BOOK REVIEW: What the Dog Saw (Malcolm Gladwell) by Sujay Desai

BOOK REVIEW: What the Dog Saw, by Malcolm Gladwell
By Sujay Desai

Over the last decade, Malcolm Gladwell has developed a singular reputation for delivering a fresh perspective and unique insights into a diverse and fascinating array of topics. His insatiable curiosity is put on full display in his new book What the Dog Saw, a collection of Gladwell’s most interesting intellectual adventures taken from his days at The New Yorker. Gladwell tackles such subjects the problem of homelessness, Enron, criminal profiling, and job interviews. Perhaps it is not the subjects themselves but Gladwell’s signature approach that sets him apart. His goal is first and foremost to tell a story with vivid characters and fascinating details. Through the story, Gladwell educates the reader and leaves him/her feeling more informed and intelligent about the world than before. More than anything, he helps us understand ourselves better as human beings.

Gladwell’s exploration of homelessness is a shining example of his unique approach to a seemingly mundane topic. The chapter is titled “Million Dollar Murray”, and Gladwell uses the story of the most expensive homeless man in Nevada, Murray Barr, as a starting point to exploring the issue as a whole. Murray is a colorful character, and through his chronic alcoholism, he has cost the state of Nevada over one million dollars in medical bills. Even if we are not particularly interested in homelessness per se, we become interested in it because we are curious about this man named Murray and how he cost the Nevada taxpayers such an outrageous amount of money.

In the chapter on Enron, Gladwell chooses a subject with which we are all very familiar and provides a very different perspective on it. He challenges our deeply held assumptions about the causes of the Enron debacle. People have felt and still believe that a lack of information led to this scandal. In essence, our perspective is that Enron concealed information and misled Wall Street. Gladwell is not convinced, and finds through his research that all the Enron financial information was freely available, but everyone chose to ignore it. Human nature, he concludes, is to transfer blame rather than to accept responsibility.

Gladwell devotes several chapters to the challenges of recruiting, interviewing and hiring. The talent hunt, we learn, is not quite as straightforward as it seems. In one segment, he explores the question of what interviews really tell us. Does an interview really predict a person’s job performance, or is it just a test to see how well they perform in an interview situation? In another chapter, Gladwell follows the tale of an NFL scout looking for the next star quarterback. Does success in college translate into success in the pros? To our surprise, often times it does not.

The beauty of What the Dog Saw is that it works on several different levels. On the one hand, it is a collection of stories and essays that entertain and amuse the reader. In addition, the book will appeal to intellectuals who want to explore interesting issues. If you are looking for a book that educates while it entertains, you will undoubtedly enjoy this one.

