Friday, January 17, 2020

Range by David Epstein

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

This was yet another book that was on the new books shelf that I randomly decided to pick up and read. 

The basic premise of Range is that in an era of increased specialization, generalists are both necessary and more likely to succeed. There is more to it than that, of course, which is why it is a book and not a short essay. I think the basic premise is sound, however, even if Epstein occasionally oversells things a bit. 

The core idea is that our world has focused on specialization over the last number of decades. And not just specialization, but narrow focus on that specialization from increasingly younger ages. In some cases, that works well. Certain skills do require careful repetition - Epstein specifically mentions musical instruments and sports - but much of life isn’t that way. In Epstein’s view, repetition and specialization work well in what he calls “kind” environments. That is, environments in which the same problems recur, and novel circumstances are rare. In a kind environment, the moving parts (so to speak) are visible and predictable. So, for example, playing a sport is in that sense predictable. There are no sudden changes in the rules, and consistency tends to win out. (Even there, Epstein notes some caveats, such as the fact that early specialization isn’t really a benefit - plenty of great players have picked a sport relatively late in life.) 

But most of life - and most problems to be solved - don’t exist in “kind” environments, but in “wicked” environments. The variables are not even known, let alone understood. Novel problems arise all the time, and creative thinking is necessary. The old solutions and tools are not guaranteed to work. In fact, the narrow focus in these cases will prove to be a hindrance, leading people to misdiagnose and mistreat problems. 

Epstein makes the case that the cure for this is range. Creative solutions require bringing in information and ideas from outside the specialty. A wider range of knowledge and experience greatly aids problem solving.

I have found this to be true in my own life. While I have a few areas of specialization (both as a classical violinist and in my legal practice), I have a wide range of interests, and a working knowledge of a variety of topics. I have found that these other areas of experience have helped me think outside the usual approaches and come up with synthesized ideas. For example, my knowledge of algebra assisted me in creating - and crucially, explaining - a timeshare calculation for a child support case. A knowledge of different forms of compensation helped me make an argument regarding a severance package and its relationship to spousal support. (Although my case never got appealed, a similar case did, and the appellate court came to the same conclusion as I did, which is always a nice thing to see.) I have used ideas from science and music and literature in my cases. And that’s before you get to things like trying to see people’s legal problems holistically, drawing from psychology and other areas of knowledge to try to get a more lasting result. Likewise, in music, while Classical is my main jam, my knowledge and experience in Pop, Rock, Blues, Bluegrass, and other genres has enriched my playing and brought new ideas to my art. 

One of the fascinating passages in the book involves the changing skills that children develop. Certain things seem to be pretty static: there is a limit to the total number of facts humans can store at a single time. But over the last century, abstract thinking has increased exponentially. For all the hand wringing over what kids these days supposedly don’t know, the ability to solve problems without having a previously learned method for doing so has gone up. And this is what our modern life demands: the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains. As the author puts it, “Our most fundamental thought processes have changed to accommodate increasing complexity and the need to derive new patterns rather than rely only on familiar ones.” 

An interesting side note here is one which Epstein spends a bit of time on: this is a learned behavior. There is a measurable difference between generations, but also between people exposed to modern work with its self-directed problem solving and those without that exposure. This can be seen in different societies as well as in socioeconomic strata in industrialized nations. 

But one particularly stood out due to my own experience. In certain traditional or orthodox (aka Fundamentalist) religious communities, there was a large gender gap. Where women are not permitted to engage in modern work with its intellectual demands, they do not develop the same abstract thinking skills. This pretty much proves Mary Wollstonecraft’s point: women are fully capable of equality, but absent education and experience, will not not develop fully. Thus, belief in the inferiority of women becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Just like with African Americans under slavery...which is why slaves were forbidden an education and why we still have gross inequality in educational opportunity…) 

In another fascinating section, Epstein looks at higher education, and the drawbacks of specialization. He describes a study of critical thinking skills given to top students at highly ranked state universities. The results were unexpected. There was essentially zero correlation between grade point average and thinking skills. There was, however, a correlation with major: economics majors did the best (probably because it is a broad field), while neuroscience majors did particularly poorly. As the researcher said, “the traits that earn good grades at [the university] do not include critical thinking of any broad significance.” Ouch. This is one reason that I have tried to include thinking skills wherever possible in my kids’ education. (My parents did a good job with this when teaching me, I must say.) We always look at the why, not just the how. 

Epstein also discusses a college course at the University of Washington, entitled “Calling Bullshit.” The course, which focuses on understanding how things fit together in an interdisciplinary manner, as well as being able to evaluate information, has been wildly popular. Honestly, much of our country needs a course like this, because bullshit seems increasingly popular. Call it “alternative facts,” or ideological blindness, it is distressing to see people accept obviously untrue things. In particular, my parent’s generation of white conservatives seems particularly vulnerable to bullshit - and not particularly open to being shown to be wrong. 

In addressing this problem, the course (which Epstein took - in the name of research of course) utilizes what it calls “Fermi Problems.” These are named after Fermi, and his ability to do “back of the napkin” calculations. In essence, these problems require solving unknows (such as “how many piano tuners are in New York City?”) by looking at the broader picture. How many residents? How many are likely to have pianos? How often are they tuned? How long does that take? By thinking through these broader factors, it becomes far easier to see through obvious bullshit. Good lord, this sort of thing is so needed. 

On a more positive note, things have gotten and are getting better. This is yet another case where perception and reality do not match up. (The classic, of course, is that the world is a more violent place than it used to be. It isn’t.) In the case of education, critical thinking skills are on the rise. Despite poll after poll showing people believe that students are getting a worse education - this belief has increased over the last 40 years - student ability has risen steadily over the same period. What has changed is that the goalposts have moved. The expectations are far higher than they used to be. Just one example of this is in the high school biology course that my teens take. I enjoyed all my science courses back in the day, and remember what I learned pretty well. But I was astonished at the level of detail in molecular and cellular biology my kids had to learn. It was far above what I was expected to know - and a lot of that is that our knowledge in those areas has exploded in the last 30 years. So much of what they need to know didn’t actually exist when I learned it. 

Likewise, the expectation for critical thinking skills has increased substantially. It is easy for those of us who excelled in school and in critical thinking to look at the broad population and think that skills have gone down. But if we think back to all of our peers, not just the brainy ones, a different picture emerges. Likewise, a comparison of generations is interesting. While I obviously know a number of Boomers who are razor sharp and think critically, there are a frustratingly high percentage who just...don’t. I am more likely to be able to discuss things at that level with my kids’ generation than my parents’. They are taught to think more critically. They are able to look at things more intersectionally and across the boundaries. Whereas a lot of the older generation tend to fall back on cliches from the 1970s or 1980s once a discussion goes beyond their personal experience. (If you want to understand “Okay, Boomer,” this is where it comes from.) And it isn’t hard to see that my kids’ generation already has a highly developed bullshit detector. 

Another passage which intrigued me was the one on analogies. I have an interesting history with this. As a kid, I was quite good at the portions of IQ tests which used analogies, but I wasn’t particularly creative with them. (Hence, good grades, but not a great out-of-the-box thinker. I’ve gotten better, I think, with practice.) Epstein discusses Kepler, who was a big fan of analogies himself. But I heard this in another context. Bill Gothard was also a fan of analogies as a learning tool, although, like other con artists, I don’t think he really understood critical thinking. The thing is, the analogies used in his “curriculum” (which was utter bullshit, to be honest) were really elementary. I mean, fine for using with your first graders, but way too easy for high school level critical thinking skills. I get the feeling that he ran across the idea somewhere, and thought it sounded good. It is kind of like his magical path to success in everything, which he created from a verse from Joshua taken out of context. (In essence: meditate on the Bible, and you magically will be a success in everything you do. Which is...bullshit. You still need skills and knowledge to succeed. I wouldn’t let an untrained surgeon operate on me, regardless of his knowledge of a sacred book.) Like any con artist, Gothard sold a “get-rich-quick” scheme, and glommed on to anything he could steal that had a gloss of plausibility, but rarely actually thought through the implementation part. One might say he lacked the critical thinking skills to see beyond a cliche to the deeper issues. Also, see above for why my parents’ generation fell for his lies so easily. 

There is a really ironic twist here, though. The Fundamentalist homeschooling movement and Gothard’s cult did actually teach some critical thinking, if perhaps inadvertently. The goal was to create an army of political culture warriors who would “take America back” from the modern reformers. We were to be the ones to return America to the “godly” 1800s. (Coincidentally - or not - when women and minorities “knew their place.”) But something went wrong: by teaching critical thinking skills, they enabled many of us to develop bullshit detectors, and eventually reject the propaganda and think for ourselves. It was thus the kids who went to Gothard’s law school and other programs who finally brought to light his sexual predation and abuse - and exposed his toxic theology. I believe it will also be those of us raised in the Culture Wars™ who will eventually stop the nasty white nationalist political movement that it empowered. A new era comes with new challenges, and 19th Century thinking isn’t going to solve them. 

Epstein’s chapter on discovering who we are was interesting as well. He advises trying a wide variety of things before settling on a career. He cites research that shows that not only do we change substantially over time, we predict that we will not change in the future. That’s kind of weird, but I think it is true. If we don’t change over time, that’s actually a bad sign. But most of us do. I know I sure have. Life experience tends to do that to you, and many of your dearly held dogmas do not stand up to reality. If anything, I think that the damage done by the Culture Wars™ has come from its insistence on preventing change. It seeks to preserve the past, in the face of overwhelming new information in every area. I see this too in my parents’ generation. Those who are open to learning, to new information, have adapted well to a new century. Those who have focused on retaining the same dogmas have done poorly, and have fallen for con artists like Gothard and Trump, and have lost their ability to think critically or empathetically. They became reduced to Fox News slogans and political ideas decades old. It is a sad thing to see, but Epstein gives insight into the phenomenon. In every area of life, those who continue to learn and grow and change do better than those who ossify. 

