Monday, March 01, 2010
BooksFirst - February 2010
SuperFreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
What The Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell
There is a whole sub genre of non-fiction that I call Contrarian Sociology. The whole purpose is to demonstrate how conventional wisdom is wrong using some sort of analysis. By a publishing coincidence, the two masters of the form, Steven Levitt and Malcolm Gladwell each had have a new book out.
Steven Levitt in Freakonomics combined economic analysis with pop sociology to explore topics not normally associated with the dismal science. In SuperFreakonomics, Levitt and his writing partner Stephen Dubner take the same method and tackle topics even further afield. In a counterpoint to their original essay on the economics of drug dealing, this time they tackle prostitution. Only they don't come up with any insights that couldn't be gleaned from HBO's Hookers On The Point. They also interview exactly one high class hooker and she isn't any more enlightening that Showtime's Diary of a Call Girl.
Most of the chapters don't even have a single unifying theme and are just pastiches of various blog entries that sort of link together. Many of their 'findings' are very glib and not all that shocking. And when they venture out of the realm of economics, they get into deep trouble. Their chapter on global warming has come under particularly extreme criticism. I think because they spend so much of their time in the social sciences where the same data sets can have equally valid interpretations, the realm of hard science escapes them. They have a hard time distinguishing contrarianism with crackpotism. Just because something flouts the established thinking, that doesn't mean it is in inherently right.
More coherent is Malcolm Gladwell's What The Dog Saw which is actually a collection of his New Yorker articles. Part of the advantage is that these articles have all been vetted by the vaunted Bright Lights, Big City fact-checking department. The best items are the biographical essays where he goes into how someone created or changed an industry. These vignettes are insightful and clever.
That doesn't mean the book is flawless. Gladwell also tries hard to be contrarian even if it doesn't fit the facts. He makes a big deal over choking versus panicking which seems like a distinction without a difference.
In the latter part of the book Gladwell delves into more subjective territory. He spends several chapters discussing that traditional measures of talent and aptitude are poor indicators of actual success. These are themes that he will explore further in Blink and Outliers (reviewed by me here).
The problem with both of these books is that they try too hard. They are so determined to upset the established paradigm that they stretch facts, misconstrue data and leap through logical hoops to come up with new and exciting theories that don't always pan out. Sometimes the conventional wisdom is there for a reason and no amount of clever writing can turn some facts inside out.
What's worse is that these books are intellectual cotton candy. They taste clever and deep, but when you are done, the empty calories just run away. The books are good for some cocktail party conversation or water cooler talking points, but they really don't illuminate the universe.