Review of “What the Dog Saw” by Malcolm Gladwell

What the Dog Saw is a compendium of nineteen essays by Gladwell that were previously published in The New Yorker. There are three categories of stories: biographies about “minor geniuses,” the hazards of particular theories of interpretation, and the shortcomings of the art of prediction.

Part I demonstrates Gladwell’s main strength: his ability as a raconteur to tell a good, entertaining story. He profiles the inventor of the Vego-matic, the ad exec who came up with the Clairol slogans, and a gourmet ketchup entrepreneur, inter alia. These stories are fascinating, and delightful.

One wishes Gladwell would just stay away from science, but he can’t seem to resist. In Part II, his stories involve studies: cancer research, brain research, economic research, etc. Before you know it, he’s slipping back into his tendencies to cherry-pick data, conflate correlation with causation, and use anecdotal observations to confirm his theories.

He continues this trend in Part III, with an overview of how difficult it is to predict success in fields ranging from football to teaching to the identification of serial killers. The essay on serial killers is perhaps the most amusing in a meta sense, because he criticizes so-called “experts” in criminal profiling by using many of the same arguments one could use against his own forays into science. He mentions, for example, that profilers choose data selectively to fit theories, use generalizations, squeeze case studies into narrow conceptual boxes, ignore counterfactual examples, cite anecdotes as definitive proof, don’t use representative samples, and overstate their conclusions. Except for this particular essay, I’m afraid one could say the same about him!

I found “The Talent Myth – are smart people over-rated?” to be particularly bizarre. Could the collapse of Enron really be attributed to its having hiring too many smart people and giving them the freedom to innovate? Should we therefore expect similar meltdowns at IBM or Google? The essay “Blowup – who can be blamed for a disaster like the Challenger explosion?” is a recapitulation of the arguments of Boston College sociologist Diane Vaughan from her book The Challenger Launch Decision, which Gladwell calls “the first truly definitive analysis of the events leading up to January 28, 1986.” Considering that Vaughan’s conclusions are contrary to those of Nobel laureate Richard Feynman’s rather definitive (but apparently not “truly” definitive) analysis of the Challenger disaster in Feynman’s book, What Do You Care What Other People Think?, one would think Gladwell would at least mention it, but he does not. (In fact, in his one sentence about Feynman, strictly limited to Feynman’s testimony before the investigating committee, Gladwell implies Feynman thought O-Rings were the only problem, which was not the case at all.) In “Most Likely to Succeed – How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?,” Gladwell spends a lot of time expatiating on the story of one football player to establish that there is no correlation between being the best college football quarterback and making it as a pro. Nor, he says, can interviews reveal who will or will not make a great teacher. His conclusion is that we should therefore lower our standards:

“If college performance doesn’t tell us anything, why shouldn’t we value someone who hasn’t had the chance to play [football] as highly as someone who plays as well as anyone in the land?”

And as for teachers:

“Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before.”

…I’ll just be checking my pulse, and then I’m off for a job interview! … or a football game; I haven’t quite decided!

Evaluation: The essays that stick to facts and Gladwell’s own experiences are very enjoyable. There is no doubt he writes well and is rarely dull. However, I advise anyone who reads or listens to this book to “cherry-pick” from amongst the essays, and take the scientific allegations with a grain of salt.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2009

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17 Responses to Review of “What the Dog Saw” by Malcolm Gladwell

  1. softdrink says:

    Does this mean the trip home wasn’t as entertaining? Because when I saw you, you guys seemed to be liking this one!

  2. zibilee says:

    I won this book a few moths ago and haven’t yet read it, but I am looking forward to it. It will be my first book by this author. I will have to remember your comments on it when I do read it!

  3. Jenny says:

    This review neatly sums up a lot of what I think about Gladwell. He writes really well, but when you start to look closely at some of his claims, they fall apart a little. But damn, the man can construct a narrative.

  4. Steph says:

    I haven’t ever read a Gladwell book, in large part because of the problems you found with sections 2 and 3 of this book. I just know that his heavily biased interpretation of scientific studies (and mistaking correlation for causation) would drive me absolutely mad… After 9 years training as a researcher, I know I’d constantly be arguing with the book and possibly tossing it across the room every so often!

  5. bermudaonion says:

    I listened to the audio version of this and I think you’re right. His arguments sound really compelling, but when I think about them, I can’t help but wonder how factual they are.

  6. Sandy says:

    You know, you are truly the best person to review Gladwell’s books because you are so clear-minded. When I read his books, I get all fuzzy and dazzled and wide-eyed, and can’t see past his attempt at impressing me (which he does). I can’t tell what is a load of crap because I’m too busy with my mouth hanging open. He is SO entertaining, though, isn’t he?

  7. Barbara says:

    Sounds like this guy should stick with entertainment and stop trying to impress everyone with his theories. I can’t decide which would be more dangerous for you – teaching or being a football player. Hmmmm! 😀

  8. Emily says:

    I have the same issue with Gladwell, although he is genuinely entertaining – but the oversimplification starts to grate pretty quickly. He actually did a piece on This American Life about his, um, less than 100% news-driven approach to journalism when he was just starting out as a reporter, and it was hilarious! But then it ended & David and I looked at each other and were like “Huh. I wonder if he’s still doing that in his books.” I do not have great confidence in his reliability.

  9. Jenners says:

    Excellent well-balanced review. I do want to try him and I think this particular book might be a good starter.

  10. Lisa says:

    I think that perhaps I’ll just have to pass on this one. I don’t know that I could get past that kind of cherry-picking. I get quite enough of it with cable news programs!

  11. Alyce says:

    I’m impressed (and a bit envious) that you have such a wide knowledge of the subjects to catch the things that he is less detailed about. I really enjoyed this book, but in the case of the few that you had issues with, obviously my ignorance was my bliss. 🙂

  12. well, I do agree with him about teaching. 🙂

  13. Julie P. says:

    Great advice. I might get this one for my husband!

  14. Margot says:

    I’m sure glad we didn’t include Gladwell on any of our hiring teams back in my working days. I’d like to think we were a bit more intelligent than taking a pulse. Although when I think about it, there were a few people we hired that maybe we should have taken their pulses. 😉 I have Gladwell’s Blink still waiting for me to pick up. Some day. . .

  15. ds says:

    I’ve not read any of Gladwell’s books. Dare I hope he was being ironic with that remark about teachers????
    I do vividly recall both Richard Feynman’s testimony about the Challenger disaster and his essay in What Do You Care What Other People Think? (oh yes, I am a confirmed fan) and the barely controlled anger with which he confronted the committee, jabbing that O-ring toward them, and how palpable the emotion remained in the essay. One wonders what he would have said to BP…

    Enron hired too many intelligent people?!!! Guess I won’t be reading Mr. Gladwell anytime soon. Thanks for the warning!

  16. Staci says:

    I’ve been wondering if this author is for me or not. I shouldn’t write him off just yet but I’m still on the fence!

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