A child playing the trumpet at a public event. Photo: Getty Images
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When it comes to expertise, 10,000 hours of practice isn’t enough

Contrary to popular opinion, practicing a musical instrument or a sport for thousands of hours isn’t enough to produce a Mozart or a Maradona – though it still helps.

What distinguishes a few exceptional talents from a mediocre majority? Is it hours upon hours of monotonous dedication to perfecting a skill? Or is it rather an innate gift, like a natural ability or talent?

The nature versus nurture debate as applied to intelligence and expertise is not new. Since the mid-1800s scientists have been questioning whether experts are “born” or “made”. Sir Francis Galton, the 19th-century founder of the field of behavioral genetics, proposed that experts are born to be experts. He believed that ultimately our innate abilities limit the level of performance an individual can achieve, and practice is only necessary for reaching an expert level of performance. Yet later mid-20th century psychologists - like John Watson, one of the founders of behaviourism - denied innate abilities or the existence of talent, and instead proposed that practicing more intensively than others is probably the only reasonable explanation for success and accomplishment.

An alternative theory, called ‘deliberate practice’, has become more popular in recent years thanks to Malcolm Gladwell's popular book, Outliers. It suggests that an accumulated amount of practice reflects expert performance. In other words, the more you practice, the better you become. Gladwell also popularised the “10,000-hour rule”- that is, the suggestion that practicing any skill for 10,000 hours is sufficient to make you an expert.

However, a new study published in Psychological Science suggests otherwise. A team of sceptical psychologists has challenged the fashionable deliberate practice theory by testing whether it's supported by experimental evidence. The results make it clear that 10,000 hours of practice is not a guarantee of expertise in every field.

The researchers from Princeton University, led by psychologist Brooke Macnamara, conducted a meta-analysis of the available scientific literature on deliberate practice in music, sports, educations, games and professions. A meta-analysis is a kind of "study of studies", where scientists try to look at the big picture in a field and reconcile the findings of multiple studies from different teams around the world. While the implications of a single study on deliberate practice might be only mildly useful, when statistically analysed with similar research it can give results that are much more definitive. Meta-analyses have been vital in proving that there is no link between vaccines and autism, for example.

The results showed that 26 per cent of the variance in individual performance for games could be explained by practice, dropping to 21 per cent for music and 18 per cent for sports. Interestingly, deliberate practice was shown to be far less important for education - a minuscule 4 per cent - and less than 1 per cent for professions (the study doesn't define what this is, but it appears to be business skills). [UPDATE: Thanks to Andy Fugard/@inductivestep for tweeting that there is a definition of "professions" hidden in the study's supporting materials - it's a category that includes four papers, on programming, football refereeing, insurance agents and pilot skills.]

Therefore, the findings confirmed the researchers' suspicions, demonstrating that overall, individual differences in expertise, skill or performance, was not considerably affected by the amount of practice accumulated over time. With individual practice explaining 26 per cent, 21 per cent and 18 per cent of the variance for some domains, it is important to note that it is not completely useless for domains such as games, music and sports. However, for the education and professional domains, practice seemed to have significantly less of an impact, begging the question - if practice doesn’t matter so much, what does?

The researchers concluded that more influential factors could perhaps include the age at which a person becomes involved in an activity, or cognitive abilities such as working memory. Perhaps it isn't that "practice makes perfect", but that "practice plus other factors makes perfect".

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How the Standing Rock fight will continue

Bureaucratic ability to hold corporate interest account will be more necessary now than ever.

Fireworks lit up the sky in rural North Dakota on Sunday night, as protestors celebrated at what is being widely hailed as a major victory for rights activism.

After months spent encamped in tee-pees and tents on the banks of the Canonball river, supporters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe finally received the news they’d been waiting for: the US Army Corps has not issued the Dakota Access pipeline with the permit it requires to drill under Lake Oahe.

“We […] commend with the utmost gratitude the courage it took on the part of President Obama, the Army Corps, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior to take steps to correct the course of history and to do the right thing" said a statement released by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s chairman, Dave Archambault II.

With the camp’s epic setting, social-media fame, and echoes of wider injustice towards Native Americans, the movement has already earned a place in the history books. You can almost hear the Hollywood scriptwriters tapping away.

But as the smoke settles and the snow thickens around the thinning campsite, what will be Standing Rock’s lasting legacy?

I’ve written before about the solidarity, social justice and environmental awareness that I think make this anti-pipeline movement such an important symbol for the world today.

But perhaps its most influential consequence may also be its least glamorous: an insistence on a fully-functioning and accountable bureaucratic process.

According to a statement from the US Army’s Assistant Secretary of Civil Words, the Dakota Access project must “explore alternate routes”, through the aid of “an Environmental Impact Statement with full public input and analysis”.

This emphasis on consultation and review is not big-statement politics from the Obama administration. In fact it is a far cry from his outright rejection of the Keystone Pipeline project in 2015. Yet it may set an even more enduring example.

The use of presidential power to reject Keystone, was justified on the grounds that America needed to maintain its reputation as a “global leader” on climate change. This certainly sent a clear message to the world that support from Canadian tar-sands oil deposits was environmentally unacceptable.

But it also failed to close the issue. TransCanada, the company behind Keystone, has remained “committed” to the project and has embroiled the government in a lengthy legal challenge. Unsurprisingly, they now hope to “convince” Donald Trump to overturn Obama’s position.

In contrast, the apparently modest nature of the government’s response to Dakota Access Pipeline may yet prove environmental justice’s biggest boon. It may even help Trump-proof the environment.

“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do”, said the Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Works.

Back in July, the same Army Corps of Engineers (which has jurisdiction over domestic pipelines crossing major waterways) waved through an environmental assessment prepared by the pipeline’s developer and approved the project. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe subsequently complained that the threat to its water supply and cultural heritage had not been duly considered. This month’s about-turn is thus vital recognition of the importance of careful and extensive public consultation. And if ever such recognition was needed it is now.

Not only does Donald Trump have a financial tie to the Energy Transfer Partners but the wider oil and gas industry also invested millions into other Republican candidate nominees. On top of this, Trump has already announced that Myron Ebell, a well known climate sceptic, will be in charge of leading the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Maintaining the level of scrutiny finally granted for Standing Rock may not be easy under the new administration. Jennifer Baker, an attorney who has worked with tribes in South Dakota on pipeline issues for several years, fears that the ground gained may not last long. But while the camp at Standing Rock may be disbanding, the movement is not.

This Friday, the three tribes who have sued the Corps (the Yankont, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes) will head to a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, seeking to increase pressure on the government to comply with both domestic and international law as it pertains to human rights and indigenous soveriegnty. 

What the anti-pipeline struggle has shown - and will continue to show - is that a fully accountable and transparent bureaucratic process could yet become the environment's best line of defence. That – and hope.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.