Archive for February 21st, 2005

Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell

Monday, February 21st, 2005

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I’ve been talking about Gladwell for almost a month now, so it was high time I actually read Blink. The “thin-sliced” summary? It’s interesting, but shallow.

By now, if you’ve read any of the interviews, or heard him speak on the radio, you probably know the premise of the book – that we should sometimes trust our unconscious brain and its ability to synthesize vast quantities of data to make decisions for us. He tells a lot of stories demonstrating how our unconscious brain can detect patterns far more quickly and accurately than our conscious brain.

He also delves a bit into when _not_ to trust the unconscious brain. Prejudices play a big part; what we “know” influences what we observe. The most convincing anecdote he related was the example of symphony orchestras which overwhelmingly hired male musicians up until relatively recently. Then women started earning a large portion of jobs. The difference? The symphonies put up screens so that the audition committee could only hear the music being played, without seeing the musician. Even though the conductors would swear up and down that they were not prejudiced against women, the screens proved otherwise, that the sight of a male musician actually affected how they heard the music.

Gladwell also notes that the standard dictum that “the more information, the better” is often wrong, finding instead that more information often paralyzes our brains with too many options. He relates the anecdote of an emergency room in Chicago, where the doctors had trouble diagnosing whether incoming patients were experiencing a heart attack. There are so many contributing factors to a heart attack that they could always find a reason why the patient might be in the middle of a heart attack, but also a reason why not. Finally, a researcher came up with a model that used only three variables to diagnose a heart attack. By ruthlessly cutting away all of the other factors that the doctors were using to construct stories on both sides of the question, the model actually achieved a much higher rate of success.

I was disappointed that the book was at such a light level. The entire book is in the pattern of this review so far: Gladwell introduces an idea, discusses an anecdote which illustrates that idea, and moves on. It made for a quick read (I literally read it in about three hours one day), but it left me feeling kind of empty. I was much more impressed with Sources of Power, which Gladwell references a couple times, because Gary Klein goes into detail into a model of the underlying decision-making process that makes a lot of sense to me.

I was also disappointed because several of the anecdotes that Gladwell used were unconvincing to me. In particular, he referenced the height study that I think is totally bogus. He also refers to Ted Williams’s insistence that he could see the ball hit the bat, and dismisses it out of hand. That may or may not be true, but there’s at least anecdotal evidence that Williams could. Not that Gladwell could know this, but I have a book called The Umpire Strikes Back, by Ron Luciano, an umpire who was similarly skeptical of Williams’s claim:

[Williams] claimed he could actually see the ball hit the bat. He said he could see if the bat hit one seam, two seams or missed the seams entirely. …I told him that was impossible. The human eye doesn’t work that precisely. Doctors knew it. Scientists knew it. Umpires knew it.

…In spring training, in 1972, he offered to prove it to me. Admittedly I was reluctant to go along with him. In his prime Williams had been one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, but at this time he was fifty-four years old. A hitter’s reflexes usually start fading in his mid-thirties, and in Williams’s case that was two decasdes earlier. I didn’t want to embarrass him by shattering one of his beliefs, but he insisted. With my head down, I followed him to a practice field. He covered the barrel of a bat with pine tar and stepped up to the plate. A hard-throwing rookie had been recruited to pitch to him. I took a deep breath, anticipating what was going to be a very sad moment.

The young pitcher threw a bullet and Williams hit a rocket to center field. “One seam,” he shouted confidently over his shoulder.

“Sure, Ted,” I agreed. I was just glad he was still able to hit the ball. Someone retrieved it and brought it over to me. One seam was covered with pine tar.

He hit another pitch. “About a quarter inch above the $#%$%$% seam,” he said.

That ball had a pine-tar scar just a quarter inch above the seam. He called five of seven perfectly, the most amazing display of hitting ability I’ve ever seen. (p.129)

Gladwell probably never read this book. But I don’t see why my anecdotal evidence is any less convincing than his :). Stuff like that and the height study started making me question all of the anecdotes that Gladwell was using, and since he never got beyond the shallow level of anecdotal evidence, it meant that there wasn’t much left. Richard Posner has a similar critique.

Final verdict: Interesting ideas, but not a lot of supporting evidence. I wouldn’t bother buying this book. Borrow it from me or from the library if you want to while away an afternoon and read some entertaining anecdotes. If you want a more serious examination of how to develop and trust one’s unconscious expertise, read Gary Klein’s Sources of Power instead.

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