UPDATE: Malcolm Gladwell has been nice enough to come here and defend his methods in a comment. As always, be polite if you want to respond to that comment.
Over at his eponymous website, writer and corporate consultant Eric Garland takes up an issue which has started to bother me lately: “science-lite” books that offer superficial analyses of and solutions to social problems or—most disturbing to me—superficial descriptions of scientific work. To me, these include books like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (a page-turner, but one that left me cold), Jon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (with its unfortunate concentration on group selection) and The Happiness Hypothesis, David Brooks’s execrable The Social Animal, Nicholas Wade’s The Faith Instinct (funded and vetted by the Templeton Foundation), and all of the books and writing of the now-disgraced Wunderkind Jonah Lehrer.
What these books have in common is a) enormous appeal to the popular mind, especially the part that wants easy answers and doesn’t want to think too hard about science, b) good writing (usually), c) a “self-help” aspect, which promises that you can improve either your life or your business by applying or recognizing a few easily-digestible bits of modern science, and d) annoyingly superficial analyses of difficult problems.
I’m not the only one who shares these opinions. See, for example, Steve Pinker’s New York Times review of Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw, which contains these lines:
An eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing. But Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “sagittal plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.
. . . 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. For an apolitical writer like Gladwell, this has the advantage of appealing both to the Horatio Alger right and to the egalitarian left. Unfortunately he wildly overstates his empirical case.
or Michiko Kakutani’s NYT review of another Gladwell book, Outliers:
“Outliers,” Mr. Gladwell’s latest book, employs this same recipe, but does so in such a clumsy manner that it italicizes the weaknesses of his methodology. The book, which purports to explain the real reason some people — like Bill Gates and the Beatles — are successful, is peppy, brightly written and provocative in a buzzy sort of way. It is also glib, poorly reasoned and thoroughly unconvincing.
Much of what Mr. Gladwell has to say about superstars is little more than common sense: that talent alone is not enough to ensure success, that opportunity, hard work, timing and luck play important roles as well. The problem is that he then tries to extrapolate these observations into broader hypotheses about success. These hypotheses not only rely heavily on suggestion and innuendo, but they also pivot deceptively around various anecdotes and studies that are selective in the extreme: the reader has no idea how representative such examples are, or how reliable — or dated — any particular study might be.
I’ve also discussed David Brooks’s The Social Animal here (I’ve now finished it); it’s a dreadful and completely superficial analysis of human behavior using principles of evolutionary psychology, which presents as hard fact evolutionary speculations that haven’t even reached the hypothesis stage.
Contrast these superficial treatments with Steve Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which is long (832 pp.), requires thought (not a book for the beach!), and, especially, is meticulously documented and reasoned. It’s food for thought, and by the time you’ve finished it you’ve had a full intellectual meal. I’m not so much decrying the public for avoiding difficult books that require some thought as criticizing authors who, in search of a best seller, dumb down science to the point of distortion.
At any rate, Garland takes up two of these authors in his essay “Jonah Lehrer, Malcolm Gladwell, and our search for non-threatening answers.” Much of the essay is devoted to how these authors offer superficial solutions to social problems, and one might worry that, as a corporate consultant, Garland is afflicted with a bit of jealousy, but I think he’s right on the mark in several respects. As his essay argues:
Let us be clear – both Lehrer and Gladwell are worthy authors. Both write with tremendous fluidity and a gift for turning complex situations into engaging narratives. They are both excellent thinkers and world-class writers, period. But step back and look at the topics they cover:
- How trends emerge in the global economy
- How we make decisions
- How people are creative
- How people achieve success
Neither Gladwell nor Lehrer attempt to cover single subjects with both breadth and depth, like, for example, Mark Kurlansky does in Salt and Cod. They swing for the fences and attempt to explain how “things happen” or “how brains work.” They mix together enormous fields that are still in their infancy, such as neuroscience, with popular fields like art and music and sports. In works of less than 500 pages, Gladwell and Lehrer attempt to enlighten the reader on How the World Works, What People are Really Like, and How Greatness Happens without getting into any of the technical details that would absolutely overwhelm the majority of the readers traipsing through airport book shop before grabbing their flight home.
The incredible complexity of neurotransmitters, global supply chains, or police emergency response training is smoothed over, edited, reduced to a light and palatable narrative of someone with the speech pattern of an Ivy League education. More than actionable insights, this kind of popular analysis gives the reader something far more immediately valuable – the feeling that they have a sophisticated view of the world. Reading this kind of book, the sharp corners, uncomfortable realizations, insecurity, class struggle and information overload of the early 21st century is massaged away into a single comfortable feeling - our elites know what is going on, and the complexity of the world can be explained in a calm, hip, erudite way.
Right on. What all these “science books” lack is respect for the reader. That respect would entail laying out the complexities of science, the potential problems with attractive hypotheses, and presenting hard data and statistics. It’s not that the public can’t understand these things: popular books by Steve Gould and Richard Dawkins aren’t dumbed down, but simply present the complexities of science in wonderful prose. Have a look at Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man if you think readers can’t grasp sophisticated statistical analyses or complex arguments. (Granted, that book has its flaws, but my point remains.) The Extended Phenotype, by Dawkins, is similar, though mathless.
Now these aren’t “self-helpish” books, but ones trying to explain real science with all its problems, complexities, and wonder. The new crop of popular science writers, represented by Haidt, Brooks, Gladwell, and Lehrer, are, in contrast, slick and superficial. That is what happens when one tries to blend On the Origin of Species with People magazine. Perhaps I’m sounding a bit like a curmudgeon here, but science is hard and complex, and it takes a special kind of mind, and a special talent for writing, to convey it accurately.
What we need are not journalists and popular writers who turn their hand to science, but scientists who turn their hand to journalism and popular writing.