Missing Pieces – The Skill of Noticing Events that Didn’t Happen
Spotting the Gaps – What Does it Take to Notice the Missing Pieces?
This pair of short pieces were published a week apart by distinguished decision theorist Gary Klein. Their very-similar titles promise insight into how critical thinkers can be better at noticing absent evidence – things which are not present, or didn’t happen, but which might be just as “telling” for or against various hypotheses as their more salient “present” counterparts. The advice he provides boils down to two points. (1) Be experienced. Experience sets up (often unconscious) expectations, whose violations might capture our attention, or at least create an uneasiness which prompts us to wonder what we’re missing. (2) Have an active, curious mindset. This “goes behind what we can see and hear, and starts puzzling when an expected event fails to materialize.”
I have plenty of respect for Klein, but these are disappointing pieces. They mainly just rehash anecdotes from his earlier work. He says very little about how experience or an active mindset actually work to help us notice what’s missing, or how to achieve either of these things. In fact “an active curious mindset” seems to be little more than a redescription of the ability to notice things – barely more satisfying than saying “pay attention!” or “look around for what’s missing!”. In studying these pieces, I engaged an active curious mindset. I noticed what was missing: anything of any great insight or use. Which I know from experience is unusual in Klein’s case.
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Apparently horses in races are almost always (98%) whipped.* The main reason is to make them go faster.
Congratulations to the scientists from the University of Sydney who won a prize for discovering that “whipping does not increase horses’ chances of finishing in the top three and that they actually run faster when they are not being hit.”
So it seems that overwhelmingly, the horse racing experts – the jockeys and trainers particularly – have for decades followed a practice which:
- Hurts their chances of winning.
- Hurts their beloved animals.
- Hurts their standing in the wider community.
Given how much money is at stake in horse racing, this is remarkable. It calls out for explanation. How can these experts have persisted for so long in such self-destructive behavior? Here are some possible explanations.
First, the idea that whipping makes a horse go faster has a certain “truthiness.” This truthiness made questioning the practice seem otiose. Further, belief in the truthy proposition became a perceptual filter through which they “saw” that whipping made horses go faster.
Second, the omnipresence of whipping prevented the possibility of observing the weak correlation between whipping and losing. If only about half of the jockeys whipped their horses, then over time people might have started to notice that the unwhipped horses tended to win a bit more often. Or at least didn’t lose more often.
Third, since everyone else was whipping, everyone naturally assumed that whipping was the “right” thing to do. Failing to whip the horse would look rather odd – especially if you didn’t win. As Mark Twain wrote: “We are creatures of outside influences; as a rule we do not think, we only imitate.”
* I don’t know anything about horse racing. This claim seems implausible, but here is my source.
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