Thursday, February 02, 2012

Trees and Forests

The writer of a I blog I regularly read, and whose first book, *"Hannibal and Me"*, has just been published, wrote a post about how happy he was that his book had been glowingly reviewed by one of the world's great authorities on Hannibal.

The author of "Hannibal and Me", who, although a journalist, isn't a professional historian, wrote in his blog posting that although he, as a non-historian, had likely got some details wrong in his book, the reviewer hadn't bothered with them, because, no doubt, he was able to appreciate the book's big concepts and the author's meditations upon them. He saw the forest, not the trees.

I'm reminded of reviews I read of a book I greatly admired, "The Female Brain", by Louann Brizendene, a neuropsychiatrist. She showed in her book how vastly different are the brains of men from those of women, because of hormones, neural pathways and their like. It was one of those books from which I emerged slightly different from when I began reading it.

Louann Brizendene, although an academic, didn't write her book in academese, but in English, and in a way ordinary people could understand. Because of this, and because the topic of male-female differences is controversial, not to say ideological, "The Female Brain" got mixed reviews. Some critics *liked it* ; others *didn't*.

I felt, though, that those who didn't like it obssessed on relatively unimportant issues, and used them as a stick to bash the whole book. They saw the trees, not the forest.

That said, I'm led to understand that an assertion in "The Female Brain" that females use three times more words in a day than males, was based on apparently faulty research, and so was excluded in the second and subsequent editions of the book. All the other research appears to have held up.

While Louann Brizendene in "The Female Brain" may not have got everything right, she likely got most things right. That's what's important. That's why you should read "The Female Brain".

As for "Hannibal and Me", although I've yet to read it, I do expect to like it, despite that its reviews have so far all been positive.


  1. Thoughtful comment.

    For many years, I was the one reviewing other people's books. Now my own is being reviewed by others. It's great for me to taste the vulnerability of being an author. I won't be less tough in future reviews I write, but I do, generally, now think that it behooves the reviewer to try, as Patrick Hunt did, to see the overall intention of the author, and to evaluate the book based on whether he did or did not achieve that.

    Counterpoint: One of the best book reviews ever was by Steven Pinker about Malcolm Gladwell. Pinker proved the exception to the rule: He homed in on the errors and howlers in Gladwell's book (especially his confusion of Eigenvalue with "Igon Value"), with the overall effect being to discredit Gladwell.

  2. Despite Pinker's condescending tone, I'm not sure he discredited Gladwell overrall. Consider that he described Gladwell as a minor genius, and *said this*:

    Gladwell is a writer of many gifts. His nose for the untold back story will have readers repeatedly muttering, “Gee, that’s interesting!” He avoids shopworn topics, easy moralization and conventional wisdom, encouraging his readers to think again and think different. His prose is transparent, with lucid explanations and a sense that we are chatting with the experts ourselves. Some chapters are master­pieces in the art of the essay. I particularly liked “Something Borrowed,” a moving examination of the elusive line between artistic influence and plagiarism, and “Dangerous Minds,” a suspenseful tale of criminal profiling that shows how self-anointed experts can delude their clients and themselves with elastic predictions.

    Quite positive, no?

    As far as I can make out, Pinker gave only two concrete examples where he vehemently disagreed with Gladwell's assertions. One was the assertion that a teacher's I.Q. scores and teaching certificates are not good predictors of teaching success, so that "....teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before......”

    The other assertion was that ".....a quarter­back’s rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros....."

    I tracked down a subsequent exchange of letters *between the two*. Gladwell acknowledged that he'd spelt "Eigenvalue" incorrectly, and seemed adequately to defend his assertons about quarterback footballers. But he didn't address the issue of teachers IQs.

    Pinker in his reply addressed both issues.

    In my inexpert opinion, Gladwell was right about quarterback footballers, but wrong about teacher IQs. And my opinion that Gladwell was wrong about teachers IQs, and Pinker right about them, came out of my own experiences, and my experiences with, and observations of others.

    And Gladwell's not addressing the teacher issue in his rely to Pinker, constituted his tacit admission (I think) that Pinker was right about teacher IQs.

    Gladwell, because he writes clearly, and because he delves into topics that are the preserve of fusty academics, is a threat to academics, who as a breed like to write obscurely so to be thought brilliant by non-academics.

    It follows that academics when writing about what Gladwell writes, would tend to be withering.

    Any non-expert writing clearly and non-academically about conplicated topics, as Gladwell does, will always present manifold openings for the academician to stick his knife in, and eviscerate what he (the non-expert) writes.

    The non-expert's only defence is to write defensively, with lots of qualifying sub-clauses. But this will make his writing as obscure and as boring as that of the academician he is protecting himself against.

    Hats off to Malcolm Gladwell, is what I say!! His writings, if nothing else, make one think.

    By the way, I'm hugely enjoying "Hannibal and Me" so far.

  3. See, that shows you how a reader's memory can be quite different from the writer's actual content. (in this case, my memory of Pinker's review.)

  4. Since Pinker's review was two years ago, and since you may have read it only once, your memory of this review would be coloured more by its condescending tone than by its content.

    On the topic of teacher IQs, while teachers with above-average high IQs will perform better than those with average IQs, it doesn't mean that just because a teacher has an above-average IQ he will automatically be a successful teacher.

    The above-average IQ merely opens the door to being a successful teacher. What the teacher does after going through the door is of course up to him. However, those with merely average IQs are never likely to be successful teachers.

    It is my belief that all those who become leaders, and all those who leave their footprints in the sands of time, all have above-average IQs. If one has only an average IQ, one is destined for only an average life at most.

    Our IQs and our physical health are the two most important things our parents give us. The rest is gravy.

  5. You said - ".....It is my belief that all those who become leaders, and all those who leave their footprints in the sands of time, all have above-average IQs. If one has only an average IQ, one is destined for only an average life at most....."

    This sounds very deterministic, not to say elitist. I assume that you, yourself, have an above-average IQ?

  6. Actually, Zebulun, I have only an average IQ, and have consequently not left my footprints in the sands of time, nor am I likely to.

    Because of our current egalitarian intellectual climate, I realise it's not fashionable to imply that one's IQ determines one's success or failure in life.

    But, having only an average IQ myself and therefore never achieving much as a result, I'm freer to pontificate about the correlation between IQ and success, than I would if I had a high IQ.