Eryk Banatt's Reviews > Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

Range by David   Epstein
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it was amazing

"Compare yourself to yourself yesterday, not to younger people who aren't you."

I still remember my long, brutal initial job search after graduating with a degree in Cognitive Science. The few people who got back to me about the entry-level software development jobs I had been applying for would tell me I was "too big of a risk" to hire, since I was not a computer science major, and that my coursework was too scattered to make them comfortable that I could hang with the "actual programmers".

Where I went to school, Cognitive Science was a relatively young major which held the curious distinction of being the only major you needed to apply for. The reason for this wasn't to gatekeep the major, but because the available coursework for it was so interdisciplinary that the administration was so worried that students would graduate having only taken intro-level courses across every discipline it offered, so an application proving you could concentrate on some sub-field was considered very important. I used to describe cognitive science to people who had never heard of it as "the intersection between computer science, psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy". My hope was that other people would appreciate the mix of seemingly unrelated fields clashing together, but over time I realized that instead people would just assume I didn't know anything at all, since I had not directly specialized in a single field.

These days, I tend to explain it in the following way: most undergraduates select a major, and then are instructed on the canonical intellectual repertoire of that field. Computer scientists learn a typical computer science toolkit, psychologists learn a typical psychology toolkit, so on and so forth, and then learn to attack problems leveraging the skills they have learned. However, cognitive science is an interdisciplinary field, and it would be unreasonable to expect a cogsci major to learn all of the tools learned by CS majors, psych majors, and neuroscience majors all in the same time it normally takes any one of them to learn just a single field.

Instead, the cogsci majors learn two things: learning to think in terms of interesting problems they want to solve, and learning to learn the things they would need to use to work on that project. My senior thesis project studied input latency perception among elite-level gaming populations, which required me to gather research on temporal perception in psychology alongside engineering an experimental apparatus with a microcontroller. I graduated feeling pretty confident I could easily pick up anything (in a sense, doing so was all I had learned to do), and somehow ended up with absolutely no signaling power that I could do so.

Fast forward to the present day, years later, reading this book after somehow managing to end up alright in the end. I think it captured a good amount of the reasons why I decided to major in cognitive science, and well-captured the strengths and weaknesses offered by a focus on breadth rather than depth. The anxiety of having no specialization, the fear of feeling unable to catch people with early specializations, the deep-down belief that you have something inside of you to offer the world - having lived it, and at the risk of projecting my anecdotal experience too hard, it's captured well inside this book.

The book, appropriately, surveys a large swathe of fields, in order to instill in the reader a sense of ubiquitous-ness in the professional and academic value of range. In this sense, the book is somewhat annoyingly a lot like the books it seems to be positioned to debunk, like Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. However, I got the sense that the level of academic effort put into this book was much, much higher than in Outliers, which I initially waved away as Gladwell's academic background in history versus Epstein's background in environmental science. However, it hit me roughly halfway through the book that the meat of the book actually isn't about the anecdotes, as it was using anecdotal figures as analogies to describe research findings. Where Outliers was, in my view pretty transparently, a collection of cherrypicked case studies used to describe a conclusion, Range was a relatively light literature review with dramatic storytelling examples. As a scientist, I was far more interested in the latter, and found myself pouring through the citations in this book for papers I wanted to read more closely later.

Some of the more interesting flaws in this book I think, funnily enough, are rooted in some of the flaws I commonly see in people with more range.

Charles Darwin is a particularly fun example of this, and was actually an even more fun character than he was portrayed in this book. The book sort of reveres him, but Darwin's manic behavior would often get him into hot water, and indeed some of the goose chases he went on would contribute to his notoriously unstable health. Darwin notably asked John Lubbock to spend some time observing the behavior of bees around clover flowers, a task he was certain would be valuable which turned out absolutely fruitless. Horrified about wasting so much of Lubbock's time, he famously wrote him "I hate myself, I hate clover, and I hate bees." Likewise, Darwin famously sat on the manuscript for Origin of Species for nearly 20 years, with various posited historical explanations being fear of professional ruin, perfectionism towards hard-to-grasp edge cases (e.g. neuter insects being "fatal" to the theory), or merely the litany of half-completed projects he was juggling amidst poor health - the specific reason is somewhat contested, but all of these diminish the magic of Darwin as the paragon of the usefulness of Range.

Likewise I think hindsight and confirmation bias pervades this book, especially throughout the chapter about "dropping your tools". While it's certainly compelling to explain with dramatic visual imagery the human resistance to break routine, the examples given are largely just that - dramatic visual imagery. The positions taken about the Challenger incident and even the actions taken by Lesmes are both somewhat ludicrous, and although the research which this chapter is predicated upon is useful (and I think the case study of the Challenger incident is wonderful and useful), there were moments where Epstein says some strong things about them which I thought harmed more than hurt (e.g. that the decision to abandon data and delay the launch of challenger should have definitively been made based on the two photographs, or that Lesmes's choice to not accompany his group into a potential warzone was obviously sound just because it ended up working).

Overall I think this book certainly has its flaws, but the book improves substantially when you realize all of the pop-sci anecdotes are merely analogies to help understand the relevant research, rather than the "research" itself. I think this book could have been made much shorter and denser without much value being lost, but then it wouldn't be much of a book; it would just be a survey paper. I would probably consider this book something like a 4.6/5, which I will be rounding up to 5 for the purposes of marking it on goodreads. Probably my favorite nonfiction of 2019, and definitely recommended to aspirant cognitive scientists or interdisciplinary learners.

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I don't have enough characters to post my outlined notes, so I'll put them in a notebook on my website here, but the additional parts of this are just some brief summaries of the research in each chapter: http://planetbanatt.net/articles/rang...
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
July 9, 2019 – Shelved
July 9, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read

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