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Gladwell, when he is wrong, creates a tsunami of wrong

If you’re interested in how Gladwell creates these tsunamis, check out this article in Psychology Today. Personally, I think the backlash against Gladwell is a little much. Yeah, he could be more careful when constructing his overviews of scientific research, but if he were too careful he would be boring to read and the general public would stop reading. If he became a boring writer, the public  would know no more about social science than they did before Gladwell. The problem isn’t Gladwell; the problem originates in a reading public who doesn’t have the time or interest in reading nuanced scientific studies with findings based on probabilistic outcomes. Gladwell has just figured out the best way to write about scientific research for this audience.

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Written by brayden king

July 26, 2010 at 1:51 pm

54 Responses

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  1. if he were too careful he would be boring to read and the general public would stop reading. If he became a boring writer, the would know no more about social science than they did before Gladwell.

    Wouldn’t that be an improvement on the status quo, in which the public reads Gladwell and then knows *less* about social science than they did before they read him?

    Like

    chris

    July 26, 2010 at 1:59 pm

  2. I think that Gladwell did answer some critics on his blog
    http://gladwell.typepad.com/gladwellcom/

    Like

    Baptiste C.

    July 26, 2010 at 1:59 pm

  3. Give me a break. The “ganging up” on Gladwell doesn’t begin in full force until he began to write on the political minefield that is IQ studies and began to challenge the Cambridge nativist orthodoxy. My sense is that if you were to comb through such books as The Language Instinct you’d find as much scientifically obsolete and just plain old wrong/dumb hypotheses to feast on as any book by Gladwell.

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    Omar

    July 26, 2010 at 3:38 pm

  4. I’ve often thought about this as well. I’m teaching an undergraduate methods course right now and thought about whether or not to assign Gladwell as a way to introduce students to social science research in an easily digestible manner. Ultimately, I decided against it. Although he gets things wrong* it’s not as if he gets the majority of things wrong.

    *As I saw it, the take home message of Blink was essentially your instincts are good and tap into valuable information! Except when they aren’t and don’t!

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    Trey

    July 26, 2010 at 3:53 pm

  5. What Pinker calls the Igon Value Problem (i.e., knowing only what you have *heard* an expert say about a topic, e.g., eigenvalues in the paradigm case) is, to my mind, the most damning thing about Gladwell’s work (and the work of his publisher, who should assign a fact-checker to these born-to-be-bestsellers.) I thought Gladwell let himself off way too easily by acknowledging it as a “spelling mistake”.

    I think the observation that his memes are dangerously “sticky” is spot on. That’s why Trey is right not to assign the book, and why Chris is right to worry that readers may come away knowing less about the subject. We are probably stuck with the task of helping our students unlearn Gladwell’s ideas (and those of other “minor geniuses”) in any case.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to find similar problem in the popular writings of established scientists like Pinker, as Omar suggests. The real problem here is the genre; I’ve never been wholly convinced that “popularizing” science is a good idea. There is something unscientific about popularization. It leaves the reader with the illusion of knowing something–i.e., with a belief that feels well-founded but for which the believer lacks critical foundation. The reader leans what is effectively a doctrine, not a theory.

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    Thomas

    July 26, 2010 at 4:25 pm

  6. the unfortunate thing is that Gladwell might be creeping into the curricula of professional schools. At least one top-5 Law School I know of, has a heavy dose of Gladwell in policy courses… which is depressing.

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    sd

    July 26, 2010 at 6:04 pm

  7. oh, and I completely agree with Thomas’ last paragraph – indoctrination into unsubstantiated bits and pieces of “knowledge” is way worse than being forced to work hard to learn your stuff !

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    sd

    July 26, 2010 at 6:07 pm

  8. I disagree with most of the comments here about the usefulness of Gladwell. A little bit of social science, even if a few premature conclusions or misleading anecdotes are sprinkled liberally in, is much better than no social science at all.

    I use Gladwell as a reference point all the time when teaching MBAs. It gives them a jumping off point for a more serious discussion about the implications of social science. I think you underestimate just how little social science understanding the average college graduate has.

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    brayden

    July 26, 2010 at 7:49 pm

  9. I do not — see above comments about currently teaching an undergraduate methods class. One of my comments was unfavorably interpreted. I decided not to use Gladwell but I said he gets most things right, even if he is spectacularly wrong on some accounts. I disagree that people should spend time reading original research or nothing at all — a little is better than nothing.

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    Trey

    July 26, 2010 at 8:17 pm

  10. But Brayden, everyone has a “little bit of social science” in their workaday folk theory of the society in which they live. It consists of prejudices and anecdotes, which in turn are the substance of our moral sense, for better and for worse.

