January 18, 2005

Posner on Gladwell's "Blink"


Judge Richard A. Posner rips Malcolm Gladwell's Blink:

To illustrate where rapid cognition can go wrong, Gladwell introduces us to Bob Golomb, an auto salesman who attributes his success to the fact that "he tries never to judge anyone on the basis of his or her appearance." More unwitting irony here, for Gladwell himself is preoccupied with people's appearances. Think of Reilly, with his runner's build; or John Gottman, who claims to be able by listening to a married couple talk for fifteen minutes to determine with almost 90 percent accuracy whether they will still be married in fifteen years, and whom Gladwell superfluously describes as "a middle-aged man with owl-like eyes, silvery hair, and a neatly trimmed beard. He is short and very charming...." And then there is "Klin, who bears a striking resemblance to the actor Martin Short, is half Israeli and half Brazilian, and he speaks with an understandably peculiar accent." Sheer clutter.

I love Judge Posner dearly, but I have this sneaking suspicion that he is ever so slightly autistic, or an Asperger, as they now say. Anyway, there's something slightly autistic about how he hates novelistic detail in a book that's supposed to be be making an argument.

I remember Posner corrected me once for using the term "the exception that proves the rule," saying that was impossible. I replied that what the phrase actually means is an exception that is so famous for being exceptional that it demonstrates how rare exceptions to this tendency are -- e.g., Beethoven is an exception supporting the assertion that composers aren't usually deaf, as showed by how famous he is for a being a deaf composer. But the Judge had a hard time grasping that rather obvious point. The judge has a tremendously powerful intellect, but perhaps not the most supple.

Posner goes on to destroy Gladwell's nonsense about racial discrimination. (Gladwell, by the way, calls himself black, but you probably wouldn't notice he had any black ancestors.)

Golomb, the successful auto salesman, is contrasted with the salesmen in a study in which black and white men and women, carefully selected to be similar in every aspect except race and sex, pretended to shop for cars. The blacks were quoted higher prices than the whites, and the women higher prices than the men. Gladwell interprets this to mean that the salesmen lost out on good deals by judging people on the basis of their appearance. But the study shows no such thing. The authors of the study did not say, and Gladwell does not show, and Golomb did not suggest, that auto salesmen are incorrect in believing that blacks and women are less experienced or assiduous or pertinacious car shoppers than white males and therefore can be induced to pay higher prices. The Golomb story contained no mention of race or sex. (Flemington, where Golomb works, is a small town in central New Jersey that is only 3 percent black.) And when he said he tries not to judge a person on the basis of the person's appearance, it seems that all he meant was that shabbily dressed and otherwise unprepossessing shoppers are often serious about buying a car. "Now, if you saw this man [a farmer], with his coveralls and his cow dung, you'd figure he was not a worthy customer. But in fact, as we say in the trade, he's all cashed up."

It would not occur to Gladwell, a good liberal, that an auto salesman's discriminating on the basis of race or sex might be a rational form of the "rapid cognition" that he admires. If two groups happen to differ on average, even though there is considerable overlap between the groups, it may be sensible to ascribe the group's average characteristics to each member of the group, even though one knows that many members deviate from the average. An individual's characteristics may be difficult to determine in a brief encounter, and a salesman cannot afford to waste his time in a protracted one, and so he may quote a high price to every black shopper even though he knows that some blacks are just as shrewd and experienced car shoppers as the average white, or more so. Economists use the term "statistical discrimination" to describe this behavior. It is a better label than stereotyping for what is going on in the auto-dealer case, because it is more precise and lacks the distracting negative connotation of stereotype, defined by Gladwell as "a rigid and unyielding system." But is it? Think of how stereotypes of professional women, Asians, and homosexuals have changed in recent years. Statistical discrimination erodes as the average characteristics of different groups converge.

There are big differences in how hard different kinds of people will bargain. When you are selling something, you can get a higher profit out of some kinds of people than out of others. A friend of mine who is a small businessman in LA can rattle off a list of how hard a bargain different ethnic groups tend to drive with him. The most ferocious bargainers are the Armenians, Koreans, and Israelis, while the most aristocratically insouciant about the precise terms of the deals are the South Americans.

Steve Sailer's homepage and blog is iSteve.com

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You didn't read his book very carefully or at all or you wouldn't have said that he calls himself black . He doesn't. He explains that he's half-black, his mother from Jamaica.