a landing at St. Maarten. Click on "more info" for probably the most informative explanation I've seen on YouTube :)