Tuesday, October 8, 2013

What do you see? (Part I) @OxideChem

When you look at a piece of art, do you see the same thing every time? Or do you, perhaps, see something that your neighbor does not? Are there items that you notice only because of where you are in your life? For example, if you see a painting in a landscape (not the one pictured here!) with two people walking along a park path, do you notice the eight-year old of the pair or the attractive older companion? A child might note exactly which toy the eight-year old is carrying, whereas I might only remember the kind of techno gadget the adult is fiddling with. Someone else might guess the time of day based on the position of the sun and the fact that it was a weekday because of the date printed on a newspaper tossed on the ground. Why does that matter? Because it would be incongruent to see a kid out of school. Or would it? Oh, and did you wonder why the kid was walking with the adult?

As part of Georgia Tech's diversity symposium (that was the subject of my previous post), Amy Herman provided a discussion of the art of perception. She didn't actually present the example above. Instead she walked us through a large number of famous and not-so famous paintings and images on other media. In each case, her constant refrain was the title of this post. Invariably, we got the answer wrong, or more precisely, we missed items that were important or we added information that was not there. Either way, many of us made assumptions either to fill in the detail of the image or to categorize so as to simplify the detail. Why does this matter? Well, if you are in the business of solving crimes (as many of her customers are) then you must finds clues to solve the case in the context of a large amount of spurious data. Learning how to see exactly what is there, nothing more and nothing less, forms the basis of solving a case. For this reason, Amy Herman's perception training has been highly sought out. But the import of her work goes much further.

When you sort through a sea of resumes or curricula vitae, what algorithm do you use to pick the handful that you will read precisely? To what extent does that sorting algorithm rely on the information that you are filling in? When you are interviewing candidates for a position (on a faculty or work group for example), how do you project their future growth? Any Herman's message is that you must limit the projection to those forecasts that are based only on what you see in the application. That is, you need to train yourself to not make assumptions based on your perception of the facts about the candidate that are extraneous to the job description. Not an easy thing to do, but very necessary in order to remove inequities that may lie in the hiring process.

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