Gladwell, Chabris, and the responsibilities of the science writer

It started with Christopher Chabris’s highly negative Wall Street Journal review of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath:

One thing “David and Goliath” shows is that Mr. Gladwell has not changed his own strategy, despite serious criticism of his prior work. What he presents are mostly just intriguing possibilities and musings about human behavior, but what his publisher sells them as, and what his readers may incorrectly take them for, are lawful, causal rules that explain how the world really works.

Chabris complains that Gladwell places a lot of weight on a tiny study, which later researchers have failed to replicate, a fact unmentioned in Gladwell’s book.  Chabris went into greater depth in his blog, in a post title “Why Gladwell matters (and why that’s unfortunate)”.  On Gladwell’s readers:

Who are those people? They are the readers who will take Gladwell’s laws, rules, and causal theories seriously; they will tweet them to the world, preach them to their underlings and colleagues, write them up in their own books and articles (David Brooks relied on Gladwell’s claims more than once in his last book), and let them infiltrate their own decision-making processes. These are the people who will learn to trust their guts (Blink), search out and lavish attention and money on fictitious “influencers” (The Tipping Point), celebrate neurological problems rather than treat them (David and Goliath), and fail to pay attention to talent and potential because they think personal triumph results just from luck and hard work (Outliers). It doesn’t matter if these are misreadings or imprecise readings of what Gladwell is saying in these books—they are common readings, and I think they are more common among exactly those readers Gladwell says are his audience.

Daniel Engber, in Slate, complained that Gladwell’s books don’t send a coherent message:

So which is it: Do the poor get poorer (Outliers), or does being poor make them rich (David and Goliath)? It’s both…. The notion that a rule holds true except for when it doesn’t runs through David and Goliath, and insulates its arguments from deep interrogation.

And today, Gladwell himself weighs in with a testy response to Chabris’s review.  Who told him it would be a good idea to title it “Christopher Chabris should calm down?”  For that matter, who told him it would be a good idea to respond at all?  Don’t get me wrong, I get it — if somebody said those things in the national press, I too would probably say

What is going on here? The kinds of people who read books in America seem to have no problem with my writing.

but I would say it to my wife and my friends — that’s what they’re there for! — and maintain a dignified silence in public.  At least I hope that’s what I’d do.  (A wag on Twitter pointed out that the last guy to write a long public complaint about a bad review from Chabris was Jonah Lehrer.)

Heard enough about Malcolm Gladwell?  Too bad, because now you get to hear my take.  I like Malcolm Gladwell.  I sometimes feel a little bit alone in my defense of him.  I thought The Tipping Point showed a strong intuitive grasp of mathematics.  I don’t care if he doesn’t know how to spell eigenvalue, because I feel like he instinctively gets how differential equations work.  I think he is a superb writer of English sentences and I think people consistently underestimate how much that has to do with his popularity.  (See also:  Nate Silver.)  I can’t defend David and Goliath because I haven’t read it, or Outliers, or any of his books after the first one.

But I want to talk about this point Chabris makes on his blog, which I think deserves focused attention even though I disagree with it:

It doesn’t matter if these are misreadings or imprecise readings of what Gladwell is saying in these books—they are common readings

Is that true?  Are we, science writers, responsible not only for what we write, but for what careless readers are likely to make out of what we write?  I can’t accept that we are.  I write a lot of articles of the form “People justify X by saying Y but actually Y is not a good argument for X” and every single time I do this, the comments demonstrate that most people read it as “X is false.”  Is there a sentence in the piece of the form “None of which is to say that X is false?”  Of course there is.  Doesn’t matter.  I claim this is not sufficient reason to stop writing articles of that form.  But I think it’s something we all ought to be conscious of as we write:  not just, am I saying what I mean to say, but what are the obvious and inevitable misreadings, and how can we express ourselves so as to make them rarer?

Then there’s the question, more central to Chabris’s criticism, of how thorough science journalists must be in their treatment of the literature.  What Chabris wrote about Gladwell’s use of the small, unreplicated study seemed pretty damning to me.  But then I thought:  well, what do I do in How Not To Be Wrong?  In order to make my point I write about a study — in fact, a study by Christopher Chabris — about genetic influence on general intelligence.  Has Chabris’s study been replicated?  Frankly, I don’t know.

Here’s where I think the difference is.  A book like Gladwell’s is meant to advance a certain thesis, and the studies he cites are adduced as evidence for that thesis.  In my book, the thesis, which is some point of mathematics, is something I know is correct.  So the studies play the role of illustrations, not evidence.  My approach is like Gladwell’s, in that my goal is to tell a story.  But writing about math is much easier, because I know in advance that my story is true.


Update:  Andrew Gelman weighs in with a great post on popular science as stone soup.

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4 thoughts on “Gladwell, Chabris, and the responsibilities of the science writer

  1. quasihumanist says:

    (Warning: I might just be being provocative.)

    But do you know your story is true?

    When an ordinary person without much understanding of mathematics thinks of a statement (even a statement of mathematics) as being true, they think of it as accurately reflecting some aspect of the physical empirical world.

    This is, of course, not what mathematicians mean by “true”. For example, we believe Cantor’s theory of cardinality even though the difference between countable and uncountable sets (or, even worse, accessible and inaccessible cardinals) has no effect on anyone’s (other than perhaps set theorists’) life(*) and no empirical counterpart.

    You know that what your story is true in our sense of the word true. But that might not be the same sense in which the ordinary reader takes it.

    You might remember when Marilyn vos Savant objected to the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem on the grounds that it depended on things like hyperbolic space, which ‘do not exist’. Of course from a mathematical point of view, she doesn’t know what she is talking about. But it’s not so easy to say that mathematics is right! The creation of ‘fictive’ entities does have a long history in mathematics, starting with negative numbers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the stance of 20th and 21st century mathematics, allowing essentially unlimited creation of fictive entities (as long as they are consistent and well defined), is the right one, and it certainly is not going to be a stance accepted by the average reader without a good deal of explanation.

    (*) By the way, it bothers me a little when people say that countable and uncountable sets have different ‘sizes’ or that there are ‘more’ elements in an uncountable set, because I think that, while our intuitive notions of ‘size’ and ‘more’ are equivalent to the mathematical idea of cardinality in the finite case, we have no intuitive notion of ‘size’ or ‘more’ for infinite sets and it should not be automatic to hijack the same words for infinite cardinalities.

  2. […] is related to the question of whether Malcolm Gladwell is to blame for people thinking there’s no such thing as talent and all you have to do is practice oboe […]

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