    There are different ways of engaging with this sense (different ways of improving it, that is), and social science is one of them. But popular social science, unfettered by any sort of methodological rigour, just returns us to the folk theory.

    Popularizers like Gladwell, however, make people feel like their prejudices are supported by science. I’m not sure a little bit of that is better than none at all.

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    Thomas

    July 26, 2010 at 8:32 pm

  11. I think people on here don’t quite realize, how little the general public knows about the issues Gladwell is writing about. Granted, I thought Blink was a load of ****, but some of his other writings can be inspirational and thought-provoking for some – and that’s not too bad, I would argue.

    Remember, we do science for the people. Not for ourselves or science itself. At least not when the people are paying us!

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    Bergies

    July 26, 2010 at 9:04 pm

  12. I would point out that the Psychology Today blog post, which is the inspiration for this blog post, was written by someone trying to promote a book on the same topic as a piece I wrote more than ten years ago. He made the point that my distinction between panicking and choking did not square with his “neuroscientific” point of view–to which I would only say that it was never intended to, and had nothing to do with neuroscientific points of view. It was simply an attempt to figure out some of the differences between expert and non-expert failure. An attempt to drum up publicity for a book is not, necessarily, the same as a reasoned critique.

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    Malcolm Gladwell

    July 26, 2010 at 9:15 pm

  13. There’s a good ball in play, Malcolm. You just totally went after a man that isn’t even on the field.

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    Thomas

    July 26, 2010 at 9:21 pm

  14. Would you prefer that I go after you, Thomas? :-) I suppose I could start by asking you what evidence you have for the claim that I make people “feel like their prejudices are supported by science,” which is–if you think about–quite a nasty thing to say.

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    Malcolm Gladwell

    July 26, 2010 at 9:44 pm

  15. I’m always glad to make a target of myself. I don’t see the nastiness, though. It’s not hard to imagine that a collection of anecdotes, framed by references to scientists and their studies, might support a formation of prejudices (a morality).

    Brayden had explicitly defended your use of “premature conclusions or misleading anecdotes”. My sense that popular science (even when it’s not described as Brayden did) makes people overly confident about things they’d like to believe anyway comes mainly from experience with students, other scholars, people of all kinds, and, of course, myself. I’ve had to unlearn a good deal of the popular science that I swallowed too easily in my youth before I could really think.

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    Thomas

    July 26, 2010 at 10:03 pm

  16. I guess I object to the word “prejudices” which has largely pejorative connotations, to my mind. A more neutral way of saying it, I think, is that my books–like most works of reasonably thoughtful, middle-brow non-fiction–are intended to promote discussion and thought and theory-making in areas that lay audiences may not always have ventured into before. You can’t really expect to do more than that, in a work of popular non-fiction, and the process is necessarily imperfect (which I think was the point of the original post). But I strongly disagree with you that these kinds of efforts are worse than doing nothing at all. What you don’t see, when you consider a book in isolation, is where the conversation started by that book ends up–and my interactions with my readers suggests that those conversations often end up being very sophisticated.

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    Malcolm Gladwell

    July 26, 2010 at 10:12 pm

  17. Thomas – Lots of completely legitimate academic articles are liberally sprinkled with “premature conclusions or misleading anecdotes.” I don’t see them as harmful as you do in either case. The point of much empirical work is to push theoretical boundaries and to get people to think. Gladwell is doing the same thing, the main difference being the intended audience.

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    brayden

    July 26, 2010 at 10:19 pm

  18. First, I wonder whether this truly is Gladwell we’re interacting with — but, setting that aside…

    Thomas: I’m not sure what your beef is with Gladwell and pop social science. You treat pop science as biased (sure, much of it indeed can be and is) and science itself as, well, scientific and somehow settled. But note that there is wild disagreement in science itself around big questions such as IQ (smart folks on both sides of the debate: e.g., Pinker on nature or Dweck on nurture — or look at the Chomsky/Fodor versus connectionist or evolutionary argument debates, classic debates such as reason-experience in philosophy, person-situation in psych/ob, well, etc, etc, etc — note that proponents of course treat their respective perspectives, rightly, as the truth). All Gladwell is doing is popularizing/highlighting some extant work, bringing it to the attention of a larger audience (who may or may not agree with him: I don’t think people necessarily, uncritically drink pop science kool-aid). So what? Sure, he might be highlighting what you think is the wrong stuff (but there’s a body of work that supports it), but then there’s a pop science industry in writing the counter-point too.

