08:01:38 pm on
Friday 21 Jun 2024

The Mindlessness of Malcolm Gladwell
dr george pollard

Richard "Drumdee" Patterson, the music archivist, passed along an item by Luke Slattery called, "Dumb Is the New Daggy." (Weekend Australian, for 27 November 2004.) Daggy is slang for dirty. If you're daggy, you've got the dirt, an inside knowledge of what's hot and what's not.

If you're daggy, you're hip or aware.

Daggy for Slattery is how dumb people in the UK and USA are becoming. He mentions a slew of books that support his daggy. Dumb Brits and Americans are the new dirt down under.

Slattery believes the British and Americans are 21st century Philistines. Philistines were apathetic, sometimes hostile, to poetry, art and music. Philistinism is more nuanced than this black and white image suggests. In the wrong hands, the thesaurus threatens common sense.

Indifference doesn't imply dumb. Maybe it implies taste. Maybe it's a subtle revolt against colonizers. Maybe it's "I gotta work three jobs to keep body and soul together, and don't have time for anything else."

The books Slattery mentions are Frank Furedi, "Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone" from University of Toronto Press (2004); Francis Wheen, "How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World," a Perennial book (2004); Richard Posner, "Public Intellectuals: a study of decline," published by Harvard University Press in 2001 and Allan Bloom, "The Closing of the American Mind," from Simon & Schuster (1987). Others have written extensively about these books, and nothing bears repeating.

"Blink," by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown: 2004) is the newest addition to the list of such books. It may also be the most malicious. The novelty and insidiousness of "Blink" call for caution and concern.

The New York"Times" published an excellent review of "Blink." In the review, David Brooks summarizes the book as from "the author of 'The Tipping Point,' who explores the importance of hunch and instinct to the workings of the mind." Read the review for yourself on the "Times" site, and decide. Click for the New York "Times" review.

I read "Blink" in November. A bookseller friend had a copy, and passed it along. Afterward, I passed it back.

As in "The Tipping Point," Gladwell does not get it. He has the right key, but wrong key hole, to lift a rap from Steven Tyler. "Blink," as with "Tipping Point" and most of his columns for the "New Yorker," is akin to getting the old car ready for a long road trip.

You change the oil, check the brakes and tire pressure, tighten screws, test gaskets, fill up the gas tank and maybe do a quick run through the car wash. Packed and ready to go, the car won't move. In gear and pedal to the metal, it won't budge. You call Danny the mechanic. He rushes to your aide, knowing this is the big day and how important it is you and your family. Danny rechecks and rechecks, again. Everything is in top form. "Get in a give it a try," says Danny, "let me listen." You do as instructed. In a flash, Danny has found the problem, "Turn on the key." Packed and read to go, Gladwell invariably forgets to turn on the engine.

Every case Gladwell claims is a hunch is the result of years upon years upon years of preparation. The art experts who caught the fraud didn't randomly walk off the street into the Getty Museum; they had 100 or more years of combined experience. Why else would the Getty ask for their advice?

Did the Getty seek your council? Why didn't it? According to Gladwell, it's all a hunch and your hunch is as good as anyone who spent a lifetime studying art. I wonder if the Getty asked Malcolm.

Knowing survey respondents are Black unleashes a Tsunami of emotion. Everyone knows something about Black history. The knowledge that respondents are Black may unleash prejudice or empathy. Seasoned researchers know this fact, and that it's a reliable predictor of some survey responses. Not much hunching here, it is common sense and experience.

After watching and discussing conversations between partners, 2nd year university students can guess, correctly, who stayed together and who didn't. Street muggers view raw film footage of pedestrians and 95% of the time correctly pick those who've been victims of mugging. Again, applying the lessons of life is a better explanation than a hunch.

Each of us knows what works, generally, and what doesn't: we go forward from that point. For twenty years, Diane Warren has written pop hit after pop hit. "I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing," performed by Aerosmith in the movie "Armageddon," is rumoured to have earned her $20 million. Are her 38 number one hit songs coincidental hunches? Might she know what she's doing? According to Hollywood producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, she moves "with whatever happens in [music]. I think she is... the top of her game. .... Where [Diane] goes, the public goes." Surf her site and decide for yourself; Diane Warren. Is she hunch or hard work?