Published: November 7, 2009
Have you ever wondered why there are so many kinds of mustard but only one kind of ketchup? Or what Cézanne did before painting his first significant works in his 50s? Have you hungered for the story behind the Veg-O-Matic, star of the frenetic late-night TV ads? Or wanted to know where Led Zeppelin got the riff in “Whole Lotta Love”?
Neither had I, until I began this collection by the indefatigably curious journalist Malcolm Gladwell. The familiar jacket design, with its tiny graphic on a spare background, reminds us that Gladwell has become a brand. He is the author of the mega-best sellers “The Tipping Point,” “Blink” and “Out¬liers”; a popular speaker on the Dilbert circuit; and a prolific contributor to The New Yorker, where the 19 articles in “What the Dog Saw” were originally published. This volume includes prequels to those books and other examples of Gladwell’s stock in trade: counterintuitive findings from little-known experts.
A third of the essays are portraits of “minor geniuses” — impassioned oddballs loosely connected to cultural trends. We meet the feuding clan of speed-talking pitchmen who gave us the Pocket Fisherman, Hair in a Can, and other it-slices!-it-dices! contraptions. There is the woman who came up with the slogan “Does she or doesn’t she?” and made hair coloring (and, Gladwell suggests, self-invention) respectable to millions of American women. The investor Nassim Taleb explains how markets can be blindsided by improbable but consequential events. A gourmet ketchup entrepreneur provides Gladwell the opportunity to explain the psychology of taste and to recount the history of condiments.
Another third are on the hazards of statistical prediction, especially when it comes to spectacular failures like Enron, 9/11, the fatal flight of John F. Kennedy Jr., the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the persistence of homelessness and the unsuccessful targeting of Scud missile launchers during the Persian Gulf war of 1991. For each debacle, Gladwell tries to single out a fallacy of reasoning behind it, such as that more information is always better, that pictures offer certainty, that events are distributed in a bell curve around typical cases, that clues available in hindsight should have been obvious before the fact and that the risk of failure in a complex system can be reduced to zero.
The final third are also about augury, this time about individuals rather than events. Why, he asks, is it so hard to prognosticate the performance of artists, teachers, quarterbacks, executives, serial killers and breeds of dogs?
The themes of the collection are a good way to characterize Gladwell himself: a minor genius who unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and who occasionally blunders into spectacular failures.
Gladwell is a writer of many gifts. His nose for the untold back story will have readers repeatedly muttering, “Gee, that’s interesting!” He avoids shopworn topics, easy moralization and conventional wisdom, encouraging his readers to think again and think different. His prose is transparent, with lucid explanations and a sense that we are chatting with the experts ourselves. Some chapters are master¬pieces in the art of the essay. I particularly liked “Something Borrowed,” a moving examination of the elusive line between artistic influence and plagiarism, and “Dangerous Minds,” a suspenseful tale of criminal profiling that shows how self-anointed experts can delude their clients and themselves with elastic predictions.
An eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing. But Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “sagittal plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.
The banalities come from a gimmick that can be called the Straw We. First Gladwell disarmingly includes himself and the reader in a dubious consensus — for example, that “we” believe that jailing an executive will end corporate malfeasance, or that geniuses are invariably self-made prodigies or that eliminating a risk can make a system 100 percent safe. He then knocks it down with an ambiguous observation, such as that “risks are not easily manageable, accidents are not easily preventable.” As a generic statement, this is true but trite: of course many things can go wrong in a complex system, and of course people sometimes trade off safety for cost and convenience (we don’t drive to work wearing crash helmets in Mack trucks at 10 miles per hour). But as a more substantive claim that accident investigations are meaningless “rituals of reassurance” with no effect on safety, or that people have a “fundamental tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking greater risks in another,” it is demonstrably false.
The problem with Gladwell’s generalizations about prediction is that he never zeroes in on the essence of a statistical problem and instead overinterprets some of its trappings. For example, in many cases of uncertainty, a decision maker has to act on an observation that may be either a signal from a target or noise from a distractor (a blip on a screen may be a missile or static; a blob on an X-ray may be a tumor or a harmless thickening). Improving the ability of your detection technology to discriminate signals from noise is always a good thing, because it lowers the chance you’ll mistake a target for a distractor or vice versa. But given the technology you have, there is an optimal threshold for a decision, which depends on the relative costs of missing a target and issuing a false alarm. By failing to identify this trade-off, Gladwell bamboozles his readers with pseudoparadoxes about the limitations of pictures and the downside of precise information.
Another example of an inherent trade-off in decision-making is the one that pits the accuracy of predictive information against the cost and complexity of acquiring it. Gladwell notes that I.Q. scores, teaching certificates and performance in college athletics are imperfect predictors of professional success. This sets up a “we” who is “used to dealing with prediction problems by going back and looking for better predictors.” Instead, Gladwell argues, “teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree — and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before.”
But this “solution” misses the whole point of assessment, which is not clairvoyance but cost-effectiveness. To hire teachers indiscriminately and judge them on the job is an example of “going back and looking for better predictors”: the first year of a career is being used to predict the remainder. It’s simply the predictor that’s most expensive (in dollars and poorly taught students) along the accuracy-¬cost trade-off. Nor does the absurdity of this solution for professional athletics (should every college quarterback play in the N.F.L.?) give Gladwell doubts about his misleading analogy between hiring teachers (where the goal is to weed out the bottom 15 percent) and drafting quarterbacks (where the goal is to discover the sliver of a percentage point at the top).
The common thread in Gladwell’s writing is a kind of populism, which seeks to undermine the ideals of talent, intelligence and analytical prowess in favor of luck, opportunity, experience and intuition. For an apolitical writer like Gladwell, this has the advantage of appealing both to the Horatio Alger right and to the egalitarian left. Unfortunately he wildly overstates his empirical case. It is simply not true that a quarter-back’s rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros, that cognitive skills don’t predict a teacher’s effectiveness, that intelligence scores are poorly related to job performance or (the major claim in “Outliers”) that above a minimum I.Q. of 120, higher intelligence does not bring greater intellectual achievements.
The reasoning in “Outliers,” which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle. Fortunately for “What the Dog Saw,” the essay format is a better showcase for Gladwell’s talents, because the constraints of length and editors yield a higher ratio of fact to fancy. Readers have much to learn from Gladwell the journalist and essayist. But when it comes to Gladwell the social scientist, they should watch out for those igon values.

o Ian Sample
o The Guardian, Saturday 17 October 2009
o Article history

In 1984, a history graduate at the University of Toronto upped sticks and moved to Indiana. His grades weren’t good enough to stay on for postgraduate work, he’d been rejected by more than a dozen advertising agencies, and his application for a fellowship “somewhere exotic” went nowhere. The only thing left was writing – but it turned out that Malcolm Gladwell knows how to write.
Gladwell’s journalistic trajectory from junior writer on the Indiana-based American Spectator to the doors of the New Yorker makes for a story in itself, but only after arriving at the magazine did he become established as one of the most imaginative non-fiction writers of his generation. As of last year, he had three bestsellers under his belt and was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.
Gladwell owes his success to the trademark brand of social psychology he honed over a decade at the magazine. His confident, optimistic pieces on the essence of genius, the flaws of multinational corporations and the quirks of human behaviour have been devoured by businessmen in search of a new guru. His skill lies in turning dry academic hunches into compelling tales of everyday life: why we buy this or that; why we place trust in flakey ideas; why we are hopeless at joining the dots between cause and effect. He is the master of pointing out the truths under our noses (even if they aren’t always the whole truth).
Gladwell’s latest book, What the Dog Saw, bundles together his favourite articles from the New Yorker since he joined as a staff writer in 1996. It makes for a handy crash course in the world according to Gladwell: this is the bedrock on which his rise to popularity is built. A warning, though: it’s hard to read the book without the sneaking suspicion that you’re unwittingly taking part in a social experiment he’s masterminded to provide grist for his next book. Times are hard, good ideas are scarce: it may just be true. But more about that later.
Gladwell has divided his book into three sections. The first deals with what he calls obsessives and minor geniuses; the second with flawed ways of thinking. The third focuses on how we make predictions about people: will they make a good employee, are they capable of great works of art, or are they the local serial killer? Brought together, the pieces form a dazzling record of Gladwell’s art. There is depth to his research and clarity in his arguments, but it is the breadth of subjects he applies himself to that is truly impressive. He bounds along from the inventors of automatic vegetable choppers and hair dye to Cesar Millan, the American “Dog Whisperer” behind the title piece, and Nassim Taleb, the US banker who turned his nose up at the investment strategies of George Soros and Warren Buffet and made himself a pile of money.
Gladwell is more than just a people person, though. His forensic dissection of the collapse of Enron and his survey of the causes of the Challenger space shuttle disaster manage to be fresh and compelling when you could be forgiven for thinking there was nothing left to say about the events. “The Art of Failure” is a fascinating examination of how experience plays a part in how you’ll fail when you do fail.
The common theme that runs through all Gladwell’s pieces is his desire to show us the world through the eyes of others – even if the other happens to be a dog. Inevitably this becomes the world as Gladwell sees it through the eyes of others, but his cast of characters (except perhaps in the case of the dog) is strong enough to withstand the filter.
The story of Murray Barr, which first appeared in 2006, is a classic. Barr is a hopeless alcoholic who lives on the streets of Reno, Nevada, and spends more weekends than not in hospital or drying out in a police cell. He is a burden on the system, but that is the fault of the system, Gladwell argues. Barr’s routine involves getting drunk, falling over and being taken to hospital. When he is released, he starts all over again.
The first to raise doubts about society’s way of dealing with people such as Barr are local police officers. Over 10 years Barr’s hospital bills mount up. “It cost us $1m not to do something about Murray,” says one of the officers Gladwell quotes. Barr’s personal story becomes the springboard for Gladwell’s argument that society finds it more palatable to manage homelessness than to end it. Surely it would be cheaper – not to say more helpful – to give people like Barr a flat of their own, he suggests, to keep a watchful eye over them rather than leave them on the streets to rack up medical bills. He plays the idea out by examining pilot programmes that have attempted to do just this, and then muses on why society hasn’t embraced the strategy. We don’t do it because it doesn’t seem fair. Why should someone who contributes so little to society be tossed the keys to a new home? Morality prefers equity, and rewards for doing nothing are inequitable.
This is what Gladwell does best: he takes an idea, recasts it as a human story, and works it through to its conclusion, taking a strip off conventional wisdoms as he goes. Even when the patterns he identifies are spurious or the conclusions flawed, the arguments he raises are clear, provocative and important. It’s as if he is saying, read this, then go and think for yourself. His pieces, he says, are meant to be “adventures”.
Gladwell’s most recent book, Outliers, was knocked by some critics for stating the obvious: that successful people put in a lot of hours, but crucially are often in the right place at the right time and seize the opportunities life throws their way. Before that, Blink drew flak for urging readers to go with their gut feelings, except when their gut feelings were wrong.
Both books were spun out of articles Gladwell published in the New Yorker, and it is easy to see why they met with a mixed reaction. When Gladwell’s theories are drawn across a broader canvas, the cracks are harder to ignore. One virtue of What the Dog Saw is that the pieces are perfectly crafted: they achieve their purpose more effectively when they aren’t stretched out.
In his introduction, Gladwell tries to head off the familiar criticisms by re-stating what his writing is and isn’t trying to achieve. “Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. Not the kind you’ll find in this book, anyway. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think.” On that basis, Gladwell surely succeeds.
Back to that warning. There is nothing new in this new book, but that is clear from the start. What is less clear is that all the pieces are available free of charge from Gladwell’s own website. If you like, you can go there and read the original New Yorker articles, complete with beautiful layouts and cartoons. You can even print them out and staple them together using an industrial stapler from the stationery cupboard at work. A trial run suggests that this could occupy an idle lunchtime.
Gladwell’s publisher no doubt paid a lot of money to repackage his free stories and sell them on for a tidy profit. It is a scenario that has the makings of a Gladwellian dilemma. Why buy the book if the content is free? And what does that say about me? Is the feeling of being mugged by the publisher trumped by the virtue of convenience? The book is beautiful and brings together the writing that made Gladwell the extraordinary figure he is today. That alone is worth paying something for, but if you want to avoid mental anguish it might be safer to buy it for someone else.

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