What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures
Back Bay Books, 2010
448 pp., $17.00
The Age Demanded an Image
But Aristotle must have failed (as usual) to give his own audience any shocking news: these are elemental, interpenetrating parts of persuasion, present not only in every effective political and forensic speech, but also in my husband's case for keeping Bradley: He's a good dog; and imagine what he would go through, adjusting to a complete new house-hold at his age; and it makes sense to keep him, as his monitoring of everything shows his value as a guard dog, his frequent demands for walks will help us lose weight, etc.
But rhetoric landed more squarely in science writing than anywhere else, because it landed upside down. With the rules of evidence instead of moral and emotional appeals as the foundation, these other two stood on top, with more stability than ever before. It's therefore, in a sense, built in that scientists and their adherents write in moral, moving terms when they address the public. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould's attack on theories of human intelligence emphasizing genetic determinism was, in scientific terms, an attack on the misuse of statistics and other quantitative data; but his motives transparently included his anger at his opponents' use of "science" to justify racism. When I was a student in the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, the Science Writing program boasted recent biochemistry PhDs who saw no difference between championing the public interest and elucidating facts.
That Malcolm Gladwell, as the leading popular science writer of this generation, stands outside this mutually counter-balancing Aristotelian structure is disquieting. First of all, he deals only in passing with the hard sciences, which have tougher evidentiary roots, and he does not seem alert to the squishy, multi-variable character of most problems in his soft home ground. But such alertness wouldn't even be germane. Many of his "minor geniuses" are entrepreneurs, social engineers, or both, and their ties to academic research are suspiciously loose in some cases (given the claims they make to objectivity and authority), suspiciously tight in others (given that the academy is funded mostly by taxes and charity). Their explanation of their means and goals to an old-fashioned probing journalist would not be sympathetic, but their attempts to prove what they say about their skills and achievements would not be convincing.
Ethos, therefore, does not have a leg to stand on. Gladwell himself is not just allergic to traditional ethical discourse; the threat of it sends him into a sort of intellectual anaphylactic shock: in What the Dog Saw alone, he writes the blame out of the Enron scandal, the missed warnings about 9/11, and the Challenger disaster. Gladwell's essay about this last tragedy has, in fact, a decisive counterweight in the popular media: Richard Feynman, the greatest physicist alive at the time, summarized the accountability by dropping O-rings into ice water at a press conference. This showed that, contrary to their manufacturer's claim, they could become inflexible in predictable atmospheric conditions, allowing a fuel leak from the joints they were supposed to be sealing. The Space Shuttle's design and operation weren't a hopelessly complex system to Feynman (hopeless complexity being Gladwell's standard plea, even though he acknowledges that complexity can be artificial and a blind)—nor to the public, when a truly expert, objective scientific communicator stepped forward.
These dismissals leave Gladwell a big empty space to fill with pathos, and as a dazzling writer and a supernice guy (active in dog rescue!), he would do that job proud in a fictional genre. With his sympathy for ambition and inventiveness, his delight in eccentricity, and his open-mindedness coupled with suspicion of cant, he brings readers very close to his subjects—or to his own sense of them.
This wouldn't matter, if science writing could properly be about either. But the drama of science is about the future of the planet, so I'm queasy when I think how many readers have been caught up instead, for example, in the story of Chris Langan, the author of the unpublished "Cognitive Theoretic Model of the Universe." By-the-book treatment prevented him from completing a BA at Reed College or Montana State University thirty years before Gladwell wrote about him. According to Gladwell, Langan should have been cut some slack: look at what the privileged Robert Oppenheimer got away with at Cambridge, and here is research that shows dooming differences in the ways poor children—Langan was very poor—interact with authority.