What does Malcolm Gladwell have in common with Glenn Beck, Adam Lambert, Ronald Reagan, Paul Krugman, John Grisham, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Jesus Christ? An uncanny ability to polarize, that’s what. (As for his tendency to invent categories of strange bedfellows, well, he’ll just have to share that dubious distinction with yours truly.) Gladwell and his book, Blink, have evoked praise from writers at The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, Time, and the Associated Press. He has also attracted criticism, sometimes from unlikely corners. Highly regarded Seventh Circuit Court judge Richard Posner dismissed Blink as “a series of loosely connected anecdotes, rich in ‘human interest’ particulars but poor in analysis.” More bitingly, he notes that “one of Gladwell’s themes is that clear thinking can be overwhelmed by irrelevant information, but he revels in the irrelevant.”
Harsh words are these, but one must consider the source. Who appointed Posner the judge of right and wrong? (OK, so Ronald Reagan.) And when’s the last time a casual reader willfully plunged into the dark recesses of a judicial opinion? For all of Posner’s eminent reasonableness, his jurisprudence has the popular appeal of an electrocardiograph. Interestingly enough (or not), just such a transmission is one of the subjects of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. “The ECG is far from perfect,” Gladwell informs us, and so are his analogies. But at least in the latter’s case, a quick skimming is still a decently pleasant endeavor and one whose proximate cause is curiosity, not heartburn. Mr. Posner, know thy audience.
This isn’t to say mild discomfort won’t accompany the book-reading. Blink deals in just the sort of Ripley’s Believe It or Not-esque anecdotes that shoo us scurrying over to Wikipedia for furious fact-checking even as we wallow in vague notions of gullibility. Like the counterfeit kouros sculpture to which Gladwell’s gaze continually returns, Blink “had a problem. It didn’t look right.” Whether this instinctive skepticism regarding the book’s simplistic reasoning can be attributed to thin-slicing or careful analysis, I know not. I am armed only with an incredulity that the long-term success of a marriage can be diagnosed within fifteen minutes, or that commission-seeking car salesmen discriminate not intentionally but due to the unconscious “kind of biases that many of us carry around in the nether regions of our brains.” And while I can believe that information overload actually reduces our ability to formulate practical solutions, I’m not so certain the answer is to “put screens in the courtroom” to protect defendants — who would remain “in another room entirely, answering questions by e-mail or through the use of an intermediary” — from race-, sex-, and age-based discrimination.
This Gladwellian resort to logical deus ex machinas has rattled many a critical reviewer. It is one thing to remind readers that “a black man [in Illinois] is 57 times more likely to be sent to prison on drug charges than a white man.” It is quite another to mount a defense of this same criminal justice system in the very next paragraph, in which Gladwell elaborates, “I don’t think the car salesmen in the study meant to discriminate against black men…Put a black man inside the criminal justice system and the same thing happens. Justice is supposed to be blind. It isn’t.”
A more generous take on law enforcement may not exist. In fact, while we’re at it, we might as well remind aspiring historians that the Holocaust’s targeted killing of Jews was nothing more than a slight statistical anomaly, and that the Ku Klux Klan’s public disgrace was due entirely to a silly cultural misreading of the burning of crosses on minorities’ front lawns. One would think that, on the occasion of the black-over-white incarceration multiplier reaching double digits, there may be sufficient evidence to suspect systemic abuse. But then, Malcolm Gladwell is nothing if not unsuspecting. In Blink, he argues that what we process in the first two seconds of any given event is often more valuable than the subsequent (and more detailed) analysis. His editors and proofreaders, God bless’ em, appear to have taken his advice quite literally.