Phillip Zimbardo, Terry Nosanchuk and legions of Social Psychologists have shown that playing your hunch works, often very well, if you're prepared. Pull out your old textbook. Nosanchuk, for example, explains how social experience and subtle, subconscious clues create intuition or hunches. These experts give you a much better, easily accessible and more satisfying take on what Gladwell claims.

Bob Lefsetz, the music critic, wrote a forthcoming piece in "People" magazine in 13 minutes, but it rattled around in his mind for four days. Hardly a hunch, especially since Lefsetz writes around 2,000 words day on the music business. Lefsetz notes that Mick Jagger and Keith Richard wrote "Satisfaction" in 15 minutes. True, but, as reported elsewhere, Mick said the idea for the lyric had been kicking around in his mind for several months. It was certainly more than a hunch.

It's not surprising that we're good at doing life. We get lots of practice, and patterns tend to recur. Learning from a life of experience makes what Gladwell calls, hunches, actually informed decisions. Practice or experience renders some hunches on-the-mark. Gladwell hasn't grasped this fact, yet. He likely never will.

Itzhak Perlman, the renowned violinist, was approached by a stranger on a New York City street . "Excuse me," said the woman, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" Taken off guard, Perlman, who thought she wanted an autograph, blurted, "Practice, practice, practice." This is what we do, all the time.

In "Tipping Point," Gladwell equated epidemics, such as HIV/AIDS, with footwear fads. He also diddled with some long-standing social science ideas. He left these ideas undeveloped, as he pranced from topic to topic. Ergo, right key, wrong key hole. The same malady afflicts "Blink," a lack of follow through.

In "Blink," he trivializes you by reducing your life to hunches. The bus stations in Las Vegas and Atlantic City are jammed with men and women who had a hunch. The litter of city streets includes hearts broken because somebody had a hunch about the emotions of a lover.

Gladwell misses or grossly plays down the preparation that goes into a hunch. I don't recall him considering why the hunches of 20 year olds are less often on-the-mark than are those of somebody who's 40 years old. Why do experts, with extensive education and experience, hunch more effectively than, say, somebody randomly stopped in the street? Could preparation, familiarity or practice have anything to do with it? Gladwell seems to thinks not.

The best description of Gladwell is "seems." Though he declares to be answering a crucial question, he never takes much of a stand. Maybe "Commitment" will be the title of his next book.

I wonder where he got the idea for "Blink?" Was it a hunch that just crossed his mind? I have no idea, but my hunch is he looked high and low for a viable idea to follow up the success of "Tipping Point." There's no hunch in his decision; it's shrewd use of knowledge. He doesn't take his own advice.

Howard Lapides, a LA talent manager, agrees with the criticism, but offers an explanation. "My hunch," he says, "is Gladwell came up with his hunch theory after years of education and [practice. He] learned you have to have a second work well underway because if your first is a hit [the publisher and public] will want more, now."

"The Tipping Point" was a hit. There was certainly clamour for a follow up. "If it took ten years to write your first hit," says Lapides, "you'll have maybe six months to do a follow up".

"I know this hunch," adds Lapides, "from thirty years of experience".

"We'd tell our comedians," he continues, "to have three monologues ready before you showcase for the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. You need a year to work up one good routine. If Johnny likes you, you're back in three weeks. Best be ready."

"Those who didn't take advice, might do well first time with Johnny, but had nothing to follow up. This is 'The Second Shot Syndrome.' The Tonight Show would rebook them. If they declined, the show would never ask again. If they appeared and fell flat, the show would never ask them back. Either way, it was career disaster.

"I think [Gladwell] and "Blink" suffer severe 'Second Shot Syndrome," concludes Lapides. "But it's just my hunch." He's too kind by a half.

Gladwell plays into the "dumbing down of [pick a country]" fad, so popular these days. "The Tipping Point" worked the same angle, but wasn't as obvious.

He's right on the money, though. Tens of thousands of people will part with $20 bills so they can read how their life has been a total waste. All that preparation; those years in school, endless hours learning how to get along with friends, reading those boring manuals at work, gone for naught. All you had to do was play a hunch.

Gladwell invites you to pay to read, page after page, that you're an idiot. Don't do it! He has a right to his opinion, but not your pocket money.

A book editor, with considerable experience, is less forgiving of Gladwell. He's "completely overrated," she says. "I am so tired of his articles in the 'New Yorker.' He is a good writer, but he uses the same format [repeatedly]."

His format involves a "personal story, pulled back to general comments, then veering off in another direction (just to confuse you a little), pulling back to the generalizations and ending with the personal story, ... having qualified [what] he just said with 'hey, it's not true all the time but there is some truth in what I say!'"

