June 30, 2008
down, i say, down with malcolm gladwell!
I have been harboring a nagging suspicion about Malcolm Gladwell for some time now. There is a word that keeps knocking at the back of my mind. That word is 'fraud'. I suspect, in short, that Malcolm Gladwell is a fraud. I finally picked up his book from a couple of years ago, Blink. He subtitles it "The Power of Thinking Without Thinking." The book oozes with a slickness, a snake oil salesman's set of cheap tricks and pseudo-intellectual come-ons. My feeling of distaste is so strong that I've come in a perverse way to admire Mr. Gladwell. He has caused me to hate again. I hate Blink.
But allow me to calm down. Allow me to state the case. Allow me to endeavor to prove that Blink is a piece of shit.
Malcolm Gladwell is a good writer and a clear writer. He also knows how to entertain. Blink is driven by a series of anecdotes and stories about people using their "adaptive consciousness," that faculty of the brain that makes intuitive decisions before the conscious brain has even realized it. Gladwell's first story is about a kouros (an ancient Greek statue of a young boy) purchased by the Getty museum. The museum hired lawyers and experts and scientists to authenticate the statue. They got the green light for the purchase. But another handful of experts not directly involved in the process didn't feel right about the statue. They came to a number of snap conclusions just by glancing at it that told them something was amiss. As Gladwell puts it, "In the first two seconds of looking—in a single glance—they were able to understand more about the essence of the statue than the team at Getty was able to understand after four months. Blink is about those first two seconds."
The stories keep coming. Stories about a marriage expert who can interpret just a few facial expressions during a married couple's fight and deduce whether or not they will be together in fifteen years. Stories about our worst President, Warren Harding, who looked and sounded so much like a President that first impressions alone carried him to the White House, where he drank and whored around for a couple of years and then died. There are stories about the snap decisions of cops who ended up murdering an innocent man, Amadou Diallo. These stories are inherently interesting and dramatic. Some of them are gripping.
The stories aren't the problem. The sliminess and outright incoherence comes out when Gladwell starts telling us about what these stories are supposed to mean. He is not shy about his claims. These are not just amusing stories about the complicated and sometimes contradictory ways that human beings make decisions. Gladwell positions himself as more than an observer and as something closer to a life coach or a guru. He is going to teach people how to harness and make use of the power, the magic, of unconscious thinking. He is going to make things that were difficult and well nigh unfathomable a lot easier. And if people listen to him Gladwell predicts that it "would change the way wars are fought, the kinds of products we see on the shelves, the kinds of movies that get made, the way police officers are trained, the way couples are counseled, the way job interviews are conducted, and on and on. And if we were to combine all those little changes, we would end up with a different and better world." How nice, how very nice.
The oddest thing about Blink, though, is the disconnect between these transformational claims and the actual arguments to be found inside. Throughout the book, Gladwell sorts his stories and anecdotes into two broad categories. On the one side are the stories about the so-called experts being shown up by the simple power of thinking without thinking. In these cases, we learn about the magical powers we all harbor within ourselves. On the other side, are stories about first impressions that have, in fact, led people astray. In these cases, we learn how to fine-tune and perfect our blinking skills in order not to get it wrong.
The problem, of course, which Gladwell never sufficiently addresses, is that it is extremely difficult to know beforehand whether, in this or that instance, a person's power of thinking without thinking is working as a strength or a weakness. Here’s an example of the ridiculousness of it all. At one point, Gladwell discusses a musician called Kenna. Kenna grew up in the US as the son of Ethiopian immigrants. His music is hard to categorize. But it has one hell of an impact on all the people who know something about music. Gladwell is very much taken with Kenna. He writes, "people who truly know music (the kind of people who run record labels, go to clubs, and know the business well) love Kenna. They hear one of his songs and in the blink of an eye, they think, Wow!" But for all the high-powered support, Kenna's albums have so far been a disappointment in terms of sales. Gladwell draws the conclusion that Kenna has suffered from being taken out of context in the market research that goes on in the modern music business. People listen to a short clip of his music without getting the full picture. Gladwell writes,
The people at the Roxy and the No Doubt concert saw him in the flesh. Craig Kallman had Kenna sing for him, right there in his office. Fred Durst heard Kenna through the prism of one of his trusted colleagues' excitement. The viewers of MTV who requested Kenna over and over had seen his video. Judging Kenna without that additional information is like making people choose between Pepsi and Coke in a blind taste test.