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    tf

    July 26, 2010 at 10:55 pm

  19. Hi Teppo, that’s a useful way of putting it, if you’ll let me distance myself from it. Actually my beef with pop science is that it makes certain beliefs available to readers without giving them access to the relevant debates. It’s pop science that treats science as settled. It lets people believe (nor not) without giving them a legitimate position from which to critique.

    Now, as Brayden reminds us, scholarship also suffers from this. I’ve recently pointed out how sensemaking scholarship imports conclusions, not just prematurely, but also counter to the sources from which they are imported, without really subjecting them to critical scrutiny. So we have that anecdote about the soldiers in the Alps, from which we conclude that “any old map will do”, or we have the Mann Gulch disaster as a “cosmology episode”. In both cases, the story is told as if by someone who knows what he’s talking about to someone who is in no position to evaluate it. I.e., the popularizer’s tone of voice.

    I hear it often, but I’m never convinced by the “so what?” response to the discovery that a particular anecdote is misleading. In the context of truly critical scholarship misleading anecdotes would be weeded out and the conclusions they have led us to embrace would be abandoned. But today we seem happy keep circulating them because of a genre convention that valorizes “getting people to think” over, well, something like actually figuring out how social life works.

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    Thomas

    July 26, 2010 at 11:35 pm

  20. interesting discussion. though I disagree with teppo’s notion that “I don’t think people necessarily, uncritically drink pop science kool-aid” – well, they unfortunately do, especially after they have read it as part of a course taught by, say, a respected professor!
    I agree that pop-science might have a place in the zillions of books published every year, but when it becomes legitimated in b-school / law-school curricula, we’re no longer talking about a few wrong notions here and there – but a cadre of professionals being imbued with the belief that what they read in pop-books is legitimate social science, on which they can base their future decisions about other people. [whoa that was a long sentence]

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    sd

    July 27, 2010 at 1:31 am

  21. Well Thomas, I would call your (previous discussion) characterization of postmodernism “pop-science” as well (it was biased and uninformed). So, “don’t throw bricks while in a glass-house”, I would say.

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    Bergies

    July 27, 2010 at 7:33 am

  22. Just to emphasize, last post was “tongue in cheek”.

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    Bergies

    July 27, 2010 at 7:39 am

  23. What strikes me most–reading all the comments–is how unwilling many of the commenters (most of whom, I’m guessing, are academics) are to deal with the trade-off presented in the original post. Academics have the luxury, appropriately, of dealing with ideas and arguments and social science in its full complexity. Those of us who have chosen to swim in the lay pool do not. We have to make compromises. My book Blink, for example, was a compromise: an attempt to nudge people away from the reflexive position that intuition and instinct are invariably reliable or useful. A complete summary of the academic understanding of those questions would have been read by a fraction of the audience. Figuring out where to draw that line is difficult, and I don’t pretend that I always do it properly. But I do think that the effort to expose as wide an audience as impossible to the wonders and mysteries of social science ought to be met with more than condescension–especially from a group of people who teach for a living.

    Like

    Malcolm Gladwell

    July 27, 2010 at 12:50 pm

  24. That is the point that I have been trying to make as well — I would rather people have some knowledge of the academic world of social science than none at all (or instead of just coming up with their own folk theories about how the world works). I do agree with the idea that when people read a book about a topic, they view it as “settled” even if it’s controversial and an on-going debate, but that could be true if someone just picked up a journal article as well (which is a hell of a lot less like likely). I decided not to assign Gladwell in my methods class mainly due to time constraints and because it’s a methods class, meaning that we should be focusing on methods and design rather than substantive outcomes.

    I don’t think there’s anything mysterious or special about social science that means it should be prevented from being popularized and I think we do ourselves a disservice when we try to cordon off social science from the public because they’re not ready for it or can’t appreciate it in the way that we appreciate it. After all, a great deal of all of our funding comes from public sources! I’m not issuing a grandiose call here for public sociology (which I often think is a highly flawed endeavor) but I am saying if there are popularizers out there, especially ones who write as appealingly as Gladwell, we should be happy to interface with them and point out mistakes rather than castigating them for attempting to create a more informed public.

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    Trey

    July 27, 2010 at 1:54 pm

  25. I’ve been thinking about this thread a lot in the past day because I’ve been immersed in the audio versions of Gladwell’s books this summer. I like the books and when you listen to the man himself read them, you feel like you know him. I both appreciate a lot why people buy the books — and why they are good books that deserve a lot of praise as books — and why the phrase “tsunami of bad” is actually pretty fair, in the sense that if Gladwell gets something wrong, it is likely to be sticky and become believed by a large number of people because he is such a good writer. I also have had the similar experience of being most critical of his arguments on the topics I know best.

