I’ve read all three of Malcolm Gladwell’s previous books before; in order from most to least recent, there’s Outliers, Blink, and The Tipping Point. I’ve said in each review that I believe Gladwell’s books have generally improved as a function of time; as a columnist, his ability to adapt to a longer form of writing (where his point must be sustained for several hundred pages without diverting into obscurity) has evolved noticeably with practice.
But Gladwell has been writing for the New Yorker for about fifteen years now, and in that time amassed a much larger collection of short (the word here is relative) pieces than he has larger themed works. In a move designed both to make money (I’m sure) as well as disseminate his best work to those without the benefit of access to the New Yorker‘s last fifteen years worth of archives1, Gladwell collected his favorite pieces from that rag into a big, this time without concern for an overarching theme. It’s a collection of essays, though given Gladwell’s polished narrative style, it feels often more like a compendium of short stories by a particularly pedantic fabulist.
The formula here is unvaried from the Gladwell we know and love: pick several topics, as if pulled from a hat of audience-submitted errata, and then find some unifying principle which explains their common behavior, or to a less extent, in the excrescent tradition of “everything you know is wrong” books like SuperFreakonomics, explains why our commonly-held beliefs about the How? or Why? of the bespoke phenomenon is wrong or at least vastly incomplete. There’s a bit less of this latter form in What the Dog Saw, in stark contrast to some of Gladwell’s more recent books. In fact, the essays here seem like confrontational in their revelation and more like your nerdy friend explaining how tides work.
Its highlights include an exposé on ketchup, and why the general vinegary Heinz flavor we know and love has resisted encroachment on its market share in precisely the same way that yellow mustard did not when Dijon-style mustard exploded onto the American culinary landscape in the late 70s. The latter’s success may have less to do with the general superiority of the Dijon-style2 and more to do with the brilliant ad campaign rolled out by Grey Poupon—we all remember the Rolls Royce and the crisp, English “Pardon me… do you have any Grey Poupon?”—and in fact Gladwell’s essay is just as much a history of advertising geniuses and hopeful gourmet ketchup salesmen (with an aside about the history of ketchup generally) as it is about the way in which modern ketchup as it’s currently institutionalized manages to invoke all our various senses of taste, which may account in part for our resistance to new and different varieties of it.
Another essay—a republication of what appears to be his first column for the New Yorker—examines the space program’s various mishaps over the years, and—counterintuitively—why laying blame for disaster like the explosion of the Challenger is not as straightforward or satisfying as it may first appear, since it may have much more to do with the sheer statistical probability of failure in complex systems than with the fiendish ineptitude of Martin Thiokol3 or the arrogance of NASA bureaucrats.
Its title essay explains the (admittedly controversial) success of Cesar Millan, the “dog whisperer”, noting how the nuts and bolts of what Millan does in a course of training matters much less than the way in which he does it—that is, in a calm but assertive manner that doesn’t allow dogs to notice and “channel” any fear, uncertainty, or anxiety from its owners.
I can’t help but enjoy the friendly rivalry (or perhaps less friendly and more passive-aggressive) between Gladwell and Stephen Pinker. I have no idea when it began, but Pinker’s shot across the bow appeared in the New York Times. Notice the rising action which appears to compliment Gladwell without ever really speaking to his abilities as an author: he’s “indefatigably curious”, he’s “become a brand”, he’s “popular”, “prolific’; Pinker crescendos thus and peaks with the left-handed compliment that Gladwell is “a minor genius who unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and who occasionally blunders into spectacular failures.”
Ouch. Since Pinker is as well known for being a writer (an elucidator of science in the grand tradition of Steven Jay Gould, though perhaps less well known) as he is an intellectual, it’s no surprise that he leaps praise upon Gladwell for being an excellent writer with a knack for prose and the ability to explain complicated concepts in relative small spaces. But he more or less lambastes Gladwell for talking about things he doesn’t understand (which appears to be, well, everything, according to Pinker), and follows up with this jewel:
It is simply not true that a quarterback’s rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros, that cognitive skills don’t predict a teacher’s effectiveness, that intelligence scores are poorly related to job performance or (the major claim in “Outliers”) that above a minimum I.Q. of 120, higher intelligence does not bring greater intellectual achievements.
And that seems to be it as far as Pinker’s assertion is concerned; we are left to take it on his word (as an authority on linguistics, I suppose?) that the preceding sentence is true. With Gladwell, anyway, we at least get the benefit of a generously-sized narrative that leads readers from initial assumption to rebuttal (and sometimes to contrary conclusion, though not always). Of course Gladwell is not the most brilliant mind ever to put pen to paper; of course the act of writing science for a lay audience will have the consequence of allowing ambiguity where previously there was none. Additionally, it’s possible that Gladwell’s conclusions may sometimes be wrong; after all, he’s one man interpreting evidence as he reads it. But this is a risk one takes with any sort of popular science; it’s no reason to avoid Gladwell, and in fact I would call Gladwell one of the most interesting pop-sci writers working today.