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Malcolm Gladwell, Eclectic Detective
Posted by: AJ 5:56pm, Monday, 16 November 2009
Have you ever wondered why there are so many kinds of mustard but only one kind of ketchup? Or what Cézanne did before painting his first significant works in his 50s? Have you hungered for the story behind the Veg-O-Matic, star of the frenetic late-night TV ads? Or wanted to know where Led Zeppelin got the riff in “Whole Lotta Love”?
The banalities come from a gimmick that can be called the Straw We. First Gladwell disarmingly includes himself and the reader in a dubious consensus — for example, that “we” believe that jailing an executive will end corporate malfeasance, or that geniuses are invariably self-made prodigies or that eliminating a risk can make a system 100 percent safe. He then knocks it down with an ambiguous observation, such as that “risks are not easily manageable, accidents are not easily preventable.” As a generic statement, this is true but trite: of course many things can go wrong in a complex system, and of course people sometimes trade off safety for cost and convenience (we don’t drive to work wearing crash helmets in Mack trucks at 10 miles per hour). But as a more substantive claim that accident investigations are meaningless “rituals of reassurance” with no effect on safety, or that people have a “fundamental tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking greater risks in another,” it is demonstrably false.
AJ says: Pinker nails this one, for the most part. But he wades into murky waters. It gets interesting: a partial response by Gladwell.

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My take on Gladwell's rebuttal
Posted by: Jonathan 2:24pm, Saturday, 21 November 2009
I also really liked the review. I'm definitely a Gladwell fan, but I thought the criticism, not just the praise, was right on. I was disappointed by Gladwell's rebuttal on the issue of predicting pro quarterback performance, enough to comment on it.

What Gladwell wrote in his original article was that researchers Berri and Simmons "found no connection between where a quarterback was taken in the draft—that is, how highly he was rated on the basis of his college performance—and how well he played in the pros."

What Pinker wrote in his review was "It is simply not true that a quarter­back’s rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros."

What Gladwell writes in his rebuttal is "[David Berri and Rob Simmons'] conclusion was that the relation between aggregate quarterback performance and draft position was weak."

First, if we believe Gladwell now (the connection "was weak"), then what he originally wrote was false (there was "no connection").

Second, if we believe Gladwell now, what Pinker wrote was true (it is not true rank and success are uncorrelated).

Third, Gladwell's implication that what he writes in the rebuttal is what he wrote in the original article is false.

Then in the next sentence of the rebuttal Gladwell adds that Berri and Simmons found that quarterbacks drafted in positions 11 through 90 actually slightly outplay those in the top 10. He then writes, "I found this analysis fascinating. Pinker did not. This quarterback argument, he wrote, “is simply not true.”"

To add to the three above, fourth, Gladwell's implication that the analysis about players ranked 11 to 90 was in the article for Pinker to find fascinating is false (it's not in the article).

Fifth, Gladwell's claim that "this argument" is what Pinker wrote was "simply not true" is false. (Pinker wrote, "It is simply not true that a quarter­back’s rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros," which now even Gladwell agrees with.)

So, to sum up, what Gladwell originally wrote was false, what claims he wrote is false, and his claim about what Pinker wrote is false. Meanwhile what Pinker wrote is true, as confirmed by Gladwell himself.

What's funny is that all of this seems to support Pinker's more significant overall take, which is that Gladwell's biggest flaw is that "he wildly overstates his empirical case."

Gladwell fan?
Posted by: AJ 2:50pm, Monday, 23 November 2009
That was a work of minor genius right there! =)

I'm curious as to why you're such a Gladwell fan. The first few times I read his articles, I was impressed and entertained. Then I read one of his books... he really tries way too hard to tie things together. Definitely still entertaining, but the conclusions are useless.

Gladwell fan
Posted by: Jonathan 4:27pm, Monday, 23 November 2009
Thanks, AJ. I'm glad you didn't add, "however you wildly overstate your empirical case."

I agree with your criticism of Gladwell. Taking his book Blink as an example, I'm no more inclined to value instinct over analysis after reading it. (My instinctive and analytical reactions to his conclusions were both "Meh.")

But I do think he's an exceptionally engaging and clear storyteller who finds really interesting ideas and research to write about. I just flipped to a random page in Blink, and he's writing about the theory that the causal direction between mood and expression can go in reverse - that your facial expression can affect your mood. He describes a study that had people look at cartoons, either while holding a pen between their lips, which prevented them from smiling, or while holding a pen between their teeth, which forced them to smile. According to Gladwell, the smilers found the cartoons "much funnier." That kind of thing is fascinating to me, and like a lot of his stuff, it relates to a lot of interesting Big Questions (Does acting happy make you happy? How does our mind relate to our body?) - it just doesn't answer any of them definitively.

Gladwell's not so bad
Posted by: AJ 9:33am, Tuesday, 24 November 2009
You're right. I think I was a little too harsh -- he does find fantastic examples. In that sense, he's a great distiller, but not a great synthesizer. So at the very least he provides you with the information to arrive at your own conclusions, provided that you ignore his =).
Gladwell without the science
Posted by: billm 10:30am, Tuesday, 24 November 2009
I was a fan before he started writing so exclusively about science and sociology. He's a very good writer. I may have mentioned this article before, but I've always loved it. It's about Ron Popeil, inventor of the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie & BBQ and many other kitchen devices, and it's fascinating. It's not easy to write a great article about a guy whose fame is based on how much crap he can sell on the Home Shopping Network, but Gladwell does a great job.

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