Tag Archives: malcolm gladwell

My problem with TEDx

krugman
Battle of the Beards: Paul Krugman eyes his sometime bête noire, Ben Bernanke. TEDx talk at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Friday, February 15, 2013.)

It wasn’t until after all the speeches had ended and everyone was mingling around the makeshift bar outside that I finally made the connection: TEDx is just like church.

I can’t remember the first time I heard about TED, the conference series that emerged into the spotlight rather suddenly several years ago and has become a staple of the socially conscious set ever since. But I distinctly recall feeling mounting skepticism with each new mention of the organization, which was often expressed in near-mythic terms and was almost always unqualifiedly positive.

The first full talk I recall actually watching myself was Dutch General and then-Chief of Defence Peter van Uhm’s TEDx speech in the Netherlands in 2011. I’d been assigned the video for a graduate class in January of last year. The course was on the American military, and the TEDx talk I’d been instructed to watch was titled “Why I Chose the Gun.” Here’s how it started:

Well, ladies and gentlemen, first of all, thank you for giving me an applause before I even started. As the highest military commander of the Netherlands, with troops stationed around the world, I’m really honored to be here today. When I look around this TEDx Amsterdam venue, I see a very special audience: you are the reason why I said yes to the invitation to come here today. When I look around, I see people who want to make a contribution. I see people who want to make a better world — by doing groundbreaking scientific work, by creating impressive works of art, by writing critical articles or inspiring books, by starting up sustainable businesses. And you all have chosen your own instruments to fulfill this mission of creating a better world.

This, as I would soon discover, was as perfect a microcosm of the TED experience (TEDxperience?) as one could find. First, the establishment of his credentials; then, the obligatory salute to the audience; and, finally, the ode to the transcendent ideal of “a better world.” Continue reading My problem with TEDx

#46: Blink

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.