Science writing: lite and wrong

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.


  1. Posted August 11, 2012 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    Being a good, clear science writer is a special skill and is orthogonal to scientific ability. (Put both in one and you have an Asimov.) Unfortunately, you can’t approach it quite like a journalist unless you actually know the area – and no-one can know all areas.

    • onkelbob
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 6:06 am | Permalink

      “… a special skill and is orthogonal to scientific ability.” Ah but it is essential to be a *funded* scientist. R01 were once 25 pages, are now 10. The scientist must explain clearly, correctly, completely, and concisely what they intend to do, and why the work is important to a sometimes hostile audience. (Too many fly people evaluating work by those who use mouse models and vice versa.)
      Journalist is not required to know the answer, they need to know the question, and who to ask to get the question; then accurately convey that answer to the public. As you see with Gladwell, accuracy is not his forte.

    • Posted August 11, 2012 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

      Carl Zimmer is my favourite journalist science writer.

  2. sgo
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    In the same post that mentions Lehrer, are you accusing Kakutani of plagiarism ;) ? (The quote by Pinker is repeated)

    I read a review of Gladwell’s book several years ago, and it also mentioned the “igon values”. Dealing with linear algebra all the time, I then decided not to read any of those books.

    In any case, I agree. Great science writers don’t need to dumb down their material. I greatly enjoyed Pinker’s Better Angels, Dawkins books, Fortey’s, E.O. Wilson’s, etc etc.

    • Posted August 11, 2012 at 5:40 am | Permalink

      Whoops, accidentally pasted the same comment twice. I’ve corrected this and added Kakutani’s take.



  3. Posted August 11, 2012 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    I recently picked up Jonathan Haidt’s book – it sounded interesting. Is it just the group selection that’s the problem with it, or is the general message of the book superficial to the point of being misleading?

  4. LilburnLowellDecker
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    Books on “pop science” make money for publishers and their authors so they will continue to roll off the presses and at the risk of being somewhat cynical, while I fault the publishers and authors for going for the dollars and at the expense of scientific accuracy, I also fault the American public which consumes these books. Too many Americans want the Cliff Notes version of reality, something they can chatter about at parties or in bars and appear knowledgeable on subjects they know little or nothing about. Millions of Americans seek Wisdom with a capital “W” but they been so conditioned by TV into accepting a few seconds of sound bites as an in depth analysis that they want Wisdom to be presented to them in an instant form, something they can absorb in the time it takes to imbibe a glass of Kool Aid. I’m not a fatalist on this because I believe the trend can be reversed if more science writers will join the tradition of Gould and Asimov and take the time to present real science in a readable style. Writers in the Gould-Asimov tradition can also offer another advantage not commonly found in the pop science books: How to recognize bad science when you see it

  5. Occam
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    1. The publishers cannnot be exonerated. If they allow glib superficiality thrown at the unwitting public, it’s their responsibility, too.


    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.

    Yes! Yes!! Yes!!!

  6. charles phillips
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    I understand the sentiment, but, to take a different point of view, I enjoyed Gladwell’s books and feel that they serve a purpose by providing an introduction to the topics. I would be unlikely to attempt a “serious” book on the subjects had I not tried the science lite starters…

  7. gbjames
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 6:32 am | Permalink


    And thanks for getting Garland to remind me of “Salt” and “Cod”, both of who I thoroughly enjoyed.

    • RWO
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 7:30 am | Permalink

      “How it Began” (Chris Impey) works for me the way “Salt” and “Cod” did by explaining fascinating material in terms even I can comprehend, while entertaining me at the same time. There are more books these days that do this, I think, than even a few years ago. I believe it is Randy Olson, a physicist, I heard interviewed on Science Friday about a decade ago who helped spearhead a campaign within the scientific community for improved communication with the general public.

  8. Ryan
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    I’d add Tom Friedman to the list of lite writers. I’ll search for your thