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Tim Harford, columnist for the Financial Times and author a new book, Adapt, will be delivering the opening keynote address at the NZAE conference on 29 June in Wellington. The main idea (apparently – I’m waiting until the conference to buy a copy) is that we need to adapt through trial and error, rather than relying on experts to design grand solutions.

Slate had an excerpt from the book that I found thought-provoking. It addressed the issue of how to design science funding systems that permit or even encourage new ideas, which are, by definition, unconventional. I have some sympathy for the view that science funding needs flexibility.

The Financial Times liked the book:

[Harford] has assembled a powerful combination of anecdotes and data to make a serious point: companies, governments and people must recognise the limits of their wisdom and embrace the muddling of mankind.

A review of the book takes on the central thesis, however, and finds it lacking (h/t to Crooked Timber):

Tetlock divided his experts into foxes (good at many things) and hedgehogs (good at one thing) and argued that hedgehogs are over-confident because they “reduce the problem to some core theoretical scheme’… and they used that theme over and over, like a template, to stamp out predictions”. And that’s exactly what Harford does here. He sees evolution as a fox-like strategy (trying many things and selecting a few) but doesn’t notice that at the level of individual species, evolution gives us both foxes and hedgehogs, and both do perfectly fine.

So, food for thought. I’m looking forward to hearing Tim speak. Won’t you join us?

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We all like success. But do we really understand why some succeed and others do not? Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is a superb book offering some insights. Just as importantly, it is readable. Gladwell is a story-teller. He has purposely pitched the book at the ‘popular audience’. He is doing something right judging by the book topping overseas best-seller lists recently.

Not surprisingly success is a combination of ability, effort and timing. It is the last two factors on which Gladwell focuses, suggesting for example that 10,000 hours of ‘practice’ was a huge part of the success of Bill Gates and the Beatles, as well as fortunate timing. Another interesting statistic is the prevalence of March quarter birthdays amongst top Canadian ice hockey players, suggestive that a 1 January cut-off for children’s sports teams has biased the chances of sporting success later in life.

The New Zealand Listener recently ran an extensive review of these themes, including a check on the birthdates of the All Blacks. And, yes, the same bias appears to be present.

Gladwell also explores the role of communication. Communication matters, especially in the cockpit of a commercial plane. You will be pleased to know that New Zealand pilots score well in terms of a “power distance index”. In plain terms, we are willing to speak up, even if the message will upset our supposed superiors. But don’t get too complacent: we don’t score so well when it comes to numbers – for a very logical reason, it turns out.

The stories and insights just keep on flowing, building a fascinating picture of success as a legacy. The popular myth is that of overnight success but more likely success builds gradually. So you are right, in part: it was your parents’ fault all along. But think again. Buried in your past are the seeds of your own success, be it a work ethic or an attitude or a stubbornness or merely some chance acquaintance.

The major criticism of the book appears to be ‘so what?’ The stories are entertaining but the key message is hardly new. That may be the case. But that does not disempower the book. To me, reconsidering what determines my likely success, and considering under what conditions I might succeed, is well worth the time.

You will probably enjoy this book if you liked: Black Swan, another recent top-seller jammed with wonderful stories by Nassim Taleb.