    But let’s step through the issues. One source of problem is that Gladwell tends to pick particular people’s work and give them a lot of play, rather than sifting through the full range of academic studies that would refine or contradict the findings that he describes as certain. When the work he highlights has held up to replication, he gets it right; when it has been debunked by subsequent scholarship, he gets it wrong. Or he picks a side in a scholarly controversy, so the people on the side he picks think he is right, while the people on the other side think he is wrong. This problem, of giving a lot of play to only one side of a scientific controversy is endemic to any news coverage of science. It is a real issue, but it isn’t just Gladwell’s issue. I really don’t believe society would be better served by having no science reporting at all. Further, there are a LOT of social scientists who believe something is true because they learned it in school or read one professional article about it and its not their specialty so they are not reading all the current research. Are you really sure that every single thing you tell students in a lecture is correct? And that it will still be correct 5 or 10 years from now when your students remember it?

    Still, since Gladwell seems to be following this thread, I’ll say to him that his books would be even better if he periodically reminded his readers that science is tentative and some things he’s writing about will turn out to be wrong.

    The opposite problem is exemplified by Trey’s glib summary of Blink, which I have read before and really disagree with. The structure of the book’s overall arch is clear: snap/intuitive judgments can be surprisingly good when made by experienced experts who have trained their intuitions, and bad or prejudicial when made by people whose intuitions and judgments are not trained or are swamped by racism or other distortions. Here the gripe isn’t that Gladwell is presenting as certain something that is uncertain, but that different parts of the same book seem to contradict each other. Gladwell does not present a coherent theory that ties all the different stories together. Similarly, Outliers doesn’t sort out the status of different kinds of effects and leaves them all in the broad frame of “not just individual talent.” But these very contradictions are what ought to lead an interested reader into the underlying social science literature to sort out the threads.

    Anyway, as I’ve been gushing with praise of Gladwell all summer and recommending his books to my friends, I think the critique is an appropriate corrective to my excessive enthusiasm, even as I STILL think Gladwell is well worth reading.

    Like

    olderwoman

    July 27, 2010 at 2:32 pm

  26. I do agree with the idea that when people read a book about a topic, they view it as “settled” even if it’s controversial and an on-going debate

    I think that has a lot to do with how the author presents the subject. People who are interested participants in the debate and also popularize may be tempted to write the other side out of their book and present their own book as established fact, but if they do, the reading public will most likely take it as such, which does them a disservice.

    Responsible popularizing is hard, and involves obligations not to overplay your case in whatever disputes are still controversial in the scientific community and by doing so misrepresent the state of the field. (I’m looking at you, Pinker.) In some ways it may be better to have popularizing done by someone who isn’t doing their own research and defending their own conclusions, but observing it from some distance, like Asimov.

    Like

    chris

    July 27, 2010 at 2:40 pm

  27. My two cents:

    I was a huge fan of Gladwell’s in the 1990s. Some of his articles– on Lois Weisberg, the Coolhunt, and Gloversvile come to mind– were simply excellent. And some recent pieces are terrific as well. I thought the piece on spying was great, and involved terrific use of Goffman. I think that what I appreciate most is Gladwell’s impeccable taste for interesting social phenomena, his clear writing, and his research skills in finding and using relevant social science (I’m sure I’m not alone in sometimes being embarrassed when he uses work from my own discipline that I wasn’t aware of).

    That all being said, I have always been uncomfortable with his tendency to blur the line between what has been established by research and what is just his conjecture, with the possibility that the reader is misled into thinking that there is more support for his conjectures than there actually is. And I think this problem has been more serious in the last decade (perhaps because his status now allows him to be less careful and because the demand for his work is apparently bottomless; I don’t think any of us can relate to either– I sure can’t). To some extent, this may be due to the trade-off/compromise that “Malcolm Gladwell” mentioned in his last post. But that does not excuse some of what I have seen. In particular, the article I commented on in this letter to the New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/letters/2009/09/07/090907mama_mail1) was quite poor, and potentially did some real damage in causing people to misunderstand the financial crisis.

    P.S. What is more delicious than the ambiguity as to whether “Malcolm Gladwell” is really “Malcolm Gladwell”?! If it really is you, Malcom, then I tip your hat to your willingness to engage like that, and I congratulate you on your achievements– they certainly seem net-positive to me despite the misgivings I shared.

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    ezrazuckerman

    July 27, 2010 at 3:02 pm

  28. JMI published an interview with Gladwell a few years ago, along with some provocative essays (e.g., see Andy Hoffman’s: ‘let’s put malcolm gladwell out of business’): http://webuser.bus.umich.edu/ajhoff/pub_academic/Malcolm%20Gladwell.pdf

    Like

    tf

    July 27, 2010 at 3:15 pm

  29. I think sociology and related fields owe a HUGE debt to Malcolm Gladwell for popularizing our research. If more people read Gladwell, I would not have to explain so often what it is that sociologists do, nor would my explanations be met with so many skeptical remarks about the obviousness of our research conclusions (the truth always seems obvious, post hoc).

