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12.17.2011

Out(right)liers: Or why Jonah Lehrer deserves more credit and Malcolm Gladwell deserves unemployment

I'm a psychologist by training. As a psychological researcher you learn many things. In my Ph.D. program we were taught the importance of skepticism, how to carefully design experiments to test research questions, and perhaps most importantly, we learned the value of properly interpreting psychological findings. The cardinal sin in research is to make conclusions that are not supported by the data.

In fact, this temptation to “go beyond the data” is so strong that academics have invented a “checks and balances” system to guard against it. It’s called peer review. In the academic world, if you submit a paper wherein the conclusions stretch beyond the data, you can expect to receive a swift smack-down from your peers.

What happens if you are unconstrained by these restrictions, have little to no training in science, and have a decent amount of influence? Simple, Malcolm Gladwell happens.

Gladwell is a writer of some acclaim. He has written four books -- three of which have dealt with research in the social sciences and all of which have been best-sellers. His style is eloquent and he excels at taking mundane basic research and presenting it in an entertaining light. However, the richness of his style is at odds with his lack of scientific understanding and reporting.

Perhaps most famously (or infamously) Gladwell misspelled a basic concept in linear algebra, the eigenvalue, as an “igon value” in one of his pieces. This led Steven Pinker, an accidental Gladwell nemesis, to label Gladwell’s “jarring” lack of technical grounding in science “The Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists of interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.” But this gaff is forgivable, even when you realize that Gladwell's father was a math professor.

The most heinous aspect of Gladwell’s books, to me, isn’t that he spins a good yarn, or that he occasionally only has a skin-deep understanding of the concepts he is reporting on; it is that he occasionally uses his books as a forum to advance his own theories about the world while conveniently ignoring scads of peer-reviewed scientific evidence to the contrary.

Por ejemplo, the central thesis to his book Outliers is that once you have an IQ score of 120 or above, your score is no longer of value when predicting your subsequent success. A viewpoint that is demonstrably false ala 50+ years of research. However, the notion that “smarts” are not a necessary component in the formula for success is a popular view to the average, who by definition is not extraordinarily intelligent. And thus we find the draw of Gladwell's books illustrated quite well in this quote from Pinker:
“The common thread in Gladwell’s writing is a kind of populism, which seeks to undermine the ideals of talent, intelligence and analytical prowess in favor of luck, opportunity, experience and intuition.”
This makes Gladwell the best friend of the everyman, the “anti-intellectual’s intellectual” as it were, and all but guarantees that he will sell a shitload of books.

Look, we all have theories about the world. These theories are the basis of science. But having a theory, some anecdotal evidence and a basic understanding of scientific research is no substitute for having actual scientific training, conducting experiments, and having your work peer-reviewed.

This kind of pseudo-science strikes many psychologists (myself included) as a disservice to actual scientific research and a blatant abuse of power. Gladwell has reach and has used that reach to plant his pseudo-scientific ideas into the public's consciousness, or perhaps more appropriately, to give them validation for their personal biases. These ideas are very difficult to fight once they have been implanted, and no academic researcher has the clout to proffer a counter argument (Pinker’s attempts fell on deaf ears).

A contrast to Gladwell is the science writer Jonah Lehrer. Lehrer has written two books, done segments on NPR, and has his own science blog on Wired. Lehrer's pieces are often as well-written as Gladwell's and they stick closer to their subject matter -- though he has received some of his own criticism for going beyond the data. Still, in my opinion, Lehrer's works are far less dangerous to the field as a whole than Gladwell's. Here are a few recent blog posts by Lehrer:
Each of these articles reviews some psychological research that speaks to questions that people often have about themselves. And in each article Lehrer manages to make the work interesting and easily understandable without veering too much into anecdotes or his own pet theories about the world. This is the kind of science writing that scientists appreciate. I know that I personally would rather Lehrer summarize my own work than Gladwell (were it ever to warrant attention outside of my own little esoteric research circle).