Later in the book, Gladwell brings in another example from music, this time of the classical variety. A long-time problem in classical music has been the gender disparity. Women simply weren't getting very many jobs in orchestras. Eventually, someone at the Munich Philharmonic came up with an ingenious solution. People auditioning for the job did so behind a screen. Voila! Women started getting the jobs at far higher rates. Gladwell quotes Julie Landsman from the Metropolitan Opera, "I've been in auditions with without screens, and I can assure you that I was prejudiced. I began to listen with my eyes, and there is no way that your eyes don't affect your judgment. The only true way to listen is with your ears and your heart." Gladwell notes of all this that, "When the screen created a pure Blink moment, a small miracle happened, the kind of small miracle that is always possible when we take charge of the first two seconds: they saw her for who she truly was."
But then, why didn't the people in the market research surveys see Kenna for who he truly was? None of the music industry experts were claiming that Kenna is making music for the select few, they were claiming that Kenna has what it takes to be a hit maker. Sure, his music might straddle a few categories but there are plenty of stars and hit makers in the history of popular music who've done the same. The whole goddamn point of making pop music is that people listen to the song on the radio or wherever and like it. People listen to Kenna's music and some like it, but a lot more simply don't care for it. Why isn't the market research situation a perfect Blink moment for judging Pop goodness? For some reason, in the case of Kenna, Gladwell thinks that we need more information, more time, a more rounded experience. But with the classical musicians you create the Blink moment by taking information away. Of course, even in the classical music example Gladwell never suggests that the judges are making their decisions in the first two seconds. In fact, they are listening to a whole piece, they've simply been prevented from making certain presuppositions by the screen. Really, I'm not at all sure why Gladwell calls this a "perfect Blink moment." It partially contradicts everything he is trying to say about the first two seconds and it is in complete contrast to the Kenna example, which is itself an utterly muddled attempt to apply the Blink lessons to a real world scenario.
Every story in the book falls apart in these ways when you break them down and ignore all of Gladwell's bells and whistles. They simply do not go where he is trying to make them go.
Really, Gladwell is simply amazed and flabbergasted by how we manage to make judgments at all. There is no shame in this. Human judgment is a fantastical thing. But for Christ's sake Malcolm, we've all known that for a very long time. In an act of hubris, chutzpah, complete stupidity, or a combination of all three, Gladwell comes out and admits as much in the Afterword to the book. I quote the paragraph in its entirety.
What was that magical thing [the ability to make the right decision]? It's the same thing that Evelyn Harrison and Tom Hoving had when they looked at the kouros, and that Vic Braden had when he watched someone serving and knew if the ball was going to go out. It's the kind of wisdom that someone acquires after a lifetime of learning and watching and doing. It's judgment. And what Blink is—what all the stories and studies and arguments add up to—is an attempt to understand this magical and mysterious thing called judgment.
What? Judgment is an ability to apply a lifetime of learning and watching and doing to particular instances? That's the great insight of Blink? That's what all the portentous talk and self-aggrandizing tone was all about? That's what the guru wants to tell us? The thing that every single fucking human being on planet earth over the age of twelve has already figured out?
The truly maddening aspect to all this hooey is that Gladwell is not that far away from a respectable point. There is a long tradition in Western thought (and other 'thoughts' besides) of puncturing the claims of human knowledge and reminding us that most of what we know comes down to a matter of know-how and the 'knack'.
