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What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures
What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures
Malcolm Gladwell
Back Bay Books, 2010
448 pp., 19.99

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Sarah Ruden

The Age Demanded an Image

On dogs and Malcolm Gladwell.

A couple of years ago, one set of happy circumstances and a popular collection of New Yorker articles came together to nudge me in a way that wasn't, as usual, unimportant and forgettable; rather, a lot of other promptings seemed to fit the same pattern.

When I got married, I was grateful to my husband, Tom, for giving me a home. I accepted the dog who came with it, a noisy and officious Shetland Sheepdog named Bradley, and I found another home for the cat I was hiding in my divinity school apartment after rescuing her, filthy and starving, from the local park. I'd been a cat lover my whole adult life, but this cat enjoyed nothing as much as sitting on Tom's head and showed no aptitude for getting along with any other animal, let alone one who would always picture her plummeting, like a dim-witted ewe from a mountain scarp, from the high perches where she spends her days.

During the first two years of our marriage, we had the good luck to live fifty yards from a meadow and a few doors from the Clerk of the local Quaker Meeting, a woman with a semi-professional interest in dogs that had devolved into a mere humorous enjoyment of living with them. During one of the first walks I took in the meadow with her and her freely ricocheting German Shepherd, she looked down at Bradley, wretched on his leash, and asked, "Does he need that?"

He didn't, and since then he's worn a leash only where it's illegal not to. A creature who worries that I will get my head stuck between barbed-wire strands of a fence isn't going to head off on his own. With his atavistic respect for an authoritative voice—I lower mine to sound like a Scotsman—I can recall him from even the most pressing research into security matters in the underbrush.

My greater open-mindedness about dogs has affirmed for me the results of certain animal-behavior research. Unlike other species of pets, Bradley goes where I point, in or out of a room, in spite of where his own judgment tells him he belongs. He stands patiently (though shivering a little) in a bathtub for any length of time if I explain that he needs a thorough shampoo and rinse to soothe his eczema. I've realized he never begs impolitely or damages anything, and when Tom and I had to pill him by force, he tried to resist without his teeth being in the way—it was touching, if hopeless. The relationship between the dog and me isn't a problem but a gift, a blessing mediated by nature, tradition, and community. The sight of him in itself reminds me of my heavy debts and painful failings, and it's an organic, unsurprising surmise that he will have a voice to plead for me (or not) before the throne of God.

This is one reason Malcolm Gladwell's writing began to bother me. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker, which has featured innumerable articles of his, and his four collections of favorite pieces—The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000); Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005); Outliers: The Story of Success (2008); and What the Dog Saw, and Other Adventures (2009)—are so widely celebrated and so seldom read critically that the term Zeitgeist seems in order. The spirit of 21st-century social science has its shrine in Gladwell's writing. I realized that if I wanted to understand how I had been trained, from the heights of the American media, to think about human purpose, I couldn't do much better than to re-examine this prose.

The article that lends its title to What the Dog Saw has a quite typical Gladwell structure: as the topic, a complex problem or mysterious phenomenon; a charismatic expert to offer solutions; further, contextualizing or dimension-adding expertise; and an unsympathetic dismissal or a mere elision of whatever common ideas and practices suggest that any of the expertise is superfluous—traditional moral judgment is noted only to be discounted. Not all of these elements appear in every essay, but there is a pretty tight similarity across Gladwell's four existing books, and his forthcoming one, David and Goliath (about the science of the weak defeating the strong), will probably not diverge.

This marketing of science—that's in fact what it is: Gladwell studied and aspired to advertising and adheres to advertising techniques such as the penetrating image, the personal endorsement, and the product comparison—has become ho-hum in the commercial media, so at first it was almost an unconscious realization that his writing came across as quite different from nonfiction of the past, especially nonfiction with a natural relationship to public policy.

Aristotle's treatise On Rhetoric has a great deal in common with his more famous work on tragedy in setting out the solid bases for appeal to an audience. A public speaker, like a tragic poet, needs to move his listeners morally (through the depiction of ethos, or character, his own or his subjects'), emotionally (through the pathos, or experience, described, which the audience should feel it shares), and logically (through logos—yes, the same term John 1:1-5 uses to state that the Word, or sublimely coherent thought, created and sustains the universe).

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.

