Monday, February 18, 2019

Book Review: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Intuition is underappreciated. We like reams of repeatable data and validated statistics. As important as those are, they are perhaps less than half of the cognitive processing that we bring to problem solving. Of course, intuition is developed over time by experience that is informed by reason and tested by measurement. However, for the expert, whether a museum curator attributing an archaic statue or Marine Corps general repelling an invasion, intuition brings success. 

We all use it every day, especially when reading each other’s faces. Gladwell calls that “mind reading” because your face reveals your feelings—even if you try to hide them. It is “mind reading” also because making the face of an emotion triggers the same processes in the mind that external events would cause.
Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking
by Malcolm Gladwell,
Little, Brown and Co., 2005

Intuition also fails when it is under-informed. The classic “Pepsi Challenge” of the 1970s and 80s supposedly demonstrated that in a blind taste test, most people prefer the taste of Pepsi over Coke. And they did. But we do not drink beverages in single sips with blindfolds on. More to the point, the very average consumers had no training in tasting. Gladwell introduces us to the world of professional tasters. Through long training, they develop vocabularies and sets of measures that are integrated into their percepts. They become deeply knowledgeable about food. For them, Oreos have ninety attributes of appearance, flavor, and texture. On a scale of 1 to 15, how slippery is your mayonnaise?

But experts can be wrong if their expertise is derived from the wrong measures. Professional audiences were unenthused with The Mary Tyler Moore Show and All in the Family.  Gladwell advocates for a musician named Kenna.  (You can find him on YouTube, of course.) Kenna can’t get air time. But people who know music want his. He burst into the nightclub scene, shot his own videos, and was pursued by producers. But his music does not fit the radio genres. I listened to half a dozen on YouTube, all very good and all over the map musically.

Intuition is not omnipotent. It will not overcome physical barriers of time and space. That is what leads to the continuing string of tragedies where the police over-react and kill an unarmed person who is not threatening them. Their intuition is destroyed by the high-speed chase, the words and actions of other officers. Alone, forcing themselves to stop, they perceive the small slices that say “this man is not dangerous.” In those cases of wrongful harm, the police more closely resemble the functional autistic who is more interested in a light switch than a face. They have shut down parts of their brain thus denying intuition the opportunity to inform.

Malcolm Gladwell is a very popular writer. I only found out about his works recently while re-watching episodes of NUMB3RS. His name and his book, Tipping Point, are dropped in the Season 1 story, “Sniper Zero.” He is clear, concise, conversational, and insightful. He is a synthesizer, drawing together different stories to create a new narrative.

That brings a caveat. The presentation is not rigorous. Cook County Hospital in Chicago treats hundreds to thousands of people each day, most of them indigent and therefore without good medical support. A common problem is the man complaining of a heart attack. It must be taken seriously, but often is not an infarction. Sorting them out takes resources and erring on the side of caution requires even more bed space (and expense). Dr. Brendan Reilly began creating a database of case histories to serve a guideline in diagnosis. Reilly based his work on a previous effort by Dr. Lee Goldman who developed a mathematical model for cardiac symptoms. But Reilly met resistance, of course, from the ER staff cardiologists who did not want to surrender their expertise to an algorithm. Says Gladwell, "The algorithm doesn't feel right." But is that not the point of the book? Why would their intuition be less authoritative? This is likely just a simple misstatement. But I take it as a signal that Gladwell is offering us an array of interesting facts united by a thematic hypothesis. 

On the upside, Gladwell takes a mechanistic approach to solving the problems of social discrimination. He tells of how women finally made it into the major symphony orchestras when blind auditions became standard practice. From another source entirely I learned that India uses this to preclude geographic, ethnic, and religious bigotry from interfering with university placement. Examinations are anonymized. This week, I will again be a judge in the Austin Energy Regional Science Festival. I think that the suggestion has merit but I am not sure how to implement it in our case.


1 comment:

  1. I took the Pepsi Challenge in the 90s. I was 20 y/o and certain I preferred Coke. I picked Pepsi in the blind test. This book showed me why.

    It also introduced me to the Havard Implicit Bias test. I had some bias against people with darker skin. My son, who is 10, took it and had no bias.

    It doesn't stop people from moralizing about how people's racism is evil or from moralizing, even more stupidly IMHO, that it's wrong to admit there's racism and to want to reduce it. It gives a glaring example subconscious racism that's hard to face.

    I have heard Thinking Fast and Slow covers the same topic in a more scientific way, but I couldn't get through that book because I had already heard a lot of it from Blink. Also Gladwell is just easy and fun to read. Sometimes his stuff borders on empty calories or at least a healthful candy bar.


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