Thursday, June 11, 2009

Proof that we are better than trained monkeys

We have heard several PhD students over the last few years complain about how a trained monkey could do 95% of their work. Happily, Jo Griffith has pointed us in the direction of this book excerpt, which begs to differ.

Extract from Complications – a surgeon’s notes on an imperfect science by Atul Gawande, (2002, Picador: New York) on training surgeons.

"As one professor of surgery put it to me, given the choice between a PhD who had painstakingly cloned a gene and a talented sculptor, he'd pick the PhD ever time. She, he said, he'd bet on the sculptor being more physically talented; but he'd bet on the PhD being less "flaky." And in the end that matters more. Skill, surgeons believe, can be taught, tenacity cannot. It's an odd approach to recruitment but it continues all the way up the ranks, even in top surgery departments. They take minions with no experience in surgery, spend years training them and then take most of their faculty from these same home grown ranks.

And it works. There have now been many studies of elite performers - international violinists, chess grand masters, professional ice-skaters, mathematicians and so forth - and the biggest difference researchers find between them and lesser performers is the cumulative amount of deliberate practice they've had. Indeed, the most important talent may be the talent for practice itself. K. Anders Ericsson, a cognitive psychologist and expert on performance, notes that the most important way in which innate factors play a role may be in one’s willingness to engage in sustained training. He’s found, for example that top performers dislike practicing just as much as others do (that's why, for example, athletes and musicians, usually quit practicing when they retire). But more than others they have the will to keep at it anyway."

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