Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing

Title:  Nonsense:  The Power of Not Knowing
Author:  Jamie Holmes
Publication Information:  Crown. 2015. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0385348371 / 978-0385348379

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In 1996, London's City and Islington College organized a crash course in French for novices and below-average students."

Favorite Quote:  "In an increasing complex, unpredictable world, what matters most isn't IQ, willpower, or confidence in what we know. It's how we deal with what we don't understand."

The book begins with a couple of intriguing examples - a successful approach to teaching novices a new language and the approach used by undercover agents to bring war criminals to justice. The book goes on from these two examples to many, many more. The diversity of the examples included in the book speaks to the depth and breadth of the author's research:
  • the Nazi's and World War II
  • Invention of Mad Libs and its success is another example
  • Advertising campaign for Absolut Vodka
  • Children's TV show Kids Say the Darndest Things
  • Studies from major research universities
  • Earthquake in San Francisco
  • Shootout in Waco, Texas in 1993
  • Medical diagnoses
  • Fashion industry
What, you might ask, is the the underlying commonality between all these examples? All these situations involve uncertainty and the human response to that uncertainty. Each example looks at some aspect of how we as human see our world, how we make decisions in an uncertain environment, and the impact of ambiguity on our decisions.

The essential premise of the book is that humans look for certainty and to minimize ambiguity, particularly in times of stress.  As such, we often seen what we expect to see. The push of the book is that ambiguity is a key aspect of our world, and our ability to deal with it and embrace it is a key factor in our success.

The premise of the book is clear. The structure of the book, however, is more focused on the examples rather than this paradigm of ambiguity. In addition, some examples are quickly explained, and some go on for pages like a case study. It's unclear why some are more developed than other; perhaps, that is an indication of the depth to which the author researched that particular example.

For me, the book would benefit from editing of the examples. To some extent, this book suffers somewhat with its basis around the examples rather than the overall theme of ambiguity. The focus should be on the theory being presented with the examples as support, not the other way around.

One surprising aspect of this book is its length and what comprises its length. The book is over 300 pages long. That implies a certain depth. Imagine the surprise then, when the text ends at a little over 200 pages. The remainder is primarily notes. I appreciate the author's attention to detail to include such detailed notes, but almost 100 pages of notes (with a few pages for acknowledgements and the index) for what is essentially a little over a 200 page book seems too much.

The premise of the book is clear. The examples are interesting. The book is easily and quickly read. The research is well documented and attributed. In other words, the individuals parts of the book are well done. Yet, somehow, the whole book in this case, for me, ends up less than the sum of its parts. It seems to be missing an overreaching structure to ground it. This book seems more a review of literature dealing with the topic of ambiguity rather than adding any new research or any deep analysis of existing research. Perhaps, that is the intent of the book; it is just less than I expected.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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