Turning Numbers into Knowledge: Mastering the Art of Problem Solving (Anglais) Broché – 28 avril 2008
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* Examine key factors, such as information, attention and action within the context of a cycle of actions that begins with goals, and moves through execution, how events in the external world influence the meeting of those goals, an evaluation and refinement of goals. Then the process starts anew.
* Structured methods for getting organized. The techniques given are simple, yet powerful.How to collect and critically analyze data and information, common fallacies and how to spot them. Two of my favorite parts that reinforce these are then single-page chart titled "What Scientists Say, and What They Mean", and Chapter 20 (Uncertainty Principle and the Mass Media).
* The straightforward process of numerical analysis, using relatively simple math techniques to make sense of numbers and turn them into knowledge, is priceless. What makes this part of the book valuable is that the author integrates the preceding chapters that lead you to a critical thinking mindset with common sense and techniques that are within the grasp of high school students. It looks easy, but is testimony to the author's exceptional ability to communicate and inspire.
Overall this book is one of my personal favorites and one that I recommend to colleagues. Another book that complements this one nicely is Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity by Jamshid Gharajedaghi.
"Although the technical aspects of this process are taught at many universities, the art of problem solving is rarely discussed and even more rarely written down," Koomey notes in the preface. His goal is to amend that lack, helping the reader "to become a first-rate analyst in your chosen field."
"Your chosen field" covers a lot of ground, and while the book delivers on Koomey's promise, much of the pleasure of reading it comes from his eccentric definition of both his topic and his audience. Not a textbook -- or not just a textbook -- "Turning Numbers into Knowledge" is aimed at students and professors alike; at problem solvers in business, government, and research; at middle managers and potential investors; and even at journalists.
Beginning with a chapter titled "Beginner's Mind" and including others titled "Question Authority" and "Reflect," one might think Koomey's book could have been named "Zen and the Art of Statistical Analysis." But it's also full of technical advice, in chapters like "Let Tables and Graphs Do the Work," "Use the Internet," and many more.
In fact Koomey has organized his topics thoughtfully, beginning with considerations of why anyone, professional or amateur, would undertake quantitative analysis. Koomey's bottom-line answer is that it helps us manage a runaway information explosion, which otherwise can lead to paralysis through overload or the opposite, a refusal to learn anything new. He then moves on to the mental preparation needed for problem solving, consideration of common pitfalls, critical thinking, and finally to nitty-gritty techniques.
In the first chapter, "Beginner's Mind," Koomey reminds the reader that "experience is a two-edged sword. It eliminates unnecessary detail," but it can also "lead you astray when a new problem is sufficiently outside your experience." What's needed, he says, is a combination of curiosity -- the nonjudgmental observation of the beginner -- with the experience of a senior analyst.
He makes his point with Bruce Lee's amusing parable of the Zen master and the Western university professor who came to inquire about Zen but never stopped talking about what he already knew. During a pause in the monologue, the master suggested tea. He poured his visitor's cup full and kept on pouring and pouring until finally the professor protested: "No more will go in!" Noting that professor's mind was like his tea cup, the master asked "How can I show you Zen unless you empty your cup?"
Later, in the chapter "Question Authority," Koomey allows that sometimes following authority is essential -- in military maneuvers, for example -- but that most life situations aren't like that. Appeals to anonymous authority are immediately suspect; so are expert pronouncements by experts in an unrelated field, or those with a vested interest in the outcome. Koomey cites the "expert" testimony of researchers funded by tobacco companies who found no evidence that smoking had adverse health effects. He warns that while information on the internet is particularly susceptible to a lack of institutional validity, "any source can propagate nonsense."
In an exercise from a subsequent chapter, "How guesses become facts," Koomey suggests that the reader "Find an official statistic that sounds plausible and explore its origins. Do you still find it plausible after you've investigated?" It's an exercise Koomey himself has undertaken more than once, notably with the 1998 claim that the internet was consuming eight percent of total U.S. electricity production and was well on its way to consuming half. Koomey discovered that the numbers were based on bad measurements, bad assumptions, and outright guesses -- none of which prevented them from becoming enshrined as fact before Koomey's team did their best to set things straight.
In summing up, Koomey lists a dozen lessons to remember, among them "Don't be intimidated," "Get organized," "Document, document, document," and "Remember that others don't care as much about your work as you do" -- an invitation to know and persuade one's audience. It's sound advice, cheerfully and colorfully delivered by a man who knows what he's talking about, and of value to all sorts of readers -- whether or not they intend to ever crunch a single number.
But aside from a few enjoyable stories, this book didn't teach me anything that I hadn't already picked up by the end of college. There is a great deal of commonsensical advice, like "Next time you find yourself resisting a new idea, take a deep breath and try to see the other point of view," plus outright fluff, like "After deciding what to do, you must follow through with action" and "Science and technology are a critical part of modern life." This might be an excellent primer for high schoolers, but based on the blurbs I was expecting something more advanced.
Filled with useful tools and tips for problem solving under real-life situations it is one of the most useful books available. "Turning Numbers Into Knowledge: Mastering the Art of Problem Solving" is a masterful work in the area of critical analysis and a highly recommended read for anyone involved in creating or using information of any kind.
- Don't be intimidated by anyone (esp those know-it-alls)
- Be a critical thinker
- Don't confuse what's countable with what really counts
- Get organized
- Question authority
- Dig into the numbers
- Focus on the essential
- Document, document, document
- Use the internet
- Remember that others don't care as much about your work as you do
- Synthesis follows analysis
In short, a good read. Dont miss it.
p.s. I like the following quotes from the book very much. (The author did use over 31 quotes with at least one for each chapter)
Just because I use a study to refute another study does not mean my study is right. It just means I believe it. Caveat Emptor. - Cynthia Crossen
Whether or not someone else knows it all isn't really relevant; the only thing that's relevant is what you know and what you do. - Robert Ringer