Monday, February 20, 2006

So Much for the Bell Curve

Pick up a copy of the current The New Yorker magazine, or better yet, go directly to the essay I'm interested in here at:

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and, more recently, Blink, published a provocative essay in this issue, "Million Dollar Murray."

Gladwell argues that with many, if not most, seemingly intractable social problems, we fail because we look at them in far too "normal" ways.

Our intuitions teach us to look at and to plot most human realities and tendencies with the aid of a Bell Curve mentality.

In this essay he uses homelessness, police brutality and pollution as examples of human challenges where the Bell Curve approach is not only incorrect factually, it simply does not work.

The essence of his argument is very simple: concentrate resources at the point of real pathology rather than spreading resources equally across an entire community, problem or continuum.

Gladwell makes a strong case that much of our failure in addressing truly vexing issues is less about public policy and more about public compliance. I needed to hear this and I need to spend more time thinking about it.

In the cases he cites as proof of the truth of his paradigm, he demonstrates that by investing considerable resources and effort in the real "hot spots" of an issue or concern, progress can be made and efficiencies achieved.

Regarding homelessness, he builds a compelling case for providing permanent housing--apartments for chronically homeless persons--complete with intensive case management and guiding services and engagement. The results with such an approach can be startling. Chronic homelessness could be largely removed from our urban areas if we were willing to think in this new manner.

Check out Gladwell's wisdom.

I'd love to hear your thoughts once you have digested his ideas!

1 comment:

Jeremy Gregg said...

The finale of that story brought me to tears. That's one of the saddest, sweetest, truest stories I've read about real people dealing with the very real frustrations and insanities of American homelessness... epitomized here quite well:

"Social benefits are supposed to have some kind of moral justification. We give them to widows and disabled veterans and poor mothers with small children. Giving the homeless guy passed out on the sidewalk an apartment has a different rationale. It’s simply about efficiency."


"There isn’t enough money to go around, and to try to help everyone a little bit—to observe the principle of universality—isn’t as cost-effective as helping a few people a lot. Being fair, in this case, means providing shelters and soup kitchens, and shelters and soup kitchens don’t solve the problem of homelessness. Our usual moral intuitions are little use, then, when it comes to a few hard cases. Power-law problems leave us with an unpleasant choice. We can be true to our principles or we can fix the problem. We cannot do both."