The Magic of Malcolm Gladwell

I recently finished Malcolm Gladwell's latest, David and Goliath - Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants which got me thinking about magic. (You don't have to pretend to be surprised for my benefit.) Gladwell's great talent — apart from being an adept wordsmith and communicator — is to take ideas that seem to be obvious, common sensical and indisputable and turning the fire hose on them. So generally "Everything you know is wrong." Specifically, this book centres around how things that are supposed to be advantages and disadvantages but turn out not to be — how our intuitions about strength and weakness, fear and vulnerability are not always all that useful.

That must be one of the reasons that the books get mixed reviews (despite the fact that it sells exceedingly well). We take our intuitions about the way the world works very seriously and to have someone poke at them with a sharp pen is bound to make some people feel very uncomfortable. I remember similar reactions to Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics — a kind of moral outrage which basically amounted to "how dare you publish a book explaining these facts you've discovered." 

The idea that you should believe in something because it's true does not come naturally to most people. -Stephen Pinker

In general, what's most important about books like this [1]  is the notion that what seems obviously, even trivially true can often many times turn out to be nonsense. The more we learn, the more we discover that so-called 'common sense' is an unreliable way to make decisions and come to beliefs. We get a very strange and indescribable feeling of what the answer ought to be, then get quite upset when it turns out that reality might not actually work that way.

There's a similar principle behind magic. Almost all great magic works that way: lets you look at the situation, assemble some beliefs based on common sense, then turns the fire hose on you!

… the two most exciting states to be in are wrong or confused. Then you know you're on the brink of learning something new. -Lawrence Krauss

I think that's part of the reason why it's so wonderful watching a piece of magic and having absolutely no clue how in the universe it could have happened.

 

[1] I can think of several (relatively) recent titles that fit the description: Freakonomics, Super Freakonomics, Thinking Fast and Slow, The Invisible Gorilla, and Gladwell's own Blink, The Tipping Point and Outliers.