Editorials on Economics

This is my review of Malcolm Gladwell’s What The Dog Saw. If I were to describe this book in a phrase, it would be ‘unsubstantiated interesting observations’. This is a compilation of Gladwell’s articles in The New Yorker and each is a standalone work in itself.

The first Gladwell book I read was (I think) The Tipping Point. I was impressed by his observations, and they seemed very legitimate at the time, what with all the anecdotal evidence he provided. I like to think I’m a bit more skeptical now, and less likely to be drawn to catchy pop science theories that aren’t based on rigorous studies.

Each essay in this book is independent and on a different topic. To me, there was a large disparity in quality as well. Some were well written, concise, and insightful; others were vague and rambling.

A couple of articles in particular really stood out. One was a study on the advertising campaigns of low price hair dyes in the USA a few decades ago, when hair color wasn’t very mainstream. The ads went from focusing on subtlety (“Does she, or doesn’t she?” being the tagline), to emphasizing personality (“Because I’m worth it”). Interestingly, the campaigns of different brands converged after a few years, and Gladwell asserts that this was because the target demographic of all the brands was essentially the same. Another article talks about how hormonal birth control, AKA the Pill- briefly- had the approval of the Roman Catholic church, before all birth control was deemed sinful. Here an alternative viewpoint is proposed- the Pill could have been labelled as a way to protect women from ovarian cancer, rather than as a contraceptive. It’s a very convincing argument, and I wonder if the Pope could be swayed by Gladwell’s scientific evidence.

Other articles are in familiar pop psychology territory- how to design effective recruitment interviews, the difference between choking and panicking, a comparison between child prodigies and late bloomers. But not all the essays are well thought out and researched. In one discussion about stock market modelling, a vague and confusing description contains a reference to ”igon values”! Any engineer worth her salt knows of Eigen values and their important role in linear algebra, and this casual misuse of a fundamental concept had me wondering how much, exactly, Malcolm Gladwell knows about statistics and mathematical modelling.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is a big fan of this author, and/or psychology and economics. It is best approached as a series of editorials; evaluate each one on its own merits. Proceed with caution, and take all claims and conclusions with a pinch of salt. A solid 3/5, would have scored higher if not for the Eigen value blunder.


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