The MacLamity

The News That Stays News, Reported Live

Wednesday, February 09, 2005


Finally someone takes on The New Yorker's compulsive mentioning of the weather. At the same time, it would be nice if someone other than Richard Posner, or at least other than the recent version of Richard Posner, had done it.
There is irony in the book's blizzard of anecdotal details. One of Gladwell's themes is that clear thinking can be overwhelmed by irrelevant information, but he revels in the irrelevant. An anecdote about food tasters begins: "One bright summer day, I had lunch with two women who run a company in New Jersey called Sensory Spectrum." The weather, the season, and the state are all irrelevant. And likewise that hospital chairman Brendan Reilly "is a tall man with a runner's slender build." Or that "inside, JFCOM [Joint Forces Command] looks like a very ordinary office building.... The business of JFCOM, however, is anything but ordinary." These are typical examples of Gladwell's style, which is bland and padded with clich├ęs.
I wish Posner had said, as I would, that the mention of the weather is irrelevant because it doesn't serve the anecdote. Posner's problem seems to be with anecdote itself. That someone is "a tall man with a runner's slender build" could make all the difference in the world to an anecdote, even if it doesn't affect Gladwell's argument. The machinery of the punchline doesn't require that it's a barman who asks a horse why it has a long face in a bar, or indeed that the horse had just walked in. Nevertheless, these details make the joke stick in the head for a long time.

I miss Posner's former incarnation as the suave, unhurried assassin of the unreasonable. Something has made him pedantic and angry. I suspect that he has decided that he has a turf -- the space where science/economics/statistics can be applied to fluffy things like beauty and justice -- and will crush anyone who dares trespass on it. Even when that person is Sherlock Holmes
The observational acuity of which Holmes is so proud is epistemic nonsense. Invariably upon first meeting a prospective client, Holmes will recite to an amazed Watson after the person leaves all that he learned about the person from the scuff marks on his shoes, the calluses on his fingers, and so forth; and this is taken as a sign of Holmes's perspicacity. The reductio ad absurdum is Holmes's wowing Watson by "deducing" that the window in Watson's bedroom is on the right side of the room from the fact that the left side of Watson's face is not shaven as smoothly as the right, implying that the sunlight was coming in from the right in the morning when he was shaving. But only if Watson was facing north--and no points of the compass are mentioned--would the window on his right be facing east and thus admitting the morning sunlight. And there's a deeper problem. The sun's position is irrelevant; the window just has to be to the right of the mirror as one faces it for the outside light to hit Watson's right cheek.
Actually, Holmes is right, as long as Posner will allow that Watson shaves in the morning. It doesn't matter that it's the left cheek that Watson hasn't shaved well, just that one cheek is more shaven than the other. I suspect that Posner thinks that the hero of the Sherlock Holmes stories should be Richard Posner, and then they'd be realistic. Well, that's fine. But, God, how boring they'd be as well.

Holmes is fascinating because he is a reductio ad absurdum. A statistics professor of mine once said that no matter how much he might want to he could never know for sure if his wife loved him, since he could not open her heart and look inside. [Posner sez - Actually there's a large scientific literature, of which, MacLamity you seem to be unaware, that shows the state of the heart and love have no correlation] All he could do was analyze her behavior and compare it to the behavior of a person in love. Holmes's vision of the world is even more terrifying. He sees people as data factories. The world are interesting only in sofar as it produces data which are difficult and stimulating to reconcile. He, too, would try to determine whether his wife loved him. But only if it interested him as a puzzle. And he wouldn't care about the answer.

Holmes's power to manipulate data seems all the more like an occult power when you contrast it to the feebleness of the world in its inability to stop itself from providing him with what he needs. No matter what anyone does in the stories, information bursts from them in all directions all the time. Even when a dog is silent, Holmes detects the information that it gives off. The books are fluff. The plots are laughable. But Holmes is fascinating. He has the power of statistics the way Dracula has the power of the night. That's why people read stories about him.

Posner was considered an iconoclast early in his career for arguing that economic statistics could define justice as well as, and in some cases more efficiently than, our sense of right and wrong could. Now that he's gone from iconoclast to Grand Old Man, the next step is to become a Highlander-esque Only One. And yet, Posner will just have to go to the grave knowing that Holmes would beat him, no matter how unrealistic, and how unfair that might be.