Sunday, 6 November 2011


Beyond comment or analysis, you might think, but apparently not: these beautiful dances are produced by very simple rules observed by each starling once it is in flocking mode, identical to fish in a shoal, about following while keeping their distance from, the bird to the left: the variations and turns are produced by the birds on the outside of the murmuration, veering after insects, perhaps, or to evade a predatory hawk.

The music is a little annoying though....

Bad Science, Leonardo, and professional learning

Ben Goldacre, the Guardian's Bad Science columnist, is taking a holiday to write a book!  Not Science Fiction, surely, Ben?  I'm sure it will be worth waiting for, but how the hell will we manage in the meantime without you looking after things in the Truth Dept?

Your sign-off column this weekend is a beautifully succinct series of nuggets of wisdom - the most important one in my view being:

'everyone needs to understand how we know if something is good for us, or bad for us. The basics of evidence-based medicine, of trials, meta-analyses, cohort studies and the like should be taught in schools and waiting rooms.'

I fear this is not what Michael Gove has in mind for the central element of the English Bac....

Also this weekend I listened on the radio to a heart surgeon reminding us that while no one is perfect (so things may go wrong for even the most skilled and experienced practitioners of any craft or occupation), it is still true that when working in highly complex situations which in a real sense are unique every time, then more experienced practitioners, assuming they are working with the best available knowledge, are a better bet than relative novices, however brilliant those novices may be.  He was talking in the context of a discussion about the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, and suggested that surgeons are researching and learning their craft every time they perform their work, just like Leonardo, who never stopped enquiring into nature, never stopped making descriptive notes and drawings, writing down thoughts and hypotheses, and then testing his new ideas to see what would happen; though with him it was in dozens of different disciplines. This is a perfect description of professional learning: practice on its own doesn't produce learning - it needs to be accompanied by reflection, and probably discussion with colleagues (something Leonardo may not have much opportunity for), but also crucially it needs to be made explicit in the form perhaps of writing, or of drawings, so that it can be returned to, re-evaluated, and repeatedly tested to see if it stands up to scrutiny.  If it survives this examination, then it might be reliable enough to be incorporated into future practice.

There's also a mouth-watering review in today's paper of a book on this topic by Daniel Kahneman, called 'Thinking, fast and slow', enquiring into the processes by which people make decisions, how learning contributes to these processes, and how and why even experts make unaccountable mistakes.  I hope it's out in paperback soon.  Meanwhile here's the link for a terrific TED talk by Kahneman on why we should stop using the word happiness!