Tag Archives: science writing

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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Yes, scientists should write about science

A couple of people I know linked to this fierce blogpost by a philosopher of science claiming that science journalism is inherently corrupt:

Training scientists to be science communicators, as some insist we should do, merely makes them less active scientists, and they will remain unable to communicate science unless they, too, fall into the drama trap and modify attitudes. Facts are not dramatic. All the actual drama is in how people respond to facts, and that is no longer science, nor even science policy, but simple politics.

This has a number of implications. The most obvious is that we should not expect journalism nor popular publishing to do much to actually educate the lay public. The reason why textbooks and monographs are dry is that they do attempt to cover facts, and the different (actual) ideas and approaches, in order to initiate a critical analysis in the reader. You don’t do this with a breathless Dan Brown style of writing. So if we want a better informed populace, and it is vital that we have one, there is only one way to do it: teach the science to students in a non-partisan fashion, and stop making up drama, which is to say, conflict, where there is none. Evolution is not controversial in science, nor global warming, tobacco causing cancer, and the overuse of pesticides and fertilisers causing massive ecological damage. These are facts in any sense of the word, philosophical debates about factitude notwithstanding. All else is obfuscation for political drama.

Two responses:

  • Facts are not dramatic;  but there is drama in the experience of passing from not knowing a fact to knowing it.  One great advantage that writers about math have over writers about the other sciences is that we can enact the mathematics — not an account of the mathematics, but the mathematics itself — right there on the page.  I have taught the proof of the infinitude of primes to undergraduates many times, and it is not dry — when you haven’t seen it before, it’s kind of mindblowing.  No Dan Brown hoo-hah required.
  • Tobacco causing cancer is not controversial now, but it was certainly controversial within the memory of many people still now living.  The process by which we passed from “controversial” to “not controversial” is a scientific one (though of course a political one too.)  Talking about that process isn’t obfuscation — it’s a lesson in how we make new facts.

 

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