Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Why You Shouldn't Trust Malcolm Gladwell

Don't Blink
And why you should trust me when I say that.

Gladwell is no doubt one of the most iconic writers of the 21st century.  All 4 of his major books, including the popular Blink and Outliers, have all reached the top of the New York Times Bestseller's list.  His first book, The Tipping Point, was named as one of the most important books of the 2000s by AmazonThe A.V. Club and many other respectable outlets.  He has entrenched himself as one of the most recognizable authors in recent memory.  His popularity and perceived know-how have allowed him to command $45,000 in speaking fees per appearance, most notably at Bank of America (and if you were wondering how BOA has been doing recently...).  He was also awarded by the American Sociological Association for his excellence in "disseminating sociological research," so academics have endorsed him as well.

When I tell people that I plan to study behavioral economics, one of the first things people say to me is, "Have you heard of Malcolm Gladwell?"  And usually I respond, "How could I not have heard of him?"  Certainly, I have read many of his books at the recommendation of many peers.  Just like they said, most of his work centers around topics in social psychology, a key component in many business and economic threads.  I have found his books to be well written; mesmerizing at times, as he skillfully and effortlessly glides from topic to topic, story to story.  His writing style is unique and captivating.  Unfortunately, rather than nonfiction, professional business level books, I have found the information in Gladwell's books to be nothing more then what he is best at telling: simple stories, based upon little other than the author's desire to stir up interest and theorize about things that he thinks are important.

I will point out my specific qualms in a moment, but more generally, it is important to understand that Gladwell is a journalist, not an academic.  He is not formally trained in any of the sciences, nor does he pretend that he is.  His profession is telling stories, not in conducting experiments and drawing scientific conclusions from them.  However, he does cite scientific studies and mentions various scientists' contributions, so the information he is conveying is clearly dressed in academia's clothes.  You would be hard pressed to find a Gladwell book that is not too far from other real academics' work in a bookstore, such as Dan Ariely or Steven Pinker (one cannot mention Gladwell without mentioning Pinker as well.  He was the first one to catch on to Gladwell over 5 years ago).

However after reading his books, it has become clear that Gladwell has a different agenda when it comes to writing.  He adores addressing seeming paradoxes, and gives the reader a sense of an intellectual rebellion when he presents his ideas.  Many of which his books are based on these contradictions, like how the small guy might actually have the advantage (David and Goliath).  This style of writing empowers his readers, who think they have just struck an intellectual goldmine of useful and applicable facts.  His presentation makes the reader feel they have just been let in on a big secret in the academic world, giving them a sense of importance.  I would caution his readers to temper their enthusiasm.  For example, take his quote (first reported by Slate) on the Brian Lehrer show, where he was actually trying to respond to his critics (emphasis mine):

I am a story-teller, and I look to academic research … for ways of augmenting story-telling. The reason I don’t do things their way is because their way has a cost: it makes their writing inaccessible. If you are someone who has as their goal ... to reach a lay audience ... you can't do it their way.”

Presumably, by "their way," he means the way in which true academics report their findings.  He is admitting here that he does not subject any of his theories to widely-accepted tests of scientific rigor and accuracy.  In an interview with The Telegraph, Gladwell says, "The mistake is to think these books are ends in themselves. My books are gateway drugs—they lead you to the hard stuff."  Gladwell himself is discrediting his own work, essentially saying you also need a Psych 101 textbook at your side to make sure everything jives with actual fact.  If his books are not "ends in themselves," why does he go on with doing Ted talk after Ted talk, business meeting after business meeting masquerading around ideas that are truly stories that are inspired by science?  The citations and studies he uses are simply the starting point for him to draw completely different, unrelated, and non-peer reviewed conclusions.  They give his ideas unwarranted scientific legitimacy.  And that legitimacy has already crossed the societal tipping point (if I daresay).  Google Gladwell and some of his ideas, and check out what pops up.  LinkedIn business advice.  A video of him giving advice to start ups Leadership lessons to local governments  He is already a trusted source of knowledge, unrightly so.  Where his work truly fails the "true" test is the predictability part.  The way he writes about the past makes some of the phenomenons he describe seem real.  In reality, he picks convenient anecdotes that fit his version of the story, and we are therefore left with nothing but coincidental events that are dressed up as social forces.  Little of Gladwell's work has any scientific value for anyone looking to come up with educated hypotheses about the future, which is a defining trait of real science.

For the sake of conciseness, I have listed my findings and inconsistencies with his book below.  I hope that everyone reading this will take what I am saying with them, as it is important to differentiate between true scientific literature and books that use scientific wonder only as an inspiration.  Think of Gladwell's books as a movie with a marketing campaign that plays up the "based on a true story" element.  The studio finds an original story, then heavily dramatizes it and dresses it up until you have no idea what is true or not.

