Skip to main content

Blind Spot – Gordon Rugg with Joseph d’Agnese ****

I read this book with a mix of responses. One was fascination, the other frustration. The fascination came from the topic, which we catch a glimpse of in the subtitle ‘why we fail to see the solution right in front of us.’ Gordon Rugg, with the help of journalist d’Agnese, gives us a remarkable analysis of how we all – including experts – make errors in our decisions and research. But not limiting himself to saying what’s going wrong, Rugg also provides a method to root out the errors in the ‘Verifier method’, a suite of techniques to pull apart the way we approach, assimilate and make use of information to come to a decision.
The frustration is that the method is seen through a veil of vagueness. We are constantly hearing about this Verifier toolkit, but only get sideways glimpses of what it entails. I would have loved an appendix with a brief description of the contents of the toolkit and a couple of the tools explained in more detail. I appreciate that Rugg and his colleagues probably want to keep the toolkit proprietary (and the danger of having a journalist as a co-author is that they will tend to weed out the detail and weave their stories on people instead). But the book would have been better with a bit more depth.
Having said that, it’s pretty good as it is. The authors take what could be a rather dry topic and give it some life. We see how Rugg started with knowledge elicitation techniques – used, amongst other things, in the attempt to construct expert systems that are designed to provide an accessible bank of expertise. This first requires experts, who often don’t know how they do what they do, to initiate the system builders into their methods and knowledge. From there we move onto looking at the way errors occur in even the most detailed academic study and the gradual realisation that it would be possible to build a series of techniques that would help uncover these errors or, even better, prevent them happening in the future.
There are two major case studies to explore this – the (probably) medieval Voynich manuscript, which for more than 100 years has proved a mystery to all those who have tried to crack its strange script, and the nature of autism. In both cases, making use of the early version of the Verifier method uncovers gaps in expert understanding. While it doesn’t enable Rugg and his colleagues to actually solve the problems, it does provide impressive pointers to where there are currently failings and what should be done next.
All in all, the book will appeal to a very wide market. Whether you are in business (interestingly, the early writing style, before it settles down, is rather like a business book with numbered ‘lessons’ like ‘Experts often don’t know what they know’ in pull quotes) or any branch of academia… or just interested in the nature of knowledge, understanding and human error, there’s a lot here to get your teeth into.
Paperback (May 2014):  
Hardback:   
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Adam Roberts - Four Way Interview

Adam Roberts is commonly described as one of the UK's most important writers of SF. He is the author of numerous novels and literary parodies. He is Professor of 19th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, London University, and has written a number of critical works on both SF and 19th Century poetry. His latest novel is The Real-Town Murders.

Why science fiction?

Because it's the best thing in the world. I work for the University of London, which is to say: in effect, I'm paid to read books (and teach them, and write about them) and that means I read a lot of books; and that means you can believe me when I say that SF/Fantasy, and especially (even though it's not something I write) YA SF/Fantasy, is where all the most exciting writing is happening nowadays. You might wonder why I think so: but that's a whole other question, and you've already used up your four ...

Why this book?

So, I came across an account of one of Alfred Hitchcock's (many) unfinished projec…

The Real-Town Murders (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

Of all the contemporary science fiction writers, Adam Roberts can most be relied on to deliver a book that combines an engaging story with extensions of current science and technology that really makes you think - and The Real-Town Murders does this perfectly.

Set in the south east of England, a few decades in the future, this book delivers a trio of delights. The main character, Alma, is faced with constant time pressure as she faces physical and mental challenges (including a lovely homage to North-by-Northwest), there is an apparently impossible locked room mystery and there is fascinating speculation about the impact three technologies - AI, nanotechnology and virtual reality - may have on human life and politics.

Roberts' inventiveness comes through time after time - for example, Alma's partner is locked into a genetically engineered nightmare where she suffers a different medical emergency every four hours which only Alma can fix. It's just a shame, in a way, that Marg…

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…