Why do complex systems fail? Why is it hard to profile serial killers? What do job interviews really tell us? These are three of many questions Malcolm Gladwell poses in What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures, a collection of 19 of his essays from The New Yorker. The earliest, Blowup, is from Jan. 22, 1996; the latest, Most Likely to Succeed, from Dec, 15, 2008.
Any lawyer knows that much may depend on how a question is put. Thus, in his essay T he Ketchup Conundrum, Gladwell asserts that "mustard now comes in dozens of varieties" while asking the misleading question, "Why has ketchup stayed the same?"
Author of three previous bestsellers, The Tipping Point (2000), Blink (2005), and Outliers (2008), Gladwell, in the essay Most Likely to Succeed, observes that intelligence-test results imperfectly model real-world performance. An aspect of this is the so-called quarterback problem. No test yet devised can divine who will make a great quarterback, a dilemma that applies to all human endeavours.
"There are certain jobs," Gladwell observes in the same essay, "where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they'll do once they're hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? In recent years, a number of fields have begun to wrestle with this problem, but none with such profound social consequences as the profession of teaching."
Gladwell's disdain for pedagogical tests has triggered a spat with Harvard linguist (and fellow Canadian) Steven Pinker. No slouch on the bestseller circuit himself, Pinker, reviewing What the Dog Saw for The New York Times, accused Gladwell of bad spelling and banality. Worse, he charged Gladwell with "a kind of populism, which seeks to undermine the ideals of talent, intelligence and analytical process in favour of luck, opportunity, experience and intuition."
Gladwell attributes the reviewer's spleen to his refusal to join Pinker "on the lonely ice floe of IQ fundamentalism."
Gladwell excels at the telling anecdote
Pinker understates his case. Gladwell is clever, engaging, informative, funny, discursive, facile, glib, shallow and obtuse. In Blowup, he asserts that no one can be blamed for the Challenger disaster "and we'd better get used to it." Engineers know their materials. Morton Thiokol's solid-booster O-ring would shatter in cold weather, as the late Richard Feynman demonstrated by dropping one into a glass of ice water. Yet Morton Thiokol and NASA management overruled engineers who wanted to postpone the launch because of the freeze-up the night before. Plenty of blame there.
While Gladwell lectures about "risk homeostasis," he overlooks the CRM (cockpit resource management) procedure instituted after the 1978 crash of United Flight 178 in Portland, Oregon. Hospital operating rooms use the CRM mantra of "see it, say it, fix it" to stop disasters-in-progress. Only in top-down organizations with military command structures (which amplify errors) is CRM problematical. But Gladwell, as innocent of CRM as the Obama White House, thinks that complexity itself is sufficient cause for failure. If it were, we wouldn't exist.
The title essay, featuring Cesar Millan, host of National Geographic TV's Dog Whisperer, turns ethology into pop psychology: "A dog cares, deeply, which way your body is leaning. Forward or backward? Forward can be seen as aggressive; backward - even a quarter of an inch - means non-threatening." Anyone who knows dogs knows this is a truism. There are more.
"Movement analysts tend to like watching, say, Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan; they had great phrasing. George W. Bush does not." Bush, we are told, "moves like a boy, which is fine, except that, unlike such movement masters as Reagan and Clinton, he can't stop moving like a boy when the occasion demands a more grown-up response." Oh dear me!
If the essay Troublemakers can be believed, pit-bull terriers teach us about racial profiling. Troublemakers opens with a graphic description of three pit bulls savaging two-and-a-half-year-old Jayden Clairoux in Ottawa, in February, 2005, the attack that led Ontario to ban pit bulls.
The dogs were bred for fighting, but not all pit bulls are vicious. This causes Gladwell agonies of political correctness.
"Following the transit bombings in London," he writes, "the New York City Police Department announced that it would send officers into the subways to conduct random searches of passengers' bags. On the face of it, doing random searches in the hunt for terrorists - as opposed to being guided by generalizations - seems like a silly idea." Gladwell then cites an unnamed New York "columnist" who opined that we know what jihadists look like, just as we know what mobsters look like, "'even as we understand that only an infinitesimal fraction of Italian-Americans are members of the mob.'"
"But wait," Gladwell cautions: "do we really know what mafiosi look like?" Alas for pit bulls, we do know what they look like.
Dangerous Minds profiles FBI profiler John Douglas (Thomas Harris's model for Agent Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs ). Douglas, author of Inside the Mind of BTK (a three-letter abbreviation for bind, torture, kill), about Wichita, Kansas, serial killer Dennis Rader, "was the protégé of the pioneering FBI profiler Howard Teten, who helped establish the bureau's Behavioural Science Unit, at Quantico, in 1972." In turn, Teten was a protégé of James Brussel, who profiled New York's Mad Bomber in the mid-1950s. In such a close-knit fraternity, Gladwell comments, this "is like being analyzed by the analyst who was analyzed by Freud."
Gladwell excels at the telling anecdote. Brussel had told detectives that when they caught the Mad Bomber, he would be wearing a double-breasted suit: "Buttoned." They arrested George Metesky at home in his pajamas: "The police asked that he get dressed. When he returned, his hair was combed into a pompadour and his shoes were newly shined. He was also wearing a double-breasted suit - buttoned."
That's good, and so is the essay. But this collection sorely needed an editor.
Although the essays in What the Dog Saw can be read for free on line, the book is firmly on the bestseller lists. The Me Generation loves Gladwell, along with the busy airport herd - mad dogs, serial killers and IQ fundamentalists excepted.
Chris Scott, who knows dogs and other animals, has raised pedigree Border Collies in the Ottawa Valley.