Skip to Content


Unamazing insights

Four years ago, we learn from this book’s jack- et, Malcolm Glad- well ‘was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People’.

21 October 2009

12:00 AM

21 October 2009

12:00 AM

What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures Malcolm Gladwell

Allen Lane, pp.410, 20

Four years ago, we learn from this book’s jack- et, Malcolm Glad- well ‘was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People’.

Four years ago, we learn from this book’s jacket, Malcolm Gladwell ‘was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People’. As Gladwell himself might ask, ‘Is what Time says really significant? And what is significant?’

Gladwell is significant, all right. Not only is he a staff writer on the New Yorker but he wrote the bestsellers Blink and The Tipping Point that made him millions and — here is more significance — put him number one on the New York Times’ bestseller lists. What is Gladwell’s secret? Like many New Yorker writers he gives the impression, usually in great detail and carefully fact-checked, that he really knows. Not only knows, but is going to let you know, too, so smoothly that you will barely need to think. I remember an article in the New Yorker (not by Gladwell) about a cemetery for runaway slaves on New York’s Staten Island in which some poignant forgotten history was unveiled. In a profile of Noam Chomsky, usually unassailable in his genius, he was left for dead as a human being.

But Gladwell doesn’t just know. He also tells us what we think or believe and then tells us how right or wrong we are. Here he is talking about Blink:

There are lots of situations — particularly at times of high pressure and stress — when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgments and first impressions offer a much better means of making sense of the world.

And about The Tipping Point:

I’m convinced that ideas and behaviours and new products move through a population very much like a disease does. This isn’t just a metaphor, in other words. I’m talking about a very literal analogy. One of the things I explore in the book is that ideas can be contagious in exactly the same way that a virus is.

Did you just hear a little voice saying ‘but I knew that already?’

You may hear such voices frequently while reading What the Dog Saw, a collection of what Gladwell says are his favourite New Yorker pieces. Curiosity about other people’s work, he says in the preface, ‘is one of the most fundamental of human impulses’. Here is another little voice moment: is that true? As fundamental as sex, hunger, fight or flee? And now another: ‘How should we think about homelessness, or financial scandals, or the crash of the Challenger?’ How about sympathy, rage, and horror? Astoundingly, Gladwell says, ‘Alone, I don’t know what to think about the Challenger crash. It’s gibberish to me.’ But I knew years ago when it was shown, as Gladwell reminds us here, that a faulty rubber seal brought down the Challenger. True, he shows (also well known) that this was a serious flaw in quality control but insists that accidents will always happen, no matter what. He traduces us by observing:

Our stated commitment to safety, our faithful enactment of the rituals of disaster, has always masked a certain hypocrisy … We don’t really want the safest of all possible worlds.

Why not? Surely, the important word here is ‘possible’. We want safety. It is normal to check for it as carefully as possible at that moment. If the experts skimp, and there is a disaster, we say they haven’t done what was possible.

There are other not so surprising assertions. That the secret of really good school results depends on good teachers more than on money and class sizes. Indeed. That often very good American college football backs do not succeed in the professional game because the pro game is too different. Indeed again. Gladwell asserts that identifying such teachers and football players is difficult. Why should that be? Put them in a classroom, or on a football field (against other pros) and watch them.

How about technology? Can it lead us astray? (I hear the little voice already.) At the beginning of the first Gulf war, the US sent fighter jets to destroy the missile sites from which Iraq was launching Scuds at Israel. Because of their fabulous cameras, the Americans claimed that the raids destroyed 100 launchers. But after the war they dispatched a team to test the effectiveness of the raids. ‘The actual number of definite Scud kills, the team said, was zero.’ What were ‘killed’ were decoys. The lesson? ‘Pictures promise to clarify but often confuse.’ Wait. Didn’t anyone count the number of Scuds still attacking Israel?

On a related theme, Gladwell seeks to amaze us with the failure of the US bombing of Germany to stop war production. The US had the fabled Norden bombsight, a device so secret that it was kept locked up until put on bombers just before take-off for Germany. Almost 100 bombers were lost in two raids over Schweinfurt where they manufactured ball bearings vital for making planes. After the raid General Henry Arnold boasted, ‘Now we have got Schweinfurt,’ and thus the ball bearings. After all, the Norden could ‘put a bomb in a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet.’ How true. The raids hit the ball bearing factory. The Germans, however, had plenty of ball bearings and could import more from Sweden and Switzerland. Anyway, this is not news. John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist, was asked by President Roosevelt to judge the efficacy of Allied raids. Galbraith enraged the service chiefs by reporting that, despite the raids, war production in both Germany and Japan went up. About the ‘Schweinfurt problem,’ which extends to mammograms, Gladwell must tell us that ‘Seeing a problem and understanding it, then, are two different things.’ I just heard that little voice.

Ever dazzled by expertise, Gladwell tells us about Cesar Millan, a Mexican dog- whisperer and some celebrated dog academics. He passes on some of their wisdom about dogs: ‘Look at him straight on and he’ll read it like a red flag.’ Golly, my whippet Lily must be a freak dog. If I do that she licks my nose.

Still, there are some nuggets in this collection. In ‘True Colors’ Gladwell tells us about Shirley Polykoff who thought up those famous slogans for Miss Clairol, the hair colourists: ‘Does she or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure.’ ‘Is it true that blondes have more fun?’ and ‘If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde.’ Inevitably, Gladwell soars high: ‘To examine the hair colour campaigns … is to see, quite unexpectedly, all these things as bound up together, the profound with the seemingly trivial.’ Actually, not. Why did Shirley Polykoff go into the hair colour business? She was being courted by the son of a rabbi. He told her his mother ‘says you paint your hair’, and asked, ‘Well, do you?’ Shirley could imagine the actual Yiddish words: ‘Fahrbt zie der heuer? Oder fahrbt zi nisht?’ — ‘Does she colour her hair or doesn’t she?’

Show comments