January 13, 2005

Practice makes professional

The professor who's teaching my Law & Bioethics class said something today that reminded me indirectly of a book by Gavin DeBecker called The Gift of Fear. One of DeBecker's main points is that our intuition is often based on solid sensory data and valid (if unconscious) analysis. Sudden fear, for example, may often be justified even when we can't consciously explain why we're afraid.

DeBecker might just as well have said that when it comes to personal safety, we're all professionals. This is because professional reasoning of the sort that lawyers and doctors and architects do turns out to be mostly intuitive. Atul Gawande describes this process in his book Complications, where he tells the story of his own intuitive sense that a patient of his in the ER with a probable cellulitis should nevertheless be taken to the OR to rule out necrotizing fasciitis. The decisions physicians make are often based on pattern recognition, much of which may be unconscious. If it weren't, the typical doctor would take much, much longer to make decisions than he in fact does. The same is true for lawyers and other professionals.

But what's the source of professional intuition? In another part of his book, Gawande asks about what things make for a good surgeon. His answer: practice, practice, practice. Gawande's discussion focused on the motor aspects of surgery, but the same could be said for the mental aspects of making diagnoses. A physician can intuitively diagnose a case of appendicitis only after she's seen hundreds of cases. My professor in class today pointed out that lawyers develop the ability to pick out the few winning arguments out of many logically valid arguments only after lots and lots of practice--reading cases, making arguments and observing what happens. When they do, it feels to them like intuition, and it probably is.

So when Gavin DeBecker urges us to trust our instincts when it comes to personal safety, he's saying that we're "professionals" when it comes to our own security. That makes sense, because assessing threats to our selves is something that most of us have practiced again and again, for our whole lives.

Posted by Carey at January 13, 2005 11:34 PM