The Electric Commentary

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Simple Is Better

From the excellent Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin:

But I find that people in academia and often in government just don't get it. Most language-based thinkers find it difficult to believe that such a simple audit really works. They're like the people in the lever-pressing experiments; they think simple means wrong. They don't see that each of the five critical control points measures anywhere from three to ten others that all result in the same bad outcome for the animals. When highly verbal people get control of the audit process, they tend to make five critical mistakes:

1. They write verbal auditing standards that are too subjective and vague, with requirements like "minimal use of electric prod" and "non-slip flooring." Individual inspectors have to figure out for themselves what "minimal use" means. A good audit checklist has objective standards that anyone can see have or have not been met.

2. For some reason, highly verbal people have a tendency to measure inputs, such as maintenance schedules, employee training records, and equipment design problems, instead of outputs, which is how the animals are actually doing. A good animal welfare audit has to measure the animals, not the plant.

3. Highly verbal people almost always want to make the audit way too complicated. A 100-item checklist doesn't work nearly as well as a 10-item checklist, and I can prove it.

4. Verbal people drift into paper audits, in which they audit a plant's records instead of its animals. A good animal welfare audit has to audit the animals, not the paper and not the plant.

5. Verbal people tend to lose sight of what's important and end up treating small problems the same way they treat big problems.

Grandin is autistic, and believes that many animals exhibit behaviors similar to those of autistic people. She has used this insight spearhead many reforms in the treatment of animals. In fact, half the cattle in the US and Canada are now handled in a system that she designed.

In Animals in Translation she makes a strong case that animals are much more intelligent than people think. Parrots can learn to spell, prairie dogs use a very detailed language, whales are poets, and birds and squirrels never forget where they bury their nuts.

Highly recommended.


  • I have to chime in here. I've seen this book, and am fascinated by the works she has done. I know of several autistic people (some think I have a low level case), and they are often highly intelligent. Most see them as confusingly different, but if they look closer, there is some real value in their thoughts. It can be tough, and many lead an unhappy life, so I'm always happy to see someone use their talents so well as Grandin.

    By Blogger Mike, at 10:27 PM  

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