I’m sure I’ve done more than enough wibbling about TED for this week, but the only major physics story at the moment involved the Higgs boson, and I’m thoroughly sick of that. So let’s talk about Malcolm Gladwell and journosplaining.
Gladwell has a new book out, David and Goliath that from all reports is pretty much exactly what you expect from a Malcolm Gladwell book. I greatly enjoyed the digested read by John Crace in the Guardian. Among the many bad reviews of this were a trio by my colleague at Union, Christopher Chabris– first a paywalled review in the Wall Street Journal, then a post to his blog, then a revised version of the blog post for Slate. Chris is a cognitive scientist, and explains in some detail why he feels that Gladwell’s book is misleading, pointing out cherry-picked science, results that don’t have the statistical power to justify sweeping claims, etc. More importantly, he points out that this is all part of a pattern, illustrated with some quotes in which Gladwell seems to explicitly state that he’s bending science to suit a narrative, not the other way around.
This wouldn’t be all that notable, except that Gladwell fired back in Slate, with a piece that will go in my Internet clip file of “How not to respond to a bad review.” It’s really an awful piece of work– snotty, personally insulting, and condescending. That last is particularly impressive, given that his conclusion calls out Chris as condescending, so we can add “showing all the self-awareness of a turnip” to the list of the response’s flaws.
But here’s the thing: Gladwell is a writer with a powerful gift of glib, so it reads really well. If you don’t know anything about the principals, it would read like a great smackdown of a reviewer who got out of line. And, indeed, I’ve seen a number of people on social media feeds resharing and liking this for basically those reasons.
The problem is, I have every reason to believe Chris is right. I mean, I’m not a cognitive scientist, and can’t weigh in on the content of the actual papers, but as a general matter the concerns that Chris raises and Gladwell airily dismisses are very serious issues. The drawing of sweeping conclusions from statistically underpowered studies is a huge problem, and has led to a lot of public hand-wringing about the state of science. This Nautilus piece that I happened to have open in a browser tab is a good example. Gladwell’s response is, essentially, “Well, you know, scientists argue about stuff, but it’s not settled, so I could be right.” Which is kind of an all-purpose response, equally as effective for reviewers who call you out for distorting science and that pesky IPCC and their “overwhelming evidence that the average global temperature is increasing.”
And while I can’t judge the cognitive science merits in detail, this is entirely consistent with my own past experience of Gladwell. The new book apparently contains some version of Gladwell’s 2009 New Yorker piece about basketball, which I really didn’t like. It’s a clever anecdote, but as a long-time basketball fan and player, it rings false. It’s full of misleading statements, fails to account for plausible alternative explanations, and uses a distorted and simplified view of the game to support sweeping claims about human nature that don’t really hold up.
The anecdote he builds the story around could provide the frame for a very interesting story about basketball and psychology, but a responsible treatment would require a bit of nuance that would keep it from being streamlined and dynamic and, well, Gladwellian. So things get bent around to the point where, as a basketball fan, I say “Wait, that’s not right…”
Having seen this process applied to a subject I know a bit about, it calls pretty much everything else Gladwell writes into question. And when I see a scientist looking at Gladwell writing about their area of expertise and saying “Wait, that’s not right…,” well, I know which side I’m going to come down on.
So what does this have to do with everybody’s favorite
bullshit artist stand-up Eastern philosopher? It occurred to me in reading some of the social media reactions that Gladwell stands in relation to good, responsible journalists in more or less the same position that Chopra stands in relation to actual quantum physicists. That is, he’s a glib and gifted writer who can talk just enough of the talk to buffalo people from outside the field. To a physicist, Chopra’s babble about “energy fields” and “congealing quantum soup” presents as utter gibberish, but he drops enough names and technical terms to sound superficially like somebody with real knowledge of physics, making it really hard for those of us who really know how the universe works to convince non-scientists that he doesn’t. If both sides throw around technical terms, but one twists them into a compelling narrative while the other is full of limits and caveats and, you know, math, well, the fact that the people with the complicated story are right doesn’t carry as much weight as it ought to.
Gladwell does that, but for journalism. His defense of the power of narrative is great stuff:
Books like David and Goliath combine narratives and ideas from academic research in an attempt to get people to look at the world a little differently. I have always tried to be honest about the shortcomings of this approach. Stories necessarily involve ambiguity and contradiction. They do not always capture the full range of human experience. Their conclusions can seem simplified or idiosyncratic. But at the same time stories have extraordinary advantages. They can reach large numbers of people and move them and serve as the vehicle for powerful insights.