One of my favorite figures in the history of marginal thinkers is the ancient Greek skeptic Sextus Empiricus. Sextus was fed up with the lofty claims of the Platonists and the Aristotelians and wanted to show that human knowledge was a more pedestrian thing. He subjected every philosophical claim to a series of withering cross examinations that inevitably exposed those claims to charges of circularity and begging of the question. It was good stuff. Let us cure ourselves, he suggested, of the will to absolute and objective knowledge and let us admit that we do know some things and that we're not always so sure exactly how we know them. He was aiming for ataraxia, or an unpurturbedness of mind. His favorite story was of the painter Apelles, who, striving too hard to figure out how to paint the foam coming from a horse's mouth, threw his painting implement in disgust and, lo and behold, it dashed against the wall in a perfect representation of the foam. The point being, when we go outside of ourselves we forget how to do the very things we have always known how to do all along. This is Gladwell's point as well. Simply living in the world gives us skills, a set of practical tools by which to continue living in the world. Wittgenstein was wont to make the same observation. He says famously that "judgment comes first." In short, we already know what we're doing before we do it and the giving of reasons tends to be an a posteriori affair.
That's the real and only insight (if we can call it that) to Gladwell's flimsy book. As human beings we do acquire a capacity to deal with the world and we often tend to make the right decisions without fully knowing why. Experience gets embedded. We act. A kind of learned instinct takes over. In our hubris, we try to codify this ability into doctrines and methodologies and systems of thought. Sometimes there is reason to do so. But in the end we shouldn't pretend that our vast acquisition of data and knowledge has allowed us to jump outside of ourselves. We don't have a God's eye view of things. We're in the mix, in medias res, and the fact that we even manage to survive from day to day is at least weak proof that we know one or two things about the world.
But for the skeptics and empiricists and nominalists and pragmatists, this realization has a melancholy side as well. Not knowing exactly how we know things is part and parcel, so far, of the essence of the human experience. Only a charlatan pretends that there is magic in it. In fact, the human condition, marvelous as it is, is also a depressing nightmare. The crap-shoot of judgment has us perpetually hanging on the edge of an abyss.
Which brings us back to Gladwell the huckster. Gladwell dresses up all of his "realizations" in fancy clothes and too much make-up. He gives himself powers that he doesn't have. He pretends to have sorted things out that he hasn't sorted out. He imagines a possible control, and pretends that he has achieved that control. All the while telling people, whispering into their ears, precisely the kinds of things they would like to believe. And then (it must, I'm sorry, be said) he goes on wildly lucrative corporate speaking engagements spinning out the same titillating stories combined with his shoddy conclusions. I even kind of hate, I must confess, the way he looks. His hair all scruffed up just so. His cute little suits. It makes the skin crawl.
Frustratingly, Gladwell ends the book with a reasonable and humane suggestion. It even managed to numb my hate for a short time. He suggests, in reference to the blind auditions that have created gender equality in the classical music world, that the justice system might benefit from the same approach. He asks, "What if we put screens in the courtrooms? … we know that what we see—particularly when it is the color of someone's skin, or gender, or age—does not always aid understanding." I don't think gender or age really has much to do with perverting justice in the American judicial system. But color, unfortunately, still does. Reducing the effect of racial bias would go a long way to balancing the scales. And Gladwell's suggestion for doing so is simple, practical, and damn well might be effective. But it has nothing to do with what he's been talking about for the previous 250 pages of the book. His judicial solution isn't about trusting our snap judgments, but about trying to mute them. It isn't about training ourselves to be clever about detecting the 'real criminal' in less than two seconds. Quite the opposite. Certainly he has left room in the book for the negative lesson, for the sense that we have to know when it makes sense to put the brakes on our adaptive consciousness. But that too is disingenuous. Blink is supposed to be about the power of the snap judgment. It is supposed to be about the wonderful things that happen when we think without thinking. And in the end, he tells us, if you want a little justice, best to give yourself some time to really think it through. The nicest thing that can be said about Malcolm Gladwell is that he doesn't even really believe his own mental garbage. If he is salvageable as a human being, it might be for the simple reason that he's a bad fraud.
Posted by Morgan Meis at 01:04 PM | Permalink