Gnawing on My Kindle

There is a graphic in Steven Pinker’s review of Malcolm Gladwell’s recent collection of essays, What the Dog Saw, that says it all. Pinker’s review appeared in The Times Book Review of November 15th; the graphic is by Christoph Niemann. It is the clearest and the cleverest critique of Gladwell’s works I’ve ever seen.

On my reading, Gladwell’s essays and books are characterized by a maddening logic of beginning with a particular incident, an anecdote, usually a colorful one, and building step by step with succeeding series of equally amusing anecdotes a major priniciple of behavior.

From a thin slice of the pie, in combination with others in turn, he arrives at a conclusion that he claims to have wide generality. Oh, that it was so simple. Pinker, the author of The Blank Slate and How the Mind Works, agrees. While acknowledging that some of the essays Gladwell has written are “masterpieces in the art of the essay,” he asserts that most include misleading definitions, faulty statistical reasoning, and only a limited understanding of research findings in psychology.

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 …. 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”… it is demonstrably false.”

Pinker concludes by exclaiming that Gladwell's endless stream of cherry-picked anecdotes “had me gnawing on my Kindle.” Perfect.

While I don’t have a Kindle to gnaw on, I have read almost everything Gladwell has written, including his three books (The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers, as well as almost all of his New Yorker essays). There is no doubt he is an amusing and extraordinary curious essayist with a rare talent for identifying fascinating, often ignored questions. I like his stuff a great deal.

However, his reasoning about these issues is another matter. I have blogged about his works here before, perhaps more often than any other writer. But nothing I have said or, indeed that Pinker has said, can quite match the critical perceptiveness of Christoph Niemann’s three-part graphic that accompanied Pinker’s review.