That’s a lovely defense of the idea of pop-science writing. And it sounds a lot like things you might hear from really responsible science journalists, people like Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, David Dobbs, Tom Levenson, Jennifer Ouellette, Deborah Blum, Emily Willingham, Virginia Hughes, Arikia Milikan, etc. (Edited, see note below). Stories have power, absolutely, and it’s important to tap into that as much as possible. And there will be times when telling a compelling story requires smoothing out the occasional rough edge, or relegating some quibbles and caveats to the footnotes.
But just as Chopra sounds superficially like a person who understands quantum physics until you dig into the details of what he’s saying, Gladwell’s pretty words don’t hold up when you dig into the details and look at what he actually does. He’s not just burying the caveats in a footnote, he’s leaving them out altogether. He’s not just smoothing out a few rough edges on the complicated structure of science, he’s using a metaphorical belt sander to reshape a complex structure into an airfoil.
I’m not sure this is necessarily bad for science– many of his readers will undoubtedly go on to upset the tranquility of cognitive scientists in the same way that Chopra’s readers perturb the equilibrium of quantum physicists, but for all their many problems, both have undoubtedly gotten some ideas into wider circulation than they otherwise might’ve, and inspired some people to study the actual science. I’m pretty sure that it’s bad for science journalism, though, because the superficial similarity between words makes it harder for real journalists to convince scientists that they’re not going to pull a Gladwell. For all that Yong et al. sometimes rub me the wrong way with their comments about how scientists need to lighten up and let journalists construct compelling stories, when it comes to journosplaining they’re a bunch of ten-year-old girls just learning basketball while Gladwell is Michael frickin’ Jordan.
And believe me, I understand the issues and the process involved here. I’m not just a scientist, I’m a writer of popular books. I know how it feels to try to fit the messy reality of science into a compelling narrative. I’ve spent the last year and a half working on a book that tries to fit complex stories into simple but compelling analogies and narrative in the hopes of driving powerful insights. I’ve spent the last few weeks in a particularly intense form of this, trying to come up with a six-minute history of quantum physics (You didn’t really think I was going to get through an entire blog post without a mention of TED@NYC, did you? This week, of all weeks?) It’s hard God damn work, and I’m sure there are people who will say that I simplified things too much in my books, let alone in the six-minute TED version. But as much as it was a chore, I can honestly say that I did my very best to keep the streamlining to a minimum, and keep as many of the caveats and quibbles in the text in the story as I could. Probably to the point of limiting the reach of the books– the most common negative comment about them is that the material is complex and difficult, to which I have to shrug and say “Yeah, well, what can you do?”
(Which is not to say that the books are not successful, mind. They’ve let me reach a far larger audience than I would’ve dreamed back when I was a student, and I’m tremendously honored by the many positive comments I’ve gotten. But, you know, I’m not moving Malcolm Gladwell or Deepak Chopra numbers, here…)
And that brings us back around to what might be the sleaziest and most damning thing about Gladwell’s response to Chris, namely the final paragraph in which he writes:
[T]he world is not improved when those who create knowledge condescend to those who try to popularize it.
This is sleazy because, while Gladwell throws in a nice word for Chris’s work as a scientist, nowhere does he mention that Chris is also a popular writer, co-author of The Invisible Gorilla, a book which stands as an excellent example of how to do this the right way. It covers very similar territory, at a comparable level, but in a responsible manner. It tells a great story about science and human nature, without twisting the science to fit the story, and with all the caveats and quibbles intact.
Chris isn’t just an egghead scientist who knows nothing of how popular writing works. He’s also a writer working the same basic territory as Gladwell, but doing it better. If you want surprising insights into human psychology that are based on solid science, you would do well to give Gladwell a pass, and reach for The Invisible Gorilla instead.
(NOTE: It was pointed out that the original list of responsible journalists did not include any women. This is an oversight on my part, and has been corrected with the addition of several awesome women. The origin of the oversight was that my (unstated) starting point when listing journalists was “People whose statements in arguments about the interaction between scientists and journalists have sometimes rubbed me the wrong way, but who are many orders of magnitude better than Gladwell.” For whatever reason, that list was all male. Anyway, that’s more detail than was needed: The TL;DR version: Mea culpa. Edited to fix.)