But, I have to add, there's no word about public-policy measures to help keep all poor students in school; a routinely assigned mentor might have made sure that Langan's financial-need paperwork was submitted at the juncture where, as things did happen, the major trouble started. That line of thinking would be way off Gladwell's point, which is that Langan should be an academic researcher in the social sciences, a full member of the "genius" pantheon. When Langan voices contempt for the academy and contentment with his life as it turned out (he is married, lives on a horse ranch, and studies on his own), Gladwell doesn't seem to listen. Within the scope of science writing, there is no point.

Certainly in nonfiction rhetoric pathos shouldn't be about fantasy, about a temporal world that can be made perfect by and for special people. That's doubly the case in science writing, as hard evidence tends to point toward how good the world is already, demanding not the intervention of magical experts to "solve" its "problems," but unglamorous, no-brainer shared responsibility toward Creation and fellow creatures.

This brings me back to dogs. Gladwell's essay "What the Dog Saw" is about Cesar Millan, the "Dog Whisperer," and his skill in making dogs behave. To give Millan credit, he has a great deal of experience with the species and is more honest than his promoters. On video, he often says that a distressed owner is struggling with the wrong breed—a large, active dog in a small house, for example, or a working dog in a sedentary family.

But as the leader of a small industry, he does not of course say that the puppy mills pullulating in California, where he operates, and the American Kennel Club's refusal to enforce any health standards for purebred registration, and in general the treatment of pets as consumer goods rather than members of families, are his biggest sources of profit. Inbred, sick, unsocialized puppies, sometimes with congenital behavior problems like "Springer Rage" (I'm not kidding—maybe there's also "Poodle Pandemonium"), urgently produced and fecklessly bought during the few months that a breed is fashionable because of its appearance in a movie or a commercial, make for miserable, misery-spreading dogs. (Gladwell, in fact, mentions that one of Millan's cases he observed was a puppy-mill dog fraudulently sold as show-quality.)

In other words, dogs are not the issue. In fact, they were the first animal domesticated, and they adapted to get along with us better than we get along with each other. Instead of dog transformation, there are political, social, and philosophical challenges that people have to address together in order to lead better (in both senses) individual lives. It's the opposite of the need for expertise; if the traditions of democracy were merely valued again, as much of a solution as is possible would lie within reach.

Instead, the media induce the attitude—which, clinically, is sociopathy—that nothing exists out there but opportunities to exploit. My young neighbor stalks the dog-walking path with dog-training business cards and, when Bradley barks at him (as at everybody), lectures me about the dangers of "aggression" (though Bradley would die rather than bite). One of this entrepreneur's victims, a beautiful Border Collie rescued from an abusive home, suffers windpipe-closing yanks at his leash and loud, angry scolding when he crouches down and backwards, in the instinctively correct way (but never growls or bites), at the approach of a person or another dog. "He's not supposed to do that! He's had training, he needs more training!" recites his new owner when urged to see things from his point of view. Citizenship and work are turning into efforts to trick or bully each other into buying "solutions" for cause and effect—and then, naturally, "solutions" for previous "solutions."

Gladwell rhapsodizes over Millan's physical movements or "phrasing" around dogs, and purported experts concur. But Millan didn't develop his movements scientifically (he simply spent a lot of time with dogs), and they aren't essential for communicating with canines—if they were, it would leave us tapping our teeth over companion and service dogs for the disabled, some of whom cannot stand straight, with their shoulders back, because they cannot stand, or cannot execute fluid arm movements because they are paralyzed.

One enthusiastic viewer of a Millan video, a "dance-movement therapist" named Suzi Tortora, has worked "for a number of years" with "an autistic boy with severe language and communications problems." But in a video of the two of them together, the child is only three and a half and is throwing a normal-sounding tantrum (running back and forth, throwing himself on the floor, flailing, sitting up again, twisting, squirming, crying) with a normal-looking denouement (calming down and saying "OK" to an offer to dance).

What is abnormal is the reward: the woman's gentle but stimulating touch, her massaging then playful movements, her engaging gaze: clear messages to the child that his behavior needs another person—a special, irreplaceable one—to bring it under control, and that the process is pleasant and inviting. For me, shaking off the effects of Gladwell's storytelling is like the end of a hallucinogenic drug trip: the whole exhaustively reported, culturally dominant world of social science doesn't seem real any more. How much of its "evidence" has been manufactured? And when will those most contemptuous of the religious point of view accept as much of compelling reality as that view mandates?

Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar in classics at Wesleyan University, where she has been translating the Oresteia of Aeschylus for the Modern Library series with funding from the Guggenheim Foundation. The Music Inside the Whale, and Other Marvels: A Translator on the Beauty of the Bible is forthcoming from Knopf in 2014.

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