    I also do not think that Gladwell’s overstatement or simplification of his conclusions/syntheses is appreciably greater than those found in many top journal articles. Scholars overstate their case (and understate the counter arguments) *all the time*.

    Lastly, there is a real problem if professors assign *any book without critically engaging it. I think it works much better to assign–and critique–a clearly-written, provocative book (like Blink) that covers a lot of ground (and makes mistakes along the way) than it does to teach a book that is accurate, muddled, and less ambitious.

    So Malcom, I’d like to thank you sincerely for making it easier to explain what I do to people like my in-laws. And if there are a few people out there who think they’ll revolutionize the electronic music scene if they only spend 10,000 hours filming their cat walking on their Casio, so be it.

    Like

    Bob

    July 27, 2010 at 6:59 pm

  30. I guess I’d just say that this is the flip side of this post I did a couple of weeks ago on academic writing. To me, the problem is always finding a counterintuitive framing that will get a reader’s attention and focus a paper on a small, but significant point. The goal being, in my case (and most of our cases) to get the 50 or so people who read academic sociology (ok, make it 5000, but we’re still talking peanuts compared to Blink or Tipping Point) to read and take seriously a piece of scholarship.

    Gladwell has two problems. First, he is digesting our research which is sometimes phrased in such a way as to beg for exactly the kind of love he can provide. And we all know that there are those among us who would push the veracity of their ideas for just that kind of attention.

    Second, Gladwell is incredibly good at doing exactly what I find so difficult: framing and getting attention. Hence the stickiness that the original post points out.

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    seansafford

    July 27, 2010 at 10:50 pm

  31. I’m a bit surprised that Malcolm has found us unwilling to address the familiar trade-off faced by popular science writers. I think pretty much everyone has acknowledged that a book like Blink makes certain ideas compelling to a lay audience at the cost of oversimplifying them. The question has been whether this trade-off (excitement at the cost of critical detail) is defensible. And some of us (a minority, I think) have said it’s not.

    There are lots of ideas in books like Blink that I immediately disagree with. But because the book doesn’t argue for those ideas–replacing argument with what looks like straight reportage of scientific results–I clearly can’t argue with Gladwell about them. (Though I don’t doubt that he has many interesting discussions about his work.) I would have to argue with the scientists he’s talked to.

    This thread really proves the point: whether its an outright error or a point of dispute, the answer to the critic is “It’s not that kind of book.” Don’t blame the author–he was trying to find a difficult balance, etc.

    And this of course true. It isn’t that kind of book. It’s the kind of book that tells you something but doesn’t offer an occasion for critical thinking about it. So I don’t think very highly of that kind of book, especially when used within the academy. Here I think it is perfectly reasonable to make the trade-off in the opposite direction: improve the intelligibility of the idea at the cost of some of the excitement.

    I can’t prevent books like Blink from being written, nor can prevent bad television programs or movies from being made on their basis. And I wouldn’t want to. All I have done is to criticize it. But Malcolm and Brayden seem to be saying that such criticism is misplaced–indeed, they seem to argue that popularizers (especially when successful) have a certain kind of “license”. A license to mislead readers about what is known in a range of disciplines in order to generate excitement about them? It’s an odd thing to defend.

    In fact, given Gladwell’s vast popularity, I found it odd to call the criticism a “backlash” (as Brayden did in his post) and even odder to use ad hominem as a first reaction (as Malcolm did in the comments). Like I say, it’s just ordinary criticism. Malcolm gets some things wrong, and people are pointing those things out. They are then also (rightly) worried that his errors have a certain kind of mass appeal, so we’ll be cleaning up the mess he’s making in the popular imagination for a while to come. That’s what we do as teachers.

    Your books are being met with “more than condescension”, Malcolm. (I for one reserve the right to feel misled if the commenter here turns out to anyone other than Mr. Gladwell himself, and I hope the required email field has already settled the matter.) Your work books are being met with scholarly criticism, which really is the sort of thing you can expect from people who teach for a living.

