Sunday, November 11, 2007

Profiling as art

Another item from the New Yorker, this one from an article titled "Dangerous Minds" by Malcolm Gladwell (Nov. 12, 2007 issue).

The article discusses criminal profiling, people who look at evidence and construct psychological portraits of likely perpetrators. It is mostly negative about the practice, drawing similarities between profiling techniques and parlor tricks. But I found this excerpt interesting. It discusses an FBI profiler named John Douglas ("the model for Agent Jack Crawford in 'The Silence of the Lambs'"), who was involved in the successful hunt for a Wichita serial killer:
...some cop is calling him psychic. But Douglas doesn't object. Instead, he begins to muse on the ineffable origin of his insights, at which point the question arises of what exactly this mysterious art called profiling is, and whether it can be trusted. Douglas writes, "What I try to do with a case is to take in all the evidence I have to work with... and then put myself mentally and emotionally in the head of the offender. I try to think as he does. Exactly how this happens, I'm not sure, any more than the novelists such as Tom Harris who've consulted me over the years can say exactly how their characters come to life. If there's a psychic component to this, I won't run from it."

The connection to knowledge art? I like that there is a combination of analytical and intuitive, of getting very close to the evidence but also relying on inspiration, and being unsure of where it comes from. Gladwell argues that the whole practice is suspect, that it is wrong more often than it's right, and that many profilers' recommendations are so general as to be meaningless. He may be correct, but what I find interesting is the reference to a source of professional expertise that is not rational or logical, and the drawing of the similarity with novelistic creativity. "Schooled" inspiration (that is, that comes from immersion in the subject matter as well as knowledge of many rational techniques) giving rise to deeply nuanced form, like some of the profilers' characterizations, is certainly one of the hallmarks of the kinds of improvised moves I've seen in analyzing knowledge art practice.

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