Malcolm Gladwell on why his bestseller Blink was a load of hooey: Ross Douthat points me toward a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell called "TROUBLEMAKERS: What pit bulls can teach us about profiling" on why racial profiling shouldn't work. Bottom line: you can't trust your first impressions!
Now, if you shelled out cash to buy Gladwell's latest bestseller, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, you might ask him for a refund, since the point of Blink is that you should trust your first impressions. (Email him here about getting your money back -- I'm sure he'd love to hear from you.)
But, actually, as I pointed out in my review of Blink in VDARE.com a year ago, Gladwell's book boils down to two messages:
- Go with your gut reactions, but only when they are right.
- And even when your gut reactions are factually correct, ignore them when they are politically incorrect.
You can see why Gladwell is against racial profiling: because if he came out and said the truth -- "Of course, racial profiling works to some extent" -- he could lose the enormous amount of money he makes lecturing corporate sales forces on The Power of Thinking Without Thinking ($30,000 per speech, according to New York magazine). Corporations are constantly being sued for discrimination by disgruntled minority employees, and none of them want to take the chance of a plaintiff in a bias suit pointing out that they hired a speaker who publicly engages in crimethink.
And if Gladwell told the truth he might lose out on that bizarre movie deal he recently signed in which Leonardo DiCaprio. of all people, is supposed to play Gladwell in the movie version of Blink. (Steven Gaghan of "Syriana" notoriety is on board to write and direct.) I can't wait to see DiCaprio's version of Gladwell's Afro, the growing of which supposedly inspired him to write Blink by causing him to be hassled by The Man.
Gladwell gets on my nerves because he actually is a smart guy who could spread clarity rather than squid ink. But instead he chooses to use his cleverness to dream up facile but wrong arguments in order to make money, lots and lots of money.
The bulk of Gladwell's new article is an attack on laws outlawing the keeping of pit bull dogs as an analogy for why racial profiling shouldn't (or wouldn't or couldn't -- it's not clear which) work. Of course, it would be a lot simpler for Gladwell to simply look at racial profiling of humans rather than to draw Rube Goldberg analogies with pit bulls, but the last thing Gladwell wants to do is put himself in a position where he'd feel obligated to cite actual data on racial differences in crime rates.
Anyway, the anti-pit bull laws are hardly a direct analogy to racial profiling by police. A much closer analogy would be when the cops pay more attention to a pit bull running loose than to a Labrador retriever running loose. And is that really so morally reprehensible or pragmatically ineffectual?
But if you go look up the data on people killed by dogs, you find that of the 238 deaths from 1979-1998 for which the breed of dog is known, 66 were due to pit bull-type breeds (along with 10 people killed by part-pit bull mixed breed dogs). Pure-bred Rottweilers were far back in second place with 39 kills and pure-bred German Shepherds in third with 17. Unfortunately, we don't have terribly good data on the number of dogs by breed, but certainly the Labrador retriever is vastly more common than all the various pit bull breeds combined, yet only one person in those two decades was killed by a pure bred Labrador (and four by part Labradors).
Moreover, the danger to children (who comprise about 70% of dog fatalities) from pit bulls relative to Labradors is even worse than these numbers suggest because sensible dog owners buy dog breeds based on likely exposure to children. If you have a small child, you are much more likely to buy a Labrador to be his pet rather than a pit bull.
Gladwell misses the salient point about bulldog breeds -- they tend to be wonderfully loyal to their owners, but precisely because they are so monogamous in their loyalties, they can be dangerous to others, such as your child's friends, for example, if they get into a fight with your child. In contrast, Labradors are promiscuously friendly, so you don't have to worry about your Lab eating a guest who gets out of hand at your kid's birthday party.
Gladwell makes a big deal about how profiling doesn't work because of supposed "instability" in the relationship between a category and a behavior:
It doesn’t work to generalize about a relationship between a category and a trait when that relationship isn’t stable ... Does the notion of a pit-bull menace rest on a stable or an unstable generalization?... Pit-bull breeds led the pack [in fatal attacks], but the variability from year to year is considerable.
But that's just statistical noise caused by there being only a dozen dog bite fatalities per year on average. In Table I of the report that he's looking at, it shows dog bite fatalities for ten pairs of years from 1979-1980 through 1997-1998. Pit bull-types were the most lethal breed in six of those ten time periods, and were no lower than tied for second most lethal breed in the other four, which is highly stable for such a small sample size.
The only big change in the numbers is that Rottweilers became more deadly over this period. As the report notes, this is partly due to the increased population of Rottweilers. But, it's probably also due to selective breeding for ferocity in Rottweilers.
The personality of dog breeds can be altered genetically in a strikingly short period of time. The Doberman pinscher, for instance, tends to be much milder today than in the past due to a selective breeding program to improve its reputation. In response, the kind of folks who want vicious dogs seem to have shifted their attention to breeding Rottweilers.
So, the problem with laws banning pit bulls is that evolution can work so fast under conditions of artificial selection that the people who like vicious dogs could create some other breed as deadly as pit bulls in a decade or two. For example, in recent years, we've seen the introduction into the U.S. of the Presa Canario, a 120 pound fighting dog from the Canary Islands. After a Presa Canario that was being bred to guard Mexican meth labs killed a female lacrosse coach in San Francisco, interest in this breed from hell shot up.