    Like

    Thomas

    July 28, 2010 at 7:10 am

  32. Here’s an example of what I mean.

    Reading Blink, we meet the startling idea that there are psychologists who have a completely objective way of knowing *with 90% accuracy* whether a couple will get divorced just by watching a 15-minute video of their interaction. I’m immediately skeptical, and, sure enough, the Wikipedia article on Gottman (the inventor of the technique) links to a chapter by Laurie Abraham, excerpted in Slate:

    http://www.slate.com/id/2246732/pagenum/all/

    which quite convincingly demolishes Gottman’s work. But it was of course written after Blink (and even refers to it) and is also written by a popularizer. It is better read as response to Gladwell than to Gottman.

    Abraham also cites relevant research. She refers to a 2001 paper in the Journal of Marriage and Family, which also demolishes Gottman. This is the same journal that published Gottman’s original study, subsequent criticism, and responses, and then, like I say, this paper by Heyman and Slep:

    http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/118971429/abstract

    They say something quite important for our purposes: “Two issues in particular … plague the 15 prediction studies and make it imprudent to inform the public and clinicians that researchers can accurately predict who will divorce.”

    Four years later, however, Gladwell tells the public only about Gottman’s work, even though the criticism appears in the same journal. That’s a pretty low standard even for “middle-brow non-fiction”.

    Sadly, yes, Brayden is right that the same sort of thing happens in the academic literature, especially when one field (like org studies) draws on the work of another (like psychology or anthropology).

    I think it’s indefensible. It makes the psychology of marriage interesting at the cost of completely distorting the science. (Gottman himself is not the science and therefore not the problem. The science, which includes Gottman’s results and their criticism, appears healthy … at least after this very quick look. It’s the popular image that is in trouble.)

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    Thomas

    July 28, 2010 at 12:24 pm

  33. It is when I read phrases like –“We’ll be cleaning up the mess he’s making in the popular imagination for a while to come”–that I bow out, I’m afraid. But I’m grateful for the interest in my work. And I appreciate the thoughtful criticism, much of which I will take to heart. Just know that my mistakes, such as they are, tend to be made out of enthusiasm for what all of you do.

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    Malcolm Gladwell

    July 28, 2010 at 1:19 pm

  34. Hey Malcolm, you entered a conversation about the “tsunami of wrong” you have already been accused of causing, countered by accusing the critic of just trying to drum up publicity, called my views “nasty” (sending me a smiley to boot!) and then “bow out” because I rephrase the general thrust of my argument (and others) by saying you’re making a mess?!?! Pretty mild phrasing I thought, after your “people who teach for a living” jab. (Which I thought was well stuck, mind you.)

    Criticism is one of the things we do. You and Bob to the contrary, it’s not about being grateful or enthusiastic. It is, like said before, about really trying to figure out how the thing works.

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    Thomas

    July 28, 2010 at 1:34 pm

  35. I really don’t want to continue this indefinitely. But Thomas: “people who teach for a living” was not a jab. It was said with the greatest of respect: I am the grandson, nephew, son, and brother of teachers. My point was that teachers every day wrestle with the same issue as I do–which how to balance complexity with accessibility. And the smiley face was genuine, btw. I use them all the time, to signal when I’m not not being nasty.

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    Malcolm Gladwell

    July 28, 2010 at 1:49 pm

  36. I’m just saying that there have been plenty of opportunities on all sides to bow out because of the tone. I’m all apologies for ruining the tone, if you want, but, like I say, I don’t think “mess” lowered the standard. (Note the comment immediately before your entry, for example.) Can’t we just igonore the odd jab (or misidentified jab–so much can happen in a blink, right?) and stay focused on the substance?

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    Thomas

    July 28, 2010 at 2:13 pm

  37. For the record, as I said I really like Gladwell’s writing and appreciate him as an author, and having read all his books within a short span have a sense of what he is trying to accomplish, I think Thomas’s criticisms are fair and reasonable. Just because I think something is good does not mean it is above criticism. Criticism is especially useful for works that have a lot of positives.

    I’m thinking about assigning Outliers to my honors sociology class, and this debate has given me good ideas about what to do with the book if I do assign it.

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    olderwoman

    July 28, 2010 at 4:06 pm

  38. Thomas, I guess my point didn’t come through. I think books like Blink get a lot of things right, and some things wrong. I do think we ought to critique them carefully, but I don’t think they should be dismissed out of hand, which seems to be your position.

    In my view from the lecturn, it’s a lot easier to correct the answers if someone else has already interested my students in the questions.

    I also regret that jabs have stymied what was an interesting discussion.

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    Bob

    July 28, 2010 at 5:30 pm

  39. Ignoring the issue of whether people did or did not jab (a debate that will go nowhere), to me the crucial issues are (1) how to do popularized social science better and (2) when and how to use popularized social science in teaching.

