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Here’s Why: review of a book review

5 July 2008 – Seattle

In looking back through old magazines, I found this article by Malcolm Gladwell. Most of his writing seeks to make some aspect of our everyday lives more understandable by offering a simple but not immediately obvious explanation, often based on research in psychology.

One of his most common methods is to introduce new words for thinking about concepts. This is evident when Gladwell describes Mavens, Connectors and Salesmen in the Tipping Point, divides situations of unknown information into Mysteries and Puzzles in the article Open Secrets, or expounds on intuition as “thin-slicing” in Blink.

This article, a book review, is in the same mold. The book, Why?, by the sociologist Charles Tilly, “sets out to make sense of our reasons for giving reasons.” Gladwell focuses on Tilly’s four categories of reasons: conventions, stories, codes, and technical accounts.

Conventions are simple explanations accepted by convention. If I broke a vase in someone’s home, they could offer a convention to explain the situation: “Accidents happen.”

Stories are personal accounts where the actors are aware of every cause and effect. I could explain breaking the vase by describing the sleepless night I spent working on some assignment due in the morning, and that in general I am a clumsy person.

Codes are high-level conventions–rules and laws. If I tipped over a vase in a museum instead of someone’s home, no amount of explanation would prevent me from having to compensate them. It’s the rule.

Technical accounts are stories informed by expert knowledge or authority. In the case of the broken vase, a technical account could explain in detail how the position of the vase in a high-traffic area on a thin pedestal virtually guaranteed that at some point, someone would bump it off.

The (abbreviated) point is that each type of reason has a role, that they are not ordered in quality, with technical accounts always the best explanations, and that people will at different times use different types of explanations, determined primarily by their relationship with the other actors in the situation.

Consider the orgy of reason-giving that followed Vice-President Dick Cheney’s quail-hunting accident involving his friend Harry Whittington. Allies of the Vice-President insisted that the media were making way too much of it. “Accidents happen,” they said, relying on a convention. Cheney, in a subsequent interview, looked penitently into the camera and said, “The image of him falling is something I’ll never be able to get out of my mind. I fired, and there’s Harry falling. And it was, I’d have to say, one of the worst days of my life.” Cheney told a story. Some of Cheney’s critics, meanwhile, focussed on whether he conformed to legal and ethical standards. Did he have a valid license? Was he too slow to notify the White House? They were interested in codes. Then came the response of hunting experts. They retold the narrative of Cheney’s accident, using their specialized knowledge of hunting procedure. The Cheney party had three guns, and on a quail shoot, some of them said, you should never have more than two. Why did Whittington retrieve the downed bird? A dog should have done that. Had Cheney’s shotgun been aimed more than thirty degrees from the ground, as it should have been? And what were they doing in the bush at five-thirty in the afternoon, when the light isn’t nearly good enough for safe hunting? The experts gave a technical account.

P.S. In the Open Secrets article mentioned above, Enron was the main subject. It is commonly accepted that Enron’s accounting was a puzzle–that a crucial piece of information that would have affected Enron’s valuation was withheld from the public. Gladwell argues that Enron’s case was really a mystery–that all the requisite information for an accurate valuation was available, but that it was too convoluted even for Enron’s internal accounting to make sense of.