Blankety Blink!

Malcolm Gladwell's Blink is still in the Amazon top 100 some two plus years after publication. It's also a badly written, deeply dishonest piece of crap - crap of a type which seems to be highly popular with the public. Obviously, my opinion isn't precisely universal. From the Amazon website blurb:

Blink is about the first two seconds of looking--the decisive glance that knows in an instant. Gladwell, the best-selling author of The Tipping Point, campaigns for snap judgments and mind reading with a gift for translating research into splendid storytelling. Building his case with scenes from a marriage, heart attack triage, speed dating, choking on the golf course, selling cars, and military maneuvers, he persuades readers to think small and focus on the meaning of "thin slices" of behavior. The key is to rely on our "adaptive unconscious"--a 24/7 mental valet--that provides us with instant and sophisticated information to warn of danger, read a stranger, or react to a new idea.
Gladwell includes caveats about leaping to conclusions: marketers can manipulate our first impressions, high arousal moments make us "mind blind," focusing on the wrong cue leaves us vulnerable to "the Warren Harding Effect" (i.e., voting for a handsome but hapless president). In a provocative chapter that exposes the "dark side of blink," he illuminates the failure of rapid cognition in the tragic stakeout and murder of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx. He underlines studies about autism, facial reading and cardio uptick to urge training that enhances high-stakes decision-making. In this brilliant, cage-rattling book, one can only wish for a thicker slice of Gladwell's ideas about what Blink Camp might look like. --Barbara Mackoff

Gladwell opens with the story of a supposed Greek statue, of the type known as a Kouros was checked out for purchase by the Getty Museum. Some objective geological and documentary checks appeared to suggest authenticity. Several art historians were apparently unimpressed. One said that he felt an "instinctive repulsion" from it. At about that point I was already feeling a bit of instinctive revulsion for the book. Gladwell's point was that the experts saw in a glance that there seemed to be something wrong with the statue. He hints, but does not document, that they had trouble articulating exactly what they found wrong with it.

I had planned to review the book in detail, but instead I will refer the interested reader to Richard Pozner's review in The New Republic. It is much better written than anything I could manage and very trenchant. A few tidbits:

One of Gladwell's themes is that clear thinking can be overwhelmed by irrelevant information, but he revels in the irrelevant. An anecdote about food tasters begins: "One bright summer day, I had lunch with two women who run a company in New Jersey called Sensory Spectrum." The weather, the season, and the state are all irrelevant. And likewise that hospital chairman Brendan Reilly "is a tall man with a runner's slender build." Or that "inside, JFCOM [Joint Forces Command] looks like a very ordinary office building.... The business of JFCOM, however, is anything but ordinary." These are typical examples of Gladwell's style, which is bland and padded with clichés.

Without the padding Gladwell would have written a pamphlet.

As one moves from anecdote to anecdote, the reader of Blink quickly realizes, though its author does not, that a variety of interestingly different mental operations are being crammed unhelpfully into the "rapid cognition" pigeonhole....

Taken together, these literatures demonstrate the importance of unconscious cognition, but their findings are obscured rather than elucidated by Gladwell's parade of poorly understood yarns. He wants to tell stories rather than to analyze a phenomenon. He tells them well enough, if you can stand the style. (Blink is written like a book intended for people who do not read books.) And there are interesting and even illuminating facts scattered here and there, such as the blindfold "sip" test that led Coca-Cola into the disastrous error of changing the formula for Coke so that it would taste more like Pepsi. As Gladwell explains, people do not decide what food or beverage to buy solely on the basis of taste, let alone taste in the artificial setting of a blindfold test; the taste of a food or a drink is influenced by its visual properties. So that was a case in which less information really was less, and not more. And of course he is right that we may drown in information, so that to know less about a situation may sometimes be to know more about it. It is a lesson he should have taken to heart.

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