There are other chapters worth mentioning briefly. I thought Epstein did a great job of showing how and why outsiders can often solve problems better than insiders. The related issue of expertise (particularly narrow expertise) getting in the way of seeing the bigger picture is also useful. The chapter on Nintendo and the use of “outdated” technology for new purposes was also fun for multiple reasons. 

I found the story of Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon to be fascinating, if a bit frustrating. Ehrlich was the guy who wrote predicting that human populations would outgrow food supplies. Simon countered with a belief in the ability of technology and innovation to solve supply issues. The thing is, both were partially right. Ehrlich was comically bad in his predictions, but very much right about the effects of environmental degradation. Simon was correct that human ingenuity could solve problems, but he completely missed that many of those came about as a result of environmental regulations pushed by Ehrlich and people like him. Rather than recognize that they had incomplete knowledge, however, they dug in at their respective positions and became enemies. They doubled down on their theories rather than modify them to fit an evolving reality. I think Epstein captured this phenomenon really well - and we see the results in our present world.

There is a particular kind of thinker, one who becomes more entrenched in their single big idea about how the world works even in the face of contrary facts, whose predictions become worse, not better, as they amass information for their mental representation of the world. They are on television and in the news every day, making worse and worse predictions while claiming victory…

Although neither side of the political spectrum has a monopoly on this, things do go in cycles. The American Right, as it has become older and whiter, has experienced a troubling ossification of its ideas. Every problem, no matter what it is, seems to be crammed into their “single big idea” of how the world works. In this case, it is a few ideas - ones which have been proven wrong repeatedly over the last few decades. The first is “always cut taxes.” What might have been true when the highest marginal rate was 90% isn’t true when it is far lower. The second is “it’s all the fault of immigrants.” Which, again, doesn’t match with reality. The final one seems to be “all regulation is bad,” which is an ideology which can’t even minimally pass the bullshit test. The saddest thing to me about this is that I think there are viable ideas on the conservative end of the spectrum that really could be transformative in our time. Things like the elimination of restrictive zoning in areas with housing shortages. Or, addressing the explosion of administrative and management positions throughout government and education. Or investment in infrastructure. But these require thinking beyond the “single big ideas” that are clung to along with the mythology of the past. Instead, what I see is a shrinking party making worse and worse predictions yet claiming victory.

There is one final bit that I really found interesting. In the chapter on dropping familiar tools when circumstances change, Epstein talks about NASA and corporate culture. In essence, there are two basic philosophies. One emphasises process and cohesion, while the other individualism and dissent. The thing is, neither by itself is the most successful. As Epstein puts it, “The trick was expanding the organization’s range by identifying the dominant culture and then diversifying it by pushing in the opposite direction.” I have found this to be true as well. There are values to both approaches. Even in teaching my kids, there is a place for following procedures (Algebra comes to mind), and others where creativity works better. Critical thinking requires drawing from both approaches to solve problems. 

I think one can extrapolate that idea beyond corporate culture and apply it to other scenarios. One of the reasons I believe that Evangelicalism is committing suicide is that it has carefully purged dissent and diversity from its ranks. With a lack of other perspectives, it keeps trying to double down on the same ineffective and reality-defying ideas. The same has occurred - as I noted - in the GOP. As it becomes older and whiter, it has fewer and fewer new ideas - and lacks the ability to address new problems. While some find the ongoing internecine fighting in the Democratic party to be troubling, it also is the sign that there is a renewal of ideas happening. The establishment is being challenged by younger, hungry newcomers who have different perspectives. It isn’t just the old white good ol’ boys anymore. How this plays out in the short term remains to be seen, but in the long term, new ideas, new perspectives, a diversity of experiences: these will be where progress comes from. 

The book does have some weaknesses. First, because it is oriented to the casual reader, it doesn’t get into the details of the studies it cites. There are extensive notes, for those wishing to dig deeper. There are also parts where the book seems a bit overly simplistic, which, again, relates to what it is. One thing I did appreciate is that Epstein acknowledges that specialists are important, and cites the roles of specialists in many of his stories. His point is more that the world needs more than just specialists, and that even specialists would be well served by branching out a bit rather than developing tunnel vision. 

As a generalist myself, I have to agree with Epstein’s advice. Never stop learning. Try new things. Read a range of books on a variety of topics and from a variety of perspectives. Make friends outside your tribe. Look at life as wonderfully complicated and full of shades of grey that defy any “single big idea” to explain everything. Assume you will be wrong and fail sometimes. And never stop learning. 


  1. As someone who envies specializers, but unable to personally find one thing to double down on, I'm grateful to Epstein for writing this book and giving me hope that I might, one day, usefully employ my broad interests on a specific matter.

  2. I am fortunate to be in a social circle where that intellectual ossification you mention among your parents generation isn't really evident to me. But I often encounter it online, and its truly a sight to see.