    For making popularized social science better, I do think that a really good writer like Gladwell (and any other popularizer) can be asked to do three things that would improve the portrayal of science without bogging down the writing. One is to check the citations database for work published after the work being featured to find out whether it has been refuted or criticized, or replicated. Second, let this information affect the writing. If something has been flat out refuted, don’t write about it. If the research is controversial and the data mixed, say so, and summarize the critics. Gladwell does this sometimes, and not other times. It is a fair criticism that he writes as if things are settled when they are not. Good popular science writing reports scientific controversies. Third, beef up the notes in the back to include not just the sources cited (which Gladwell includes) but some “further reading” sources that would point the reader to the underlying science or controversies.

    For use in teaching, I’m still thinking about the issues. But I’ll start by saying that if you take a popularization and then ask students to look at some of the underlying research and the criticisms of it, it would seem like you could have a great class that would both interest students and get them thinking about research controversies and using data and research to adjudicate issues.

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    olderwoman

    July 28, 2010 at 6:07 pm

  40. Whoops, above I realize that if something has been refuted, saying it is refuted is a good response, rather than “don’t write about it.”

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    olderwoman

    July 28, 2010 at 6:08 pm

  41. Well, I don’t think think the chapter in Blink on Gottman’s divorce predictions would be improved simply by writing (at the end?) that, BTW, all this has been refuted. I think if I had heard about Gottman’s results I would have investigated further and, once I had discovered what Abraham found, I would just have dropped it as a false lead.

    And, Bob, my point is that you very quickly get the sense from reading Blink that it’s not really built to be criticized. It doesn’t offer a rich object of critique. As I’ve shown with the Gottman stuff, refuting Gladwell is a no-brainer. It takes about five-minutes with Google and you’re essentially done; you immediately discover that he has left out the entire scientific reception of Gottman’s work, which is largely — and devastatingly — critical of exactly the point that Gladwell emphasizes (thin-slicing). Since we were supposed to believe Gladwell on Gottman’s authority, the whole thing immediately falls apart.

    By contrast, refuting Gottman is not at all a no brainer. To do that you would have to learn the statistical fundamentals that Heyman and Slep’s argument depends on. It’s elementary stuff, a bit technical, and exactly the sort of thing students should be taught.

    I don’t see why we need someone to first popularize Gottman to use his work as an example of the importance of, say, cross validation. In the classroom, anyone can do what Gladwell does. Just say that there’s psychologist who claims to be able to predict from a 15-minute conversation between newly-weds whether they will still be married in six years. Sounds crazy, right? Well, yes, it is. Here’s how he fooled us (and perhaps himself) … etc.

    In fact, there are some great cases from the study of telekinesis that can be used to make the same methodological point. Starts our really (freakily) exciting. But once you see how the data was really produced, the excitement quickly fades away.

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    Thomas

    July 28, 2010 at 7:42 pm

  42. (Actually … not five minutes with Google. You just start with Wikipedia, which gives you Abraham, who gives you Heyman and Slep. Done.)

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    Thomas

    July 28, 2010 at 7:45 pm

  43. Okay. That last remark isn’t fair. We probably only have the Wikipedia factoid because of Abraham, whose Slate excerpt we probably only have because of Blink itself. But if we started where Abraham started (with Blink), it still wouldn’t take long to track to references to Gottman and then immediately be forced to unlearn everything Blink had taught us. I still don’t really see the point of Bob’s suggestion.

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    Thomas

    July 28, 2010 at 7:49 pm

  44. I don’t think that refuting Gottman’s extravagant claims invalidates the entire thin-slicing paradigm, and to claim otherwise reeks of the sort of sweeping generalizations you seem to have a problem with.

    All I am saying is that there is a baby in that bathwater, and that a critical approach to teaching Gladwell’s work can be effective. In my position at a reasonably well-respected research university, the biggest obstacle I face is utter apathy, not misinformation.

    I also haven’t seen a very compelling argument about the damage done by said misinformation. Even if Gladwell is completely wrong about everything, i think you need to assume people believe everything they read in order to find great harm in what he’s done.

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    Bob

    July 28, 2010 at 9:05 pm

  45. That’s my point exactly. Gottman is not the problem here. But a quick bit of elementary library research does invalidate *Gladwell’s* account of that paradigm. Like I say, teach Gottman (and his critics) if you think the paradigm has some validity. Don’t begin with Gladwell, who doesn’t really know (i.e., scientifically) what he (or Gottman) is talking about, because he doesn’t … or didn’t at the time of writing … understand the simple point Heyman and Slep make. It’s a point students in the social sciences do well to learn as part of their introduction to thin slicing.

    To your point about needing an argument for the damage: I’m assuming, for the sake of argument, that Gladwell’s books are very compelling, which is something his fans certainly emphasize. But you seem, in any case, to be withdrawing to a position where no criticism of any book, no matter how flawed, has merit, because, after all, no one believes everything they read anyway.