This, she concludes, is "a little game he plays with readers, one that makes him look humble, yet authoritative!" The point of the game is to entice readers to part with their pocket money, and Malcolm in a muddle does it well.

Two hundred years ago, Georg Hegel, the German philosopher, urged we "stop for a think." We stop for lunch. We stop to go to the washroom. Why not stop for a think.

Gladwell urges you to keep moving: grab a copy of his book, plunk down $20 and read his words, but don't think about his off-the-mark point. The last thing Gladwell wants you to do is think about what he writes. If you do stop to think, you'll ask for your money back.

Gladwell and his Australian fan, Luke Slattery, believe dummies populate America and the UK. They take the gimmick of the "Dummies Guide to ...." books literally. Those who can self-depreciate, in jest, reveal depth of character. Those who prey on our jest, take our pocket money. "He who steals my purse steals trash."

The Brits and Yanks are not Philistines. They're neither dumb nor indifferent. Music sales soar, in the USA and UK, despite wails of woe from a greedy industry. DVDs fly off the shelves. Half the population of the UK and USA regularly read a book. Museum attendance is up every year. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), in New York City, has a $20 entrance fee, as much for crowd control as cash flow. (See Charles Rozen and Henri Zerner "Red-Hot MoMA," in the New York Review of Books for 13 January 2005.) These aren't the acts of Philistines, but of the reasonably literate. The dummy label reeks of self-righteous snobbery; it's pure vanity.

The level of cultural literacy in the UK and USA is respectable. Slattery based his opinion on a few best-selling books. Who buys and reads these books? The women and men thumped, page after page, for their ignorance, that's who. This makes them marks, not dummies.

Think about it. A Philistine wouldn't read a book: to do so is contrary to principle. No one who reads a book, especially one hypercritical of the reader, can be a Philistine. It doesn't compute. The claim lacks merit.

To call such a reader intellectual might be a stretch in the opposite direction, but it's more apropos. A reader, who is intellectually inclined, is curious. S/he seeks information, and accepts a thumping, page after page, to satisfy that curiosity.

At its most simple, information is a difference that makes a difference. I give you ten dollars. You're now different: you're richer by ten dollars. You can go to a movie on "$10 Tuesday." You won't have to stay home and watch sitcom reruns. A difference, $10, leads to a second, social, difference: being able to afford to go to the movies.

There you will at least mingle with others, if not socialize and engage them. This is a good thing.

Gladwell and others offer partial information. They fulfill the initial difference. Your decisions are merely hunches. Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT) scores are tumbling. The media are illiterate. A simple awareness of these facts makes a difference.

These authors do not, will not or can not go the distance. Anecdotes are not enough. They ignore how a factual difference makes a social difference.

Here are examples of what they ignore. Improve the quality of teachers to improve SAT scores. Show how media illiteracy is confusing; the bland leading the hopeful and curious. Use anecdotes to expose hunches, not merely to display writing skills.

Numb is a better label than dumb. The messages of the media are empty, and thus numbing. We spend so much time using media, their messages become part of us by osmosis. Numbness creeps on little cat's feet.

Media messages deprive listeners, viewers and readers of feelings and the urge for motion and emotion. If the media won't engage us, we seek back up gratification. Food seems the preferred back up gratification, at least in the USA. Authors who go on about obesity get the point; those who taunt about dumbness are out at first base.

"Seinfeld," the television show, promotes numbness. Now permanently in reruns, tens of millions of men and women watch it, often several times a day. "Seinfeld" is unabashedly about nothing. The story line (sic) involve middle-aged people waiting to die. Is that an acceptable role model?

Social marasmus is the leitmotif of "Seinfeld." So deprived of creativity, it is uber-creative; so empty it is full. "Seinfeld" is ultimate post-modernism. Nothing is everything and everything is nothing.

Reruns of "Seinfeld" sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. Cynical media moguls believe viewers are desperately jonesing on numbness, and urgent for a fix. Most television viewing is habitual; "Seinfeld" may be addictive. I don't have to tell you about the effects of addiction.

"Seinfeld" is a one trick pony. "Curb your Enthusiasm" is no better. Both shows flow from the infertile, angst-addled mind of the same fellow. After a few episodes, these shows explicitly mock the viewer. These, and many other shows, are 21st century snake oil and their creator is a 21st century Sam Slick.