It saddens me that Lehrer will probably never rise beyond the c-list while Gladwell will continue to win awards and be invited to speak at “scientific” conferences. It’s as if the public only cares about science if it wrapped in a book jacket with a white background, tiny graphic, and irregularly-spaced type.

Bonus Link: The Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator

This post originally appeared on Stuff Smart People Like. Subscribe to the Podcast.

20 comments:

  1. Just more proof that if you sound eloquent enough when you say (or write) something, most people will assume that you know what you're talking about.

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  2. Colonel SoggybottomsDecember 17, 2011 at 7:10 PM

    If you have a nerdy afro-puff you can say whatever you want.

    Remember when Malcolm Gladwell played the guy dating Meadow Soprano?

    Noah Tannenbaum
    Played by: *Malcolm Gladwell
    Appears in: "Proshai, Livushka", "Fortunate Son", "University"
    Meadow Soprano's boyfriend when she first started at Columbia. Noah is from Los Angeles and his father is Jewish and his mother is African American. His father is an attorney for various celebrities and Hollywood notables. Noah, being a film buff, thought he had common ground with Tony when he saw the video equipment at the Soprano residence. However, when Tony Soprano met Noah, he tried to intimidate him into staying away from Meadow. Noah would not get out of the car the next time Meadow brought him to the house. Tony expressed his displeasure with Meadow for having any kind of relationship with him, and this started a lengthy feud between Tony and Meadow which ultimately drove Noah and Meadow closer together. Eventually Noah broke up with Meadow.

    *I changed the name Patrick Tully to Malcolm Gladwell to support my claim.

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  3. I'm not sure we're thinking of the same guy, but the Malcolm Gladwell I'm thinking of is a journalist. I've never really heard him claim to be a scientist that is writing for the purpose of advancing science. To judge his work under the same umbrella as peer-reviewed academic journals is NOT something smart people like. (BTW, Malcolm Gladwell's article about Ketchup in the New Yorker like 8 years ago is still probably my favorite thing I ever read: http://gladwell.com/2004/2004_09_06_a_ketchup.html)

    "Por ejemplo, the central thesis to his book Outliers is that once you have an IQ score of 120 or above, your score is no longer of value when predicting your subsequent success."

    I would not say that's the "central thesis" of his book.

    "Look, we all have theories about the world. These theories are the basis of science. But having a theory, some anecdotal evidence and a basic understanding of scientific research is no substitute for having actual scientific training, conducting experiments, and having your work peer-reviewed."

    False. His goal seems to be to write an entertaining, thought-proviking book that's accessible to the masses. When that's your goal, having a theory, a basic understanding of science, some interesting stories and awesome talent as a writer is ABSOLUTELY a substitute for having actual scientific training, conducting experiments, and having your work peer-reviewed. It seems to me that you're not very clear on who Malcolm Gladwell is, who he's writing for, what his conclusions are (to the extent that he does draw conclusions at all-in many of his articles, he doesn't), and what he expects or wants people to draw from them.

    Although this post does sort of make me want to start holding this here weblog to a much mor vigorous scientific standard. :)

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  4. Thanks for the comment Danny.

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  5. I'm beginning to think that those emoticons are not entirely authentic Danny. That makes Panda sad :(

    Gladwell has been panned before for oversimplifying things in his work when explaining complex phenomena, leading to misconceptions among the people who read his work. Looks like he got another one.

    Check out the series of articles and rebuttals between Steven Pinker and Gladwell in the NYT. Gladwell got smacked down, and rightly so.

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  6. I've read them. The real smackdown didn't come until Pinker got help from the sports stat geek community--that's a crowd you don't want to fuck with.

    I really do think that Pinker generally misses what Gladwell is doing, and unfortunately, Gladwell misses that Pinker misses what Gladwell is doing. What he should have done when his airport book was challenged by some stuffy academic is said "dude, I write articles about ketchup for The New Yorker. What the fuck is wrong with you?"

    My emoticons are always genuine.