 Have I heard of Gladwell?  Yes, of course.  And he has his place as one of the great writers in recent memory, a master of presentation and of engaging his readers.  I just wish that wasn't the first person everyone thought and drew knowledge from of when they think of behavioral economics and social science.

The Tipping Point:
The three rules of epidemics he proposes, while compelling, are entirely subjective and impossible for anyone to predict anything from, which is a stalwart and the purpose of solid science.  Most notably, his rule on the power of context is quite vague.  Who could have predicted that a 140 character limited app would explode based upon the context it was released in.  Sure, it is easy now to look back.  But using these rules as principles to run your business off of?  Tread carefully.
Instead, read Contagious, a scientific look into social virality. 

Promotes and touts that our gut reactions are indeed usually correct.  He picks a few nice anecdotes to point to, such as art curators relationship counselors, and makes for a great read on the triumph of quick thinkers.  However, Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slown (see description on the book shelf page)essentially debunks the entirety of this book. Kahneman uses over 50 years of his own peer reviewed research to describe how we cannot see when we are making wrong judgements, so we assume they are right.  So much for thin-slicing, which Gladwell says is superior and can actually be tainted by deep thinking.  Kahneman further describes that is why we are evolutionarily endowed with our second system of thinking, one that is more deliberate and less based on judgement.  By the way, one of these writers has won a Nobel-Prize.  I'll leave it to you to guess which one.

Additionally, Gladwell claims that this snap judgement ability is why we turn to experts to solve our problems , because they have developed this thin-slicing cognitive ability.  Interesting and correct, however Gladwell presents this as new-found information, and fails to describe why it is actually true, and leaves it to the mystical power of the blink to explain.  In reality, an expert's knowledge and ability to solve problems can be traced neurologically to long term pontentiation of neurons in the brain, which create "super-highways" in the brain when certain neuronal pathways are used a lot.  For example, a mathematician has conditioned neuronal pathways that make him able to solve a problem much quicker then the average person.  Gladwell also neglects to mention that often times, experts at certain things can be wrong.  Dead wrong.  This cherry-picking of studies and anecdotes is a defining feature of Gladwell's.

Outliers begins with the story of Roseto, Pennsylvania, settled by descendants of a medieval Italian village of the same name.  Virtually no one suffers from heart disease in Roseto, which is obviously quite contrary to the rest of the country.  Gladwell describes the ability of Roseto as a town to combat heart disease can be drawn from their familial culture that was capable of "insulating" them from the problems of the modern world, in this case heart disease.  Here, Gladwell mistakens a genetic bottleneck and instead conjures up a sociological phenomenon that sparks magic and wonder in the readers mind.  He spends a whole three sentences talking about genetics, saying that other descendants have a normal rate of heart disease, so it could not be genes.  This refutes absolutely nothing about the bottle neck argument.  Who did the relatives marry?  What genes had entered the relatives' pool in the hundreds of years since they came to the United States?  How homogeneous was their DNA compared to the Rosetan's? Were certain families in the original village more prone to heart disease genetically, and they happened to all immigrate together?  All these questions, and more, would need to be answered for a valid, scientific conclusion to be drawn.  The clearest explanation is that the 26 original settlers that came to Roseto had good genes.  It was the luck of the draw, not a magical culture, as convenient as it is to believe otherwise.  

This may cut a few people deep, but it is quite important.  The 10,000 hour rule is not real, especially int he form that Gladwell presents it in.  The idea of a set number of hours to mastery for anyone for any task is ludicrous.  Nature and Nurture both have a role.    Inherited ability is important, as most other scientists would agree with their peer-reviewed studies.

And the fact that hockey players born in January excel relative to others based on birthday cutoffs, along with the kindergarten students, is obvious and logical.  Of course those with more developed brains and bodies will do better than those younger than them on average.  Why is this so shocking?

DISCLAIMER: One could easily make similar criticisms about me and my work, that I conveniently string anecdotes together in a way to make my work seem important.  The differences here are many, but mainly I am not parading around as an academic, my subject areas are much more precise, and I do no not view any of my pieces as a be all end all like Gladwell.  I welcome any and all discussion about anything I write, as you have seen with previous articles.  I do not intend to provide any answers; I want to start to get people talking about important issues.  I do not see myself as the expert, nor will I defend myself as one, as Gladwell so vigorously has.  I also welcome counterpoints and include them when appropriate, something noticeably missing in Gladwell's work.  Lastly, I apologize for this entire rant of an article.  One has to vent once in a while, no?

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