That doesn't mean it wouldn't be a good idea to outlaw pit bulls from your municipality, after all, you could get 20 years or so of benefit from it, but it does show the complexity of the problem.
But what does the malleability of dog breeds have to do with the effectiveness of racial profiling?
Not much at all. The nice liberal position is that humans couldn't possibly have evolved fast enough to diversify racially in the 50,000 or more years since they left Africa. That's silly, but in any case, this is all utterly irrelevant to the question of policing tactics in 2006.
As an example of "instability" that makes profiling unusable, Gladwell cites the decline in crime in New York City:
... the relation between New York City (a category) and criminality (a trait) is unstable, and this kind of instability is another way in which our generalizations can be derailed.
But, this is just Gladwell yanking our chains, because he knows perfectly well that "New Yorker" is not a race. When it comes to racial profiling, the real question is whether blacks tend to be more likely than other races to commit street crimes year in and year out. And the answer to that question isn't hard to find.
James Q. Wilson, America's most distinguished student of crime, writes
Black men commit murders at a rate about eight times greater than that for white men. This disparity is not new; it has existed for well over a century. When historian Roger Lane studied murder rates in Philadelphia, he found that since 1839 the black rate has been much higher than the white rate. This gap existed long before the invention of television, the wide distribution of hand guns, or access to dangerous drugs (except for alcohol).
Racial profiling is an effective tool for cops -- indeed, it's almost unavoidable in the real world -- precisely because there are big differences in propensity to commit crimes. The most recent study of crime rates by race and ethnicity summarized:
"In total, blacks had the highest incarceration rate at 7.2 times the [nonHispanic] white rate, followed by Hispanics, at 2.9 times the white rate. [American] Indians and Pacific Islanders were imprisoned at about twice the white rate, and Asians at only 22 percent of the white rate."
In other words, Asian-Americans are incarcerated only 1/33rd as much as blacks. So, if you are cruising in a squad car, which group of teenagers on the corner are you going to pay more attention to: blacks or Asians?
But are these huge differences just caused by police prejudice? No. Wilson writes:
"... researchers have compared the rate at which criminal victims report (in the National Crime Victimization Survey, or NCVS) the racial identity of whoever robbed or assaulted them with the rate at which the police arrest robbers or assaulters of different races. Regardless of whether the victim is black or white, there are no significant differences between victim reports and police arrests. This suggests that, though racism may exist in policing (as in all other aspects of American life), racism cannot explain the overall black arrest rate."
What about racial profiling of terrorists? There is more change over the decades in who hijacks planes, but the ethnicity of airline terrorists hardly changes so fast that the Department of Homeland Security couldn't send out a memo to airport security screeners saying, for instance, "Okay, the Arab threat has disappeared, so stop profiling Middle Easterners. But now the Andaman Islands Liberation Front is a major source of hijackings, so pay particular attention to pygmy negritos and steatopygous women."
Obviously, that's silly. The Arab threat will be with us for a long, long time.
As will Malcolm Gladwell's lucrative disingenuousness.
By the way, Gladwell also makes the common but bad argument that if you start profiling for Arab terrorists, they'll just get people who don't look like Arabs to be terrorists. Obviously, though, it's much easier for Arab terrorist organizers to find Arab-looking people to be suicide bombers. When they have to go out looking for, say, Samoans who want to blow themselves up for the glory of jihad, well, that can slow operations down considerably.
UPDATE: A reader adds:
The average pit bull was always one of the friendliest dogs around, especially with children. If you were to buy one bred for fighting from a good ole boy from the south today, I am confident that would still be the case. I am learning, lately, that this is no longer the case among pits found in big northern cities. Idiots there have been breeding human-aggressive pits, often by crossing with other breeds. Combine this with the pit’s tenacity and bite strength and you have a dangerous situation.
UPDATE: Good timing, Malcolm: The day after I wrote about Malcolm Gladwell's article in the New Yorker on why profiling pit bulls is as wrong as profiling young black males standing on street corners or young Arab men getting on airliners, we see this new story from the Philadelphia area:
Pit Bull Euthanized After Attack On DE 3-Year-Old
New Castle County Police said a three-year-old girl was critically injured after reportedly being attacked by a Pit Bull Monday. The dog was euthanized Tuesday morning.
Paramedics responded to reports of an attack on a small child by the family dog on the 100 block of Oakmont Drive just after 10:30 a.m. officials said.
When they arrived on the scene, authorities said they discovered three-year-old Destiny Campbell suffering from massive head injuries. She was transported to Christiana Hospital in critical condition.
Police said a four-year-old Pit Bull named ‘Diamond,’ allegedly mauled the child while she was with her mother at her grandmother’s house.
Destiny and her mother, Alycia Campbell, were picking up the child’s grandmother when the dog, belonging to an older cousin, Turquoise Robinson, attacked the three-year-old for no apparent reason.
“I tried everything to get her (Diamond) off my child, you know, I couldn’t do anything. I tried beating her with a cane, I tried everything, she swung her side to side like a ragdoll,” said Alycia Campbell.
After several attempts to free Campbell, her mother and grandmother screamed for help. Residents in the area responded, striking the dog with sticks and broom handles until it released the child.
“The dog had grabbed her by the crown and pulled off her scalp and bit off her right ear. She was in a state of shock,” said neighbor Toney Jackson.