This article first appeared on the blog Stuff Smart People Like
I'm a psychologist by training. As a psychological researcher you learn many things. In my Ph.D. program we were taught the importance of skepticism, how to carefully design experiments to test research questions, and perhaps most importantly, we learned the value of properly interpreting psychological findings. The cardinal sin in research is to make conclusions that are not supported by the data.
In fact, this temptation to “go beyond the data” is so strong that academics have invented a “checks and balances” system to guard against it. It’s called peer review. In the academic world, if you submit a paper wherein the conclusions stretch beyond the data, you can expect to receive a swift smack-down from your peers.
What happens if you are unconstrained by these restrictions, have little to no training in science, and have a decent amount of influence? Simple, Malcolm Gladwell happens.
Gladwell is a writer of some acclaim. He has written four books -- three of which have dealt with research in the social sciences and all of which have been best-sellers. His style is eloquent and he excels at taking mundane basic research and presenting it in an entertaining light. However, the richness of his style is at odds with his lack of scientific understanding and reporting.
Perhaps most famously (or infamously) Gladwell misspelled a basic concept in linear algebra, the eigenvalue, as an “igon value” in one of his pieces. This led Steven Pinker, an accidental Gladwell nemesis, to label Gladwell’s “jarring” lack of technical grounding in science “The Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists of interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.” But this gaff is forgivable, even when you realize that Gladwell's father was a math professor.
The most heinous aspect of Gladwell’s books, to me, isn’t that he spins a good yarn, or that he occasionally only has a skin-deep understanding of the concepts he is reporting on; it is that he occasionally uses his books as a forum to advance his own theories about the world while conveniently ignoring scads of peer-reviewed scientific evidence to the contrary.
Por ejemplo, the central thesis to his book Outliers is that once you have an IQ score of 120 or above, your score is no longer of value when predicting your subsequent success. A viewpoint that is demonstrably false ala 50+ years of research. However, the notion that “smarts” are not a necessary component in the formula for success is a popular view to the average, who by definition is not extraordinarily intelligent. And thus we find the draw of Gladwell's books illustrated quite well in this quote from Pinker:
“The common thread in Gladwell’s writing is a kind of populism, which seeks to undermine the ideals of talent, intelligence and analytical prowess in favor of luck, opportunity, experience and intuition.”
This makes Gladwell the best friend of the everyman, the “anti-intellectual’s intellectual” as it were, and all but guarantees that he will sell a @!$%#load of books.
Look, we all have theories about the world. These theories are the basis of science. But having a theory, some anecdotal evidence and a basic understanding of scientific research is no substitute for having actual scientific training, conducting experiments, and having your work peer-reviewed.
This kind of pseudo-science strikes many psychologists (myself included) as a disservice to actual scientific research and a blatant abuse of power. Gladwell has reach and has used that reach to plant his pseudo-scientific ideas into the public's consciousness, or perhaps more appropriately, to give them validation for their personal biases. These ideas are very difficult to fight once they have been implanted, and no academic researcher has the clout to proffer a counter argument (Pinker’s attempts fell on deaf ears).
A contrast to Gladwell is the science writer Jonah Lehrer. Lehrer has written two books, done segments on NPR, and has his own science blog on Wired. Lehrer's pieces are often as well-written as Gladwell's and they stick closer to their subject matter -- though he has received some of his own criticism for going beyond the data. Still, in my opinion, Lehrer's works are far less dangerous to the field as a whole than Gladwell's. Here are a few recent blog posts by Lehrer:
Each of these articles reviews some psychological research that speaks to questions that people often have about themselves. And in each article Lehrer manages to make the work interesting and easily understandable without veering too much into anecdotes or his own pet theories about the world. This is the kind of science writing that scientists appreciate. I know that I personally would rather Lehrer summarize my own work than Gladwell (were it ever to warrant attention outside of my own little esoteric research circle).
It saddens me that Lehrer will probably never rise beyond the c-list while Gladwell will continue to win awards and be invited to speak at “scientific” conferences. It’s as if the public only cares about science if it wrapped in a book jacket with a white background, tiny graphic, and irregularly-spaced type.
Bonus Link: The Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator