I've got a natural streak of curiosity coursing through my blood. It's how I knew by fifth grade that I'd spend a chunk of my adult life working in science. It's why I attempted to engage people in conversation yesterday about the difference between what constitutes a beard and what constitutes a goatee. It's spending five minutes diligently shelling peanuts, then spending the next five minutes looking up what the biological need for those little red skins is. It's why I keep giving the "Freakonomics" podcast a chance. And it's why I keep dropping the "Freakonomics" podcast, as their presented data is often imprecise or incomplete or underexplained.

My inherent need to know why certain things are the way they are makes me a natural fit for Malcolm Gladwell's books. Gladwell writes pop-sociology books that examine societal trends, and he delights in pointing out areas where our collective assumptions may be leading us astray. I don't always fully buy into his assertions (see "imprecise/incomplete/underexplained" above), but at least they're always an interesting take on things. I just finished his most recent book (well, comparatively recent, as it was published in 2009), but instead of just focusing on that one, I thought it'd be handy to mention all of his work. He's always looking at the big picture. Why shouldn't I?

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000)

I read Blink first, and since I liked it so much, I backtracked to pick up this first one. The Tipping Point deals with how things (marketing campaigns, rumors, crime statistics, etc.) reach a point where they hit some sort of critical mass or societal boiling point. The most interesting section of the book deals with "The Law of the Few", which argues that a minute subset of people are responsible for the majority of information/trend dissemination. This, of course, was published before social media became a thing, and entities like Facebook have thrown quite an interesting wrench into the source of the stories, products, or causes you'd be most interested in. Another controversial section of the book has to do with the rapid crime decrease in New York City in the '90s. Gladwell posits that this is attributable to the "Broken Windows Theory"; that immediately attending to relatively small problems like subway graffiti or litter can have far-reaching consequences. This is one of those sections that doesn't quite pass the sniff test, but is definitely engaging, and fun to consider.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005)

This is the book that first turned me on to Gladwell's work. It deals with mental processes that work rapidly and automatically, and judgements that spring from relatively little information. This can be a strength, as in situations where going with your gut instinct is probably the best method of dealing with a problem. It can also be a weakness, as in assuming that everyone with a certain skin color will act a certain way. Again, the science behind his arguments isn't fleshed out enough to be wholly convincing, but there's something to be said that oftentimes, the brain can get overloaded with too much information, and acting on a bare minimum might be preferable. When "thin-slicing" works well, it has led to identification of forged art, just because something seemed off to the experts who glanced at it. On the flip side, we also get the story of an unarmed man sitting on his doorstep shot to death by four police officers operating on false assumptions. Split decisions affect all sorts of arenas, from dating to sports to gambling, and reading this book led to a lot of self-reflection about what I take for granted, and if anything can be done about preconceived notions and ingrained biases.

Outliers: The Story of Success (2008)

Ostensibly, this book is supposed to delve into the factors that contribute to high levels of success. Gladwell describes several examples, including Canadian hockey players, Bill Gates, and The Beatles to outline why certain people excel to such a degree in their chosen field. I say "ostensibly", because this book barely attempts to scratch beneath the surface. All that's really said is that successful people got to where they are with a combination of good luck and hard work. Pardon a simplistic response, but duuuuuuuuuuuuh. Aside from the perceptive question of how much talent is ignored by society, and what we can do about it, this book didn't really seem to have much to say, and involved the most grossly oversimplified science of the Gladwell series.

What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (2009)

This is the one I just finished. Rather than tacking a grand societal supposition like the other three books, What the Dog Saw is a collection of Gladwell's writings for The New Yorker. The theme tying all of the chapters together is an attempt to step into someone else's shoes, and see the world from a different perspective. It covers many interesting topics, from why types of mustard proliferate (while ketchup is comparatively stagnant), to the unfair discrimination against dog breeds, particularly pit bulls. Part of the reason this book works well is its compartmentalization and anecdotal tone - telling stories about Ron Popeil or the downfall of Enron carries much less of a burden of scientific evidence. The one exception is a contentious and enjoyable chapter about the over-reliance on criminal profiling, and how we may be pinning too many investigative hopes on what may turn out to be glorified fortune telling. It was a refreshing read after the disappointment of Outliers.

When I took a logic class in college, part of our final exam was to take any issue of "USA Today" and outline all the logical fallacies in the articles. There was never a worry that students wouldn't be able to find any; every issue was rife with them. That doesn't mean that "USA Today" doesn't serve a purpose, just that its writers don't represent the pinnacle of critical thinking. If social science is your career or your passion, you'd probably do well to avoid the Gladwell canon. As with Freakonomics, there are too many holes in his arguments and too much cherry-picking of stories that fit within his narrow framework. But just because Gladwell's books should not be used to understand or adapt social policy, that doesn't mean they're not worth checking out. All of them do a good job of making the reader re-examine why we do the things we do, and prompts us to challenge our assumptions. Whether you do or do not wind up agreeing with Gladwell's positions, I always think it's healthy to be able to approach a topic from multiple perspectives, and these books gave me that opportunity in spades.

The Tipping Point: B+
Blink: B+
Outliers: C
What the Dog Saw: B


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