Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Why is anyone paying attention, II

A few weeks ago, I marveled at how a book with "a flawed premise, flawed data; and no results" could garner any attention at all. In this case, the book was David Sloan Wilson's The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time, and it received one of the most devastating NYTimes book reviews I've ever seen.

Another tome whose attention and popularity I've wondered about is Now You See It, a book about cognitive science by English professor Cathy N. Davidson. It, too, has received a devastating review in the New York Times. What's particularly damning is that the reviewer is Christopher Chabris, a psychology professor who co-conducted the experiment around which Davidson centers her book. This is the experiment that also stars, much more appropriately, in Chabris' own book, The Invisible Gorilla, and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us: the experiment in which subjects told to count the passes in a basketball game failed to notice a man in a gorilla suit walking through the court and thumping his chest. Here is Chabris on Davidson:

Davidson’s book is subtitled “How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn,” but there is almost no brain science in the book at all, and attention is invoked mainly as a metaphor.
Metaphors can work well in English class, but Davidson is more ambitious, extending what she calls the "attention blindness" of the Gorilla Experiment into the human brain:
Davidson is so taken with the phenomenon that she proclaims it “the fundamental structuring principle of the brain.” Inattentional blindness (as it is properly called) is an important and counterintuitive fact about how perception works, but even I don’t think it can carry half as much weight as Davidson loads upon it. And she provides little but anecdotal support for a central argument of the book: that since every individual is bound to miss something, by working together people can cover one another’s blind spots and collectively see the big picture.
While Chabris calls this "neurobabble," it, plus a smattering of anecdotal evidence, are all you need when it comes to convincing people how to reform schools:
"We currently have a national education policy based on a style of learning — the standardized, machine-readable multiple-choice test — that reinforces a type of thinking and form of attention well suited to the industrial worker — a role that increasingly fewer of our kids will ever fill,” she writes. Thanks mainly to the Internet, “their world is different from the one into which we were born, therefore they start shearing and shaping different neural pathways from the outset. We may not even be able to see their unique gifts and efficiencies.”
Davidson can also be seen, in the earlier Wall Street Journal Review, noting that "Our schoolmaster-led classrooms and grading customs look pretty much as they did not just in the last century but in the 19th century." But it's in Chabris' review that we learn what our "grading customs" should be replaced with. As Chabris puts it:
Anything that comes from the Internet must ipso facto be worth incorporating into education — hence her proposal that grading be “crowdsourced” to the very students under evaluation. Davidson seems to interpret the harsh criticism she received when she first floated this idea a few years ago as a sign that she must be on to something.
If criticism means you're on to something, Davidson should be especially thrilled with this:
Like many authors who embrace new ideas rather than build on what has come before, Davidson sets out to destroy the old beliefs, as if burning down a forest in order to plant new crops. Take intelligence testing: Davidson starts with the mistaken assertion that I.Q. refers to a purely innate cognitive ability, and then says that the “inherited component to I.Q.” is not genetic but “inherited cultural privilege.” Both claims are contradicted by virtually every relevant study ever conducted.
What makes her book so popular, of course, is precisely how it embraces new ideas and attempts to destroy old ones--and in a way that resonates so harmoniously with today's right-brained values:
Switching rapidly from one task to another actually helps us see connections between ideas and be more creative than we would if we held ourselves to a regimen of completing one task before we start another, she suggests. Mind-­wandering,” she writes, “might turn out to be exactly what we need to encourage more of in order to accomplish the best work in a global, multimedia digital age.”...
It takes a neuroscientist, rather than an English professor, to point out the hard, cold, left-brained facts:
...But this speculation is up against facts Davidson omits: the results of experiments showing that for all but perhaps an elite 2 to 3 percent of subjects, doing things in sequence leads to better performance than trying to do them simultaneously.
Yes, let's remember this: not just for my "left-brainers", but for 97-98 percent of the population, doing things in sequence leads to better performance than trying to do them simultaneously.  If only Davidson herself had followed this advice.

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