A little less information, a little more reaction, please

12 april 2010 | In Uncategorized | Comments?

”A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”. Herbert Simon.

Too much information can be detrimental to decisions. In his recent, excellent book ”How we decide” Jonah Lehrer (here’s a piece of decision worsening information for you: he’s charming and good looking as well) retells the story of how MRI was introduced as a diagnostic tool in medicine. MRI gives very detailed information about the interior state of the body. Lehrer tells us that, it had a very interesting effect on the treatment of back pains. This ailment, whose cause was previously elusive and mainly treated by resting, become possible pin down with the help of MRI scans, and to treat more effectively, or so one assumed.

One found things that seemed to cause the pain: Spinal disc abnormalities. These reasonably seemed to cause inflammation of the local nerves. This, however, was misleading: As it turn out, disc abnormalities does not normally cause back pain, and surgery recommended on the basis of mri scans is often unnecessary – and yet doctors seems to have difficulties disregarding the scan, which sure looks like the best diagnostic tool. ”Seeing everything” Lehrer writes ”made it harder to know what they should be looking at”.

Occasionally, when we have a lot of information we tend to think that the problem must be somewhere in that information, and that can make it harder to think about other solutions. Or, as Lehrer point outs in the phenomena of ”choking” among artist and athletes, it can make it harder to stop thinking and perform an activity that is best done automatically, or ”by ear”.

It is perhaps obvious that information – data – alone is useless: we need to know what is relevant, how information should be translated, interpreted, into inferences and decisions. But the point here is more upsetting: more information might be worse than useless – it can make you think that the thing you know more about is more relevant than it is. Come to think of it, this seems to be the defining characteristic of an academic.

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