What kept "Seinfeld" going for years? "Kramer," an ostensible afterthought, did the deed. The character was a curious child, full of hope, and thus counterpoint to a bad photocopy of Macbeth and two sides of Lady Macbeth. Shakespeare intended "Macbeth" to disturb for reasons two: brutality and cynicism. "Seinfeld" gets it right on both counts. The brutality is in how it numbs viewers and denies optimism about the future. We're all going to die. Let's practice being dead, 30 minutes a day, five days a week and twice on weekends. The cynicism is apparent.

We need to be couch potatoes sometimes. Numb is nice, but not all the time. A distraction is as good as a rest.

If we aren't wary, a time out swiftly morphs into passivity. Numbness is certain when diversion and white noise are all that's available, and we aren't on our guard. Numbness leads to passivity. Meaning dissolves in passivity as the dots disconnect. Facts lose context, and wear away. The ties that bind fade fast. You lose grasp of what's going on. A "Stepford World" is not out of the question.

The villain, industry, stalks a numb, ever more naive prey. The brave new world, envisioned by Aldous Huxley, is knocking on the door. While you're not looking, somebody will engineer a medicated paradise. Wait a minute; somebody did engineer a medicated paradise. Did you take your Prozac ,today? Like frequent fluer miles, you can trade free will for universal happiness and a long life (sic).

A more daring and salient call is for an active life, full of meaning. To super-size up or over-medicate isn't your duty. "Life," write Steven Tallarico and Richie Supa, "is a journey, not a destination." ("Amazing" ©1994 is published by EMI April Music, Super Supa Songs and Swag Song Music Incorporated through ASCAP).

Your duty is to see all the attractions in your life journey. Stay active. Ride the roller coasters. See what's what along the way. Find out where the long and winding road takes you.

There's no "corporate bill of rights." There's no constitutional guarantee that industry can sell harmful or poorly built products. A good citizen doesn't allow industry to dole out abuse in the form of addictive medications, unsafe vehicles or pollution. Industry wants you to think there are such guarantees, and Gladwell, Slattery and others play the cards for industry, if inadvertently.

The authors Slattery hails are remarkably out of step, but every cloud has a silver lining. Sometimes you just have look behind the fasade to find it. Pull back the curtain, and viola.

They remind us, subtly, of our moral obligation to be intelligent. Indirectly, they remind us it's wise to think about what we do. They remind us to notice and ponder what goes on around us. They remind us it's most fun to live an active and fully engaged life. They remind us to do our very best as often as we can. Fulfilling these basic obligations, if nothing else, ensures we live long and flourish with stout heart, free will and a strong mind.

Slattery reminds readers of these goals, though it doesn't seem his intent. He likely shares these goals, with his readers, but he's smug. He gets to pursue and fulfill these goals as he implies others are too dumb to do so.

These are worthy goals, but it takes steady nerve. Slattery, Gladwell and their lot know it's easier to take pot shots than be helpful. Don't, as a book buyer and reader, be a stationary target for the likes of these authors. Keep moving and going everywhere.

Ultimately, dumb is never daggy, although politicians and industry count on it. Numb is daggy sometimes: Marshall McLuhan liked to watch "Hogan's Heroes." Smart is daggy all the time: the only wool pulled over your eyes will be in that nifty new sweater you got for your birthday.

Okay, how smart are you? Darn smart I'd say. You got out of bed, made it to the computer, opened your e-mail, surfed to this site and read about 3,336 words to this point. That makes you darn smart, but it's only an indication of your potential.

Here's a feather to tickle your smarts. What's the purpose of soda pop? Ponder it for a moment. Put your critical abilities to work, just a little. You got it!

The purpose of soda pop is to make you want another soda pop. Pure water quenches your thirst. Soda pop makes you thirstier by depleting the level of potassium in your body. When you part with $1 for a soda pop, it should be for the taste, such as orange, cherry or root beer, not to satisfy a thirst.

Orange and grape juices are sold for nutritional value (sic). Wine, beer and spirits supposedly help loosen you up and peel back your inhibitions, and thus further social ends. Soda pop is intended to make you want another soda pop.

Your brain has a trillion neurons. About 88% are unemployed. Open your eyes, take note of what's going on and ask why. If nothing else, you'll help reduce unemployment among neurons, especially youthful neurons, and that's a good thing.

dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.

More by dr george pollard:
Tell a Friend

Click above to tell a friend about this article.