SIGIA-L Mail Archives: [Sigia-l] Negative review of Blink
[Sigia-l] Negative review of Blink
Richard Posner's review of Blink in The New Republic made it sound like the book was based mainly on anecdotal evidence, poor reasoning, and a lack of willingness to consider alternative hypotheses. I don't agree with everything Posner wrote but he makes a convincing case that the book is problematic to say the least. I'm pasting part of the review since it isn't available online. For a full review you'd have to subscribe or get the latest issue from the library, I suppose.
by Richard A. Posner
Post date: 01.16.05
Issue date: 01.24.05
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
By Malcolm Gladwell
(Little, Brown, 277 pp., $25.95)
Click here to buy this book
There are two types of thinking, to oversimplify grossly. We may call them intuitive and articulate. The first is the domain of hunches, snap judgments, emotional reactions, and first impressions--in short, instant responses to sensations. Obviously there is a cognitive process involved in such mental processes; one is responding to information. But there is no conscious thought, because there is no time for it. The second type of thinking is the domain of logic, deliberation, reasoned discussion, and scientific method. Here thinking is conscious: it occurs in words or sentences or symbols or concepts or formulas, and so it takes time. Articulate thinking is the model of rationality, while intuitive thinking is often seen as primitive, "emotional" in a derogatory sense, the only type of thinking of which animals are capable; and so it is articulate thinking that distinguishes human beings from the "lower" animals.
When, many years ago, a judge confessed that his decisions were based largely on hunch, this caused a bit of a scandal; but there is increasing recognition that while judicial opinions, in which the judge explains his decision, are models of articulate thinking, the decision itself--the outcome, the winner--will often come to the judge in a flash. But finally the contrast between intuitive and articulate thinking is overdrawn: it ignores the fact that deliberative procedures can become unconscious simply by becoming habitual, without thereby being intuitive in the sense of pre-verbal or emotional; and that might be the case with judicial decisions, too.
Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist, wishes to bring to a popular audience the results of recent research in psychology and related disciplines, such as neuroscience, which not only confirm the importance of intuitive cognition in human beings but also offer a qualified vindication of it. He argues that intuition is often superior to articulate thinking. It often misleads, to be sure; but with an awareness of the pitfalls we may be able to avoid them.
As Exhibit A for the superiority of intuitive to articulate thinking, Gladwell offers the case of a purported ancient Greek statue that was offered to the Getty Museum for $10 million. Months of careful study by a geologist (to determine the age of the statue) and by the museum's lawyers (to trace the statue's provenance) convinced the museum that it was genuine. But when historians of ancient art looked at it, they experienced an "intuitive revulsion," and indeed it was eventually proved to be a fake.
The example is actually a bad one for Gladwell's point, though it is a good illustration of the weakness of this book, which is a series of loosely connected anecdotes, rich in "human interest" particulars but poor in analysis. There is irony in the book's blizzard of anecdotal details. One of Gladwell's themes is that clear thinking can be overwhelmed by irrelevant information, but he revels in the irrelevant. An anecdote about food tasters begins: "One bright summer day, I had lunch with two women who run a company in New Jersey called Sensory Spectrum." The weather, the season, and the state are all irrelevant. And likewise that hospital chairman Brendan Reilly "is a tall man with a runner's slender build." Or that "inside, JFCOM [Joint Forces Command] looks like a very ordinary office building.... The business of JFCOM, however, is anything but ordinary." These are typical examples of Gladwell's style, which is bland and padded with clich?s.
But back to the case of the Greek statue. It illustrates not the difference between intuitive thinking and articulate thinking, but different articulate methods of determining the authenticity of a work of art. One method is to trace the chain of title, ideally back to the artist himself (impossible in this case); another is to perform chemical tests on the material of the work; and a third is to compare the appearance of the work to that of works of art known to be authentic. The fact that the first two methods happened to take longer in the particular case of the Getty statue is happenstance. Had the seller produced a bill of sale from Phidias to Cleopatra, or the chemist noticed that the statue was made out of plastic rather than marble, the fake would have been detected in the blink of an eye. Conversely, had the statue looked more like authentic statues of its type, the art historians might have had to conduct a painstakingly detailed comparison of each feature of the work with the corresponding feature
s of authentic works. Thus the speed with which the historians spotted this particular fake is irrelevant to Gladwell's thesis. Practice may not make perfect, but it enables an experienced person to arrive at conclusions more quickly than a neophyte. The expert's snap judgment is the result of a deliberative process made unconscious through habituation.
As one moves from anecdote to anecdote, the reader of Blink quickly realizes, though its author does not, that a variety of interestingly different mental operations are being crammed unhelpfully into the "rapid cognition" pigeonhole. In one anecdote, Dr. Lee Goldman discovers that the most reliable quick way of determining whether a patient admitted to a hospital with chest pains is about to have a heart attack is by using an algorithm based on just four data: the results of the patient's electrocardiogram, the pain being unstable angina, the presence of fluid in the lungs, and systolic blood pressure below one hundred. There is no diagnostic gain, Goldman found, from also knowing whether the patient has the traditional risk factors for heart disease, such as being a smoker or suffering from diabetes. In fact, there is a diagnostic loss, because an admitting doctor who gave weight to these factors (which are indeed good long-term predictors of heart disease) would be unlikely to admit a patient who had none
of the traditional risk factors but was predicted by the algorithm to be about to have a heart attack.
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: Fri Jun 03 2005 - 03:48:43 EDT