    Or what? I mean, surely if Gladwell really were completely wrong about everything, and yet wrote that very compelling prose of his, we’d warn our students about him, not assign him as required reading.

    I’d like to live in a world in which critics help us to distinguish between authors we can trust and authors we can’t. Gladwell is simply turning out to be an author we have to approach with great caution. That’s good to know.

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    Thomas

    July 28, 2010 at 9:30 pm

  46. I’m not sure how I seem to be “withdrawing to a position where no criticism of any book, no matter how flawed, has merit.” Perhaps you missed these statements:

    “a critical approach to teaching Gladwell’s work can be effective.”

    “there is a real problem if professors assign *any book without critically engaging it.”

    “books like Blink get a lot of things right, and some things wrong. I do think we ought to critique them carefully.”

    “it works much better to assign–and critique–a clearly-written, provocative book (like Blink) that covers a lot of ground (and makes mistakes along the way).”

    This sort of distortion makes discussion fatiguing and pointless. If you can actually point to the great harm Gladwell has done, I’m all ears. Otherwise, I’m going to excuse myself from what is becoming a silly debate.

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    Bob

    July 28, 2010 at 10:12 pm

  47. Hmm, I just wrote an extended comment on specific points of praise and critique in Gladwell’s books, but Bob’s “fatigue” comment is well taken and I’m wondering whether it is worth it to take up the space. Thomas’s last post makes it pretty clear that he has not actually read Gladwell’s books, he’s just harping on one piece of research that he knows Gladwell got wrong. My post is a discussion of some things I think Gladwell got right.

    I think it is entirely constructive to try to tell Malcolm Gladwell how to be Malcolm Gladwell only better (by being more careful about controversies in science), if he’s interested in listening. But it is just pointless and sour grapes to complain because Malcolm Gladwell is a good writer and has built an audience by writing a lot of stuff that is well worth reading.

    If he’s paying attention to our little pond, I do think Gladwell should take heed and do Gladwell better precisely because he is now so widely read. He needs to bear the responsibility that goes with his fame.

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    olderwoman

    July 28, 2010 at 10:27 pm

  48. Thanks for the discussion, guys. I learned something, and got a bit clearer about my views on popular science, Gladwell in particular. We don’t yet know enough about each other, I would argue, to know that any one of us is tiresome or silly or don’t read the things we criticize. I’ll write a more coherent post on my own blog soon and add a link here. Best, T.

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    Thomas

    July 29, 2010 at 8:15 am

  49. For a guy who seems to pride himself on accuracy in writing, you sure seem willing to misrepresent what other people say. No one called you tiresome or silly, and to imply otherwise gives the impression that you want to engage in some kind of mano-y-mano slamfest. Regardless if that’s your intent, it takes two to tango and I’m not dancing.

    My final clarification on the actual issue: I can’t speak to others, but I do think Gladwell’s mistakes “significantly diminish” his contribution. They just don’t erase it, in my view. And in a nation that prides itself on its anti-intellectualism, Gladwell seems to be the only writer who is introducing people to social science and engaging them in the questions with which we wrestle.

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    Bob

    July 30, 2010 at 5:07 pm

  50. I do see argument as a kind of contest … of ideas. One wants to see which ideas stand up best under examination and discussion. Like I say, we simply don’t know enough about each other to make this about each other. So I won’t, and haven’t.

    In any case, here’s a follow-up post on as a response to Brayden’s ideas about how much Gladwell’s rhetoric looks like that of organization science:

    http://secondlanguage.blogspot.com/2010/08/malcolm-gladwell-andor-karl-weick.html

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    Thomas

    August 1, 2010 at 8:06 pm

  51. On the off chance that there’s somebody else out there who can’t stop thinking about this topic:

    http://secondlanguage.blogspot.com/2010/08/malcolm-gladwell-andor-daniel-pinchbeck.html

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    Thomas

    August 4, 2010 at 2:27 pm

  52. James March cites Gladwell (as an authority) on page 22 of Ambiguities of Experience. He also doesn’t hold out much hope for distinguishing between the “credibility” of Karl Weick’s and Anton Chekhov’s stories. Discussion here:

    http://secondlanguage.blogspot.com/2010/08/reading-literature.html

    (I think I’m about done for now. But you never know.)

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    Thomas

    August 6, 2010 at 1:12 pm

  53. […] in drawing public interest to their work, some – like Brayden King at OrgTheory.net – consider the inaccuracies in Gladwell’s work to be a small price to pay for the good publicity. Others […]

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