Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"What the Dog Saw" by Malcolm Gladwell

Summary:  A collection of essays by Gladwell, originally published in The New Yorker, in which he uses quirky stories and facts to explain ideas related to psychology, statistics, and similar social fields.

Musings: I was drawn to this book by the review in the New York Times ("Malcolm Gladwell, Eclectic Detective" by Steve Pinker, 11/7/09).  Although the reviewer Pinker was highly critical of Gladwell's populist psychology, broad generalizations, and simplification (and errors) of terms, the descriptions of the types of stories present in What the Dog Saw just sounded so darn interesting that I wanted to read the book anyway.

I was familiar with some of his stories (having a monthly period while on birth control isn't necessary; the only thing traditional interviews predict is how well the interviewer and interviewee get along), but Gladwell still had many interesting anecdotes and histories to tell that I had never heard of.  The comparison of early hair dye commercials provided a look at developing feminism; a discussion of the uselessness of criminal profiling was relevant considering the current proliferation of those type of TV shows.

"Million Dollar Murray," an essay on solving homelessness, was especially fascinating.  It poses some interesting questions about how we define a "solution" in this kind of situation and what, morally, we are willing to do to achieve the most effective solution.  On a "feeding my righteous anger" note, what I probably liked most about this essay was its affirmation that mandatory yearly car emissions testings do nothing to curb emissions.  I grew up in a state that didn't require emissions testing, and I now live in a state which forces me to pay $70 a year for this ridiculous service.  I was sure it was just a ploy for increasing money to the government and auto repair shops.  I was right.

"Something Borrowed" addresses plagiarism.  This is a topic that I think about a lot as an English teacher.  I routinely catch students blatantly plagiarizing (in fact, I used to have students write book reviews on independent reading books, but the plagiarism was so rampant that I gave up the assignment), but Gladwell raises some interesting questions of derivative work versus plain old copying.  I used to do some web design, and I'd often use other images or sites for inspiration.  Sometimes I'd manipulate the original image; other times I'd use the original concept as a starting stone for my own work.  It was occasionally a murky line for me--where does plagiarism become transformative, and thus, original?  Gladwell makes a compelling argument for views on plagiarism in writing being extreme and, perhaps, unnecessarily damaging.

"Connecting the Dots" addresses the famous axiom: "hindsight is always 20/20."  This article discusses our reactions to terrible events after they happen.  The tendency is to look back at the event, see the "clues" that led up to it, and place blame for someone not "putting the clues together" in order to prevent the tragedy.  I'd always felt investigations into things like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, for example, have been emblematic of our desire to place unwarranted blame. This has always struck me as an emotional, rather than a logical, response to a tragedy.  People look for God, and they look for a scapegoat.  Gladwell points out that our inundation of information makes it difficult to predict many events.   I'm absolutely no Bush supporter, but I don't blame him for not predicting 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina (I just blame him for his response afterward).  Bad things happen.  In trying to assign guilt after the fact and stop every possible kind of disaster, we take attention, time, and money away from things that can be helped.  Plus now I can't bring a normal bottle of shampoo on a plane.

However, some essays missed the mark or made broad suggestions without realistic methods of implementation.  "Most Likely To Succeed" addresses the tricky question of how to hire good teachers.  His proposed solution involves following a financial industry model in which many people are hired, then vetted out through a competitive process over a period of years that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.  There are too many gigantic flaws in this plan that I won't even bother to go into them.

At times the messages even seemed contradictory.  The same essay, "Most Likely to Succeed," recommends doing away with tenure and hiring superstars; the essay "The Talent Myth," about Enron, criticizes hiring super stars and praises companies that hire on seniority and focus on the organization rather than individuals.

One of the things Pinker does praise Gladwell for is Gladwell's skill at the essay form.  Gladwell is a very talented persuasive writer, even if reading so many of his essays in a row exposed the same basic structure and form to each (most funny to me was the appearance, about one third of the way through each essay, of a brief description of a primary expert: Suzy Expert is a well-dressed woman of forty with a shock of blond hair and freckles... or the like).  Gladwell has a great quote to end his preface, which I found especially applicable to my teaching of writing:
Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade.  Not the kind of writing that you'll find in this book, anyway.  It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head--even if in the end you conclude that someone else's head is not a place you'd really like to be. (xv)
 Of books recently that have made me think, question, and want to discuss issues further, What the Dog Saw is at the top of the list.  I don't buy all Gladwell says, but the book certainly engaged me in thinking about his suppositions.

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