Friday, January 1, 2010

What the dog saw: Malcolm Galdwell

After finishing Malcolm Galdwell's What the Dog Saw, I went back and re-read my review of his previous book, Outliers. I wanted to see what I used to think about Gladwell and how it has changed. Here is what Brick and Rope wrote about Outliers:

It is clear that Gladwell is the king of interesting anecdotes. But that was precisely what put me off in reading Blink. At some point, a book needs to be more than a collection of interesting anecdotes. To me,Blink was never able to be that. And some of that criticism is valid with Outliers too. It is not obvious to me that Gladwell is a rigorous social scientist. I read his (tremendously entertaining) anecdotes, and I don't come out thinking "This proves conclusively that the success story can only be attributed to X". The feeling of mild skepticism is only increased by the fact that Gladwell never shares an anecdote that contradicts his contention, or one that doesn't quite fit neatly into his storyline.

Well, I might as well call that a review of What the Dog Saw and be done with it.

Moving for the first time from a book to an essay format, Gladwell has even less need than in prior books to create a central thesis, to defend the thesis with scientific rigor, or, let's be honest, to even be right at all. He just needs to be entertaining. And boy, is he entertaining!

What the Dog Saw is a collection of essays all previously published in The New Yorker. To give the collection a modicum of structure, Gladwell has categorized them into three groups. The first is a set of essays on 'minor geniuses', people who are exceedingly good at some specific niche without being Picassos. Next is a set on the perils of prediction. Finally, there is a set of essays on the difficulties of foretelling personality, character and intelligence.

One of Gladwell's essays in the 'minor geniuses' section is on Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I don't know how well Gladwell knows Taleb, he certainly seems to have had enough interview time, but I am not sure the big T is crazy about being called a 'minor genius'. Note from T to G: "Next time you ask for an interview, tell me what you are going to call the article." This essay on Taleb, called Blowing Up is a little sketch of the entire book. For someone who doesn't know anything about Taleb, it is fascinating, and filled with interesting anecdotes, and an unusual look at a world one doesn't look at often. To someone who does know a little bit about the man though, the essay is an increasingly impatient, foot-tapping, watch-glancing, come-to-the-point-already wait that ends without finding whether there was a 'there' there.

This isn't just about the Taleb essay either. The title essay is similar. What the Dog Saw doesn't really tell you what the dog saw. The ketchup conundrum merely ends with "I guess ketchup is ketchup."

There are, true to Gladwell's past, some essays that will stay with you. Some anecdotes you might find yourself referring to, over and over. Connecting the Dots makes the case that it is easy to connect the dots ex post facto, but there are so many dots before the fact that no 'connection' is any more obvious than any other. Too much 'noise' in other words. Not rocket science, but interesting. So the next time one reads the Washington Post report about how Abdulmutallab left a bunch of clues of his intent and the intelligence agencies couldn't 'connect the dots', you immediately think of the essay, and of 'noise'. Now, someone with sufficient grounding in the matter might take this point about signal-to-noise ratio and talk about decision making with dirty signals, and how the challenge is indeed to get better with sifting out signal from noise. But Gladwell is not going to take you there.

The other essay I immensely enjoyed was Something Borrowed in which Gladwell talks about the ethics of plagiarism. Talking of how building on top of others is exactly how the creative process works, Galdwell asks -

Isn't that the way creativity is supposed to work? Old words in the service of a new idea aren't the problem. What inhibits creativity is new words in the service of an old idea.

And this is the second problem with plagiarism. It is not merely extremist. it has also become disconnected from the broader question of what does and does not inhibit creativity. We accept the right of one writer to engage in a full-scale knockoff of another - think how many serial killer novels have been cloned from The Silence of the Lambs. Yet, when Kathy Acker incorporated parts of a Harold Robbins sex scene verbatim in a satiric novel, she was denounced as a plagiarist (and threatened with a lawsuit). When I worked at a newspaper, we were routinely dispatched to "match" a story from the Times: to do a new version of someone else's idea. But had we "matched" any of the Times' words - even the most banal of phrases - it could have been a firing offense. The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of small differences: because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence.

What a great paragraph! Vintage Gladwell. Worth the price of the book.

Plagiarism happens to be a topic I have never really seriously thought about, and that is Gladwell's sweet spot. When he catches our interest with a topic we have never thought about, Gladwell is in his element. Making us wonder, scratching the surface of these questions, showing us that there is much more beneath.

Yes, there is much more beneath the surface. To explore that, find some other author.

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