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.
Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2009