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  7. So what I hear is that Gladwell is like Fox News. As long as he uses a kernel of truth and is entertaining in his erroneous extrapolations, it's fine.

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  8. No. But he's not trying to be news. And maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think most people who read his stuff believe it's an academic paper. Pinker was right in most of his criticism, but he was being pretty nitpicky. To the extent that he discusses issues of truth and fact, there's more than a "kernal" of truth in most of his writings.

    Is your next post going to be about the historical innacuracies in The Da Vinci Code?

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  9. He's a pop sci writer who is writing about psychology research. In that he sometimes stretches the truth and leads people to believe things that are not supported by said research. For someone who appears overly concerned with the "facts" on your comments here, you seem to be quite ok with it when it's your favorite author misrepresenting them.

    And you are only half right; the next post is going to cover how wrong Tom Hanks' hairstyle was in The da Vinci Code.

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  10. He mostly writes about things like ketchup. Maybe you could send him a list of Jordan-approved topics?

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  11. He writes about things like the relationship between IQ and achievement too apparently, albeit erroneously.

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  12. I don't even remember that being a focus of the book. I don't think the goal was to say that IQ doesn't matter when it comes to achievement. I think the main point was that lots of other weird stuff, mostly luck, matters too. Maybe i'm just flipping a negative statement into a postive statement, but that seems like a distinction I remember. (I admittedly haven't read it since it came out and my memory might be a bit fuzzy).

    I think that from a large scale perrsepctive, if he's guilty of anything, it's oversimplifying. But it's really hard to write a book of this sort, with this target audience, and not oversimplfy. This book is a TASTE of some psychological and scientific ideas. I think it's safe to say that anyone that reads it and is interested in becoming an expert on some of those topics needs to dig a little deeper. He knows that.

    Did he make some small scale factual errors that Pinker correctly identified? From what I know, I think he did. But you guys are calling him an outright liar. I think that's incredibly unfair and is definitely not something smart people like. Matt Yglesias had a good defense of him when all the Pinker nonsense was flying around. I can't seem to find it. I'll keep looking though.

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  13. I wonder if there's any data on the relationship between IQ and people who start blogs about how smart they are?

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  14. Congrats. Did it take you three minutes to come up with that one? Or did you just wait 3 minutes for dramatic effect?

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  15. Danny, you've never responded to the fact that Gladwell misrepresents research findings. He fancies himself a reporter on psychological science, yet he commits egregious errors of teh scientific method.

    I'll be the first one to say that he's a brilliant writer, but he is a terrible consumer and disseminator of scientific findings.

    And keep it civil, name-calling is just childish.

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  16. That last comment was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, obviously. Where's your sense of humor?

    Jordan, perhaps I overlooked it, but I don't think any of you presented a specific example of Gladwell misrepresenting research findings. What findings? How did he represent them? Do you mean the quarterback thing? I admitted he was wrong about that (although I don't think he did it on purpose).

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  17. Tongue in cheek or not, if you or anyone on the blog devolves into personal insults or name calling, implied or otherwise, their comments will not be allowed.

    And yes, the QB thing was one example. And whether on purpose or not, it's still misrepresentation. Then there is his habit of over-generalizing and using anecdotal evidence to support some claim the he posits as research fact. We could present a thesis on these things and write a peer-reviewable type paper from it if we wanted to spend the time. Although others have already done a good enough job of this. Which is what the post points out while offering a more suitable example of a science minded journalist.

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  18. So I should read this oversimplified blog post on Malcolm Gladwell being guilty of oversimplifying things, and then if I'm really interested in the topic of Malcolm Gladwell oversimplifying things and want to know more about it in greater detail, I should go find these papers by other people you refer to and read them?

    Got it.

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  19. Note to readers/viewers/listeners/tasters etc, if you'd like to debate something, by all means we welcome it. But, if you're here to troll, argue irrelevant points, or are not willing to concede points because you have another agenda. Move along and pursue other methods of making yourself feel better.

    On second thought, feel free to troll, just be funny and intelligent when you do so.

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