Practice, Practice, Practice … or maybe not

7 Jun
retreat.JPG

Retreating is Hard Work!

Sorry to miss last week’s post. Just as I was getting back in my Friday writing groove, we had a joint department retreat here in my library. GREAT stuff happened there, but it kept me from writing. Not from thinking, though. Oooh… have I been thinking. 

I’m in the midst of reading David Epstein’s latest book, Range. I read the NY Times Book Review about it and immediately ordered a copy. It’s a fascinating read and so very relevant to the work that we do as librarians and/or information professionals. I’m only about 1/3 of the way through, so I can’t give a complete overview of the theories discussed, but so far, I’m pretty well convinced that the argument he is making rings true.

In brief, Epstein suggests that in a world that’s becoming more and more specialized, it’s the generalists who will thrive. He builds on the work of psychologists Gary Klein and Daniel Kahneman who have studied human decision making, and in particular, how the contexts in which decisions are made affect gaining expertise in an area. Robin Hogarth, another psychologist, goes further, identifying these learning environments as either “wicked” or “kind.” In a kind learning environment, “patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is extremely accurate and usually rapid.” (p. 21) Think swinging a golf club or learning Chopin’s Prelude in E minor on the piano. Over and over and over you’ll need to practice, in order to be any good at it. 

Compare this to what’s required to become really good at addressing an ebola outbreak or finding solutions to the climate crisis or figuring out if we can really do long-term space flight. Compare it to becoming really good at helping people not only find credible facts in a sea of opinions, but also determining the difference between the two. Think about problems that have no easy answers – or any answer at all. This is much more the world we live in and our habit of relying on past experience over and over again, much like practicing a golf swing, just might not be the best for us.

Perfect example… I subscribe to and regularly read the STAT Morning Rounds newsletter that appears in my inbox daily. A recent piece on the opioid crisis highlights the work of Dr. Stefan Kertesz, a primary care physician in Birmingham, AL. Dr. Kertesz has many patients who, over time, have developed a dependency on opioids thanks to the practice of overprescribing that’s been well-documented over the last few years. In reaction to this past behavior, the CDC proposed guidelines for prescribing in 2016. The issue, as often occurs, is that guidelines quickly become mandates. It’s simply easier for agencies or insurance companies or governing bodies to enforce a mandate rather than accept a guideline.

The problem with this, it seems, is that setting hard and fast limits on prescribing is applying a “kind” solution to a very “wicked” problem. It strips the patient and all of his/her variables and uncertainties from the equation. As Dr. Kertesz states, while tapering patients off of opioids is certainly to be encouraged, these are choices that physicians need to make in conjunction with their patients. “Backing mandatory limits, he said, assumes that what’s going to happen at the systems level will effect the best clinician.” 

To bring this all back to my work as a librarian, a terrific piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education* last week spoke to the affect that Google (and other search engines, not to mention the structure of the Internet, in general) has had on our presumptions about knowledge. We’ve become so accustomed to the practice of having a question, typing it into a search engine, and receiving back a lengthy list of results, that we’ve been lulled into believing that a list of results equates to an answer to our question. As the author so succinctly states it, “Search engines have created the illusion that vastly more information exists than ever before and that this information lies just a keystroke away. Today people ‘search’ rather than ‘study.'” Spot on, I say.

*My apologies if you cannot get to the article in the Chronicle. It requires a subscription.

I’m often leery of the swooning love affair I perceive when it comes to research, science, decision-making … you name it … around the role of both big data and artificial intelligence (not as a single thing, but the two separate “Ooooooh… it’s the solution to everything” mindset attached to both). Will they bring us significant breakthroughs in complicated problems? No doubt. Will they solve everything? I’m not so sure. I find a bit more truth here:

The progress of AI in the closed and orderly world of chess, with instant feedback and bottomless data, has been exponential. In the rule-bound but messier world of driving, AI has made tremendous progress, but challenges remain. In a truly open-world problem  devoid of rigid rules and reams of perfect historical data, AI has been disastrous. IBM’s Watson destroyed at Jeopardy! and was subsequently pitched as a revolution in cancer care, where it flopped so spectacularly that several AI experts told me they worried its reputation would taint AI research in health-related fields. As one oncologist put it, ‘The difference between winning at Jeopardy! and curing all cancer is that we know the answer to Jeopardy! questions.’ With cancer, we’re still working on posing the right questions in the first place. (Range, David Epstein, p. 29)

But then, of course, Watson never played Emma the librarian in Jeopardy!, either. 🙂

Happy Friday!

 

 

One Response to “Practice, Practice, Practice … or maybe not”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Summer Solstice and Summer Reading | A Librarian by Any Other Name - June 21, 2019

    […] the best health and science books to read this summer and it got me to thinking about my own picks. In my last post, I mentioned David Epstein’s new book, Range. I’ve almost finished it and give it two […]

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