A few weeks ago, reader James Mitchell reviewed Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Now book_reader (Gary Cornell) writes with a very different take on Blink. "When I finished this book I was impressed. Then I blinked -- and realized that I was taken in by its surface attractiveness. After the initial glamour wore off, I was left deeply unsatisfied. This book is over-hyped, and so underperforms. The point of this book can be summed up as: "Trust your intuitions. Well, not quite; trust them, if and only if they are good." Gladwell tells lots of anecdotes to indicate that sometimes less is more. But of course he also tells anecdotes that tell us sometimes less is less." Read on for the rest of Cornell's thoughts on the book.
I wonder why is this book so popular. Any reasonably intelligent person, especially one with a penchant for Dilbert cartoons, already knows what the author is getting at. For example, the (fun) chapter on Warren Harding where Gladwell points out that this terrible president became president because he looked so presidential, is nothing more than the various Dilbert cartoons on "pointy haired boss" writ large. Scott Adams said it better in just a few panels: because we intuitively equate certain kinds of look and feel with positive qualities: tall people do better, beautiful people do better. Or, to put it another way: human beings tend to be shallow and stupid, and prone to letting their unconscious rule them at times when they shouldn't. Why? Because as he says: "our unconscious attitudes may be utterly incompatible with our stated values." (As he points out, the number of women in orchestras went up dramatically when blind auditions became commonplace.) So trusting our intuitions may lead to incorrect conclusion. Except when they don't.
Forget Dilbert cartoons for a second: all this book does is bring attention to a phenomena that should surprise no one, least of all someone who has had any contact with research scientists, research mathematicians or inventive computer scientists. It simply tells us that smart people can have really good intuitions about problems that emerge in a "blink." He then coins a word for this phenomenon: "thin slicing." Whoopee, a new word for an old phenomenon. When I was a research mathematician, we used to call it a "sense of smell." I like our term better, much more concrete.
I can't remember how many times I was sitting in front, or for that matter was myself in front, of a blackboard, writing something down, and overheard people saying "that doesn't smell right," or "that smells good." If it didn't smell right, we took another path to the proof, or made another conjecture. If it did "smell right," we tried to prove it or look it up. How developed your sense of smell made up a great difference in what you accomplished. Trouble is, at least in mathematics, the field I am most familiar with, nobody ever figured out how to develop a person's sense of smell: that's why so few people ever did much research beyond their Ph.D. And nothing in this book will help you do so. Or, take chess: anyone who has watched grandmasters play speed chess and looked at the amazing beauty of some of these games knows that quick pattern matching is one of the keys to their amazing talents. Car salesman who can read people do very well, etc. Intuition is a great thing -- if it is good intuition.
Anyway, I am of course pleased to have discovered that what I and every scientist/mathematician had been doing, probably since the days of Archimedes, is "thin slicing." I'm being a little harsh actually: I did find parts of this book worthwhile: the parts where he describes attempts to algorithmatize good intuition (such as the amazing work by Paul Ekman on teaching the understanding of facial expressions so as to help us see what's really going on "in there"). Of course, this isn't new either: the expert-systems approach to artificial intelligence has tried to do this with varying amounts of success. He highlights what is actually one successful example of this approach in the book without pointing out that this is actually old hat: heart attack detection from the constellation of symptoms that will present themselves in an emergency room. What he doesn't say is that there have been many other interesting approaches for automating the intuitions great clinicians have about medical diagnostics that go back at least thirty years.So there is some good to this book. We should try not to use the intuitions of the many, but rather understand, learn and ideally, algorithmitize the intuitions of the few. The only trouble is the importance of this was described far more beautifully 90 or so years ago by the great philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead in one simple paragraph from his great book "An Introduction to Mathematics:
"It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle--they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments."
In sum, this is not so much a bad book as one that is much ado about nothing. "Know that your intuitions can be useful, but take your intuitions with a grain of salt" doesn't seem all that insightful to me. Come to think of it, I think my mother told me this.
I'd go further, actually: calling this is a book is simply to acknowledge its appearance between a single cover: it's essentially a collection of New Yorker articles with all the virtues and vices that that magazine is known for. All the sins of Gladwell's previous best seller The Tipping Point are written larger and are more obvious here. He describes, but gives little insight into the phenomena of intuition. Likewise, he rarely tells you how to take advantage of intuition when it arrives (the fatal flaw of the Tipping Point). Personally I suggest that we try harder to algorithmatize intuitive genius, by those rare individuals who have it, and thus follow Whitehead's intuition on how to make civilization progress.
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