Going too fast to get it right

April 06, 2007|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON -- This begins with the sound of one shoe dropping.

A few weeks ago, a Supreme Court reporter noticed that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took an unusually long time getting on her feet after a hearing.

Blogging away on "Legalities," ABC's Jan Crawford Greenburg breezily wrote that it "made me think I'd better start pulling those possible retirement files together."

This hint about Justice Ginsburg's health moved across the blogosphere at, well, Internet speed. Days later, New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse - tweaking her colleague - offered a "pedestrian" explanation for the justice's slowness: Justice Ginsburg couldn't find one of the shoes she'd kicked off under the table.

The difference between the two reports on the shoeless justice was not a matter of good or bad reporting. It was, rather, a matter of blog time and checking time. The observation was right, but the diagnosis was as far afield as an errant shoe.

Within days, there was another missed diagnosis. The savvy new political publication The Politico posted a scoop before the John and Elizabeth Edwards news conference telling the world that the candidate was going to suspend his campaign. Circle false on the answer sheet.

In explaining "How Politico Got It Wrong," reporter Ben Smith retraced his steps. He started making calls around 10 a.m., got a tip before 11, told his editor at 11:08, put the news out on the Web immediately and got a warning e-mail at 11:28. Less than an hour later, the Edwardses proved him wrong.

The problem here too was less the messenger than the medium. The instant medium. As Mr. Smith wrote, "I've done much of my reporting on blogs and have developed an instinct to let my readers know whatever I know as soon as I know it." What that doesn't always make time for is a second opinion.

You don't die from a journalistic mistake. The worst thing you can kill is a reputation. I might not have even noted these errors of speed-blogging if I hadn't been reading Dr. Jerome Groopman's disturbing and thoughtful book of essays, How Doctors Think.

It turns out that most mistakes in medicine are not a matter of operating on the wrong leg or leaving a sponge in the stomach. "The majority of errors are due to flaws in physician thinking, not technical mistakes," Dr. Groopman writes. As many as 15 percent of all diagnoses are wrong.

These mistakes in thinking, says Dr. Groopman, are mostly a result of cognitive shortcuts. In real life, for example, doctors are likely to judge the case before them by others that come readily to their minds. They are then likely to latch onto a diagnosis, anchor it, and cherry-pick the symptoms that confirm their belief rather than revisiting or expanding the list of possibilities. It turns out that too many doctors are like those diagnosticians in the White House who saw every aerial photo of a trailer in Iraq as a factory for weapons of mass destruction.

But Dr. Groopman returns again and again to the root problem of the "shortcut." It's the "short." The enemy of thinking is speed.

In medicine, in business and in journalism, every second brings a deadline. Everyday life seems to move at the speed of an emergency room or a combat zone.

A new batch of research by scientists studying the human brain suggests that multitasking may not be the time saver we think it is. All that e-mailing-while-cell-phoning-while-driving just increases the chance of making mistakes. The collective pressure of technology and the marketplace has ratcheted up the expectation that we can think at the same pace we can press the send button.

When the chief product of "productivity" is a bumper crop of mistakes and the primary "shortcut" has become a leap to conclusions, we finally have a strong reason to push back against the clock - to slow down long enough to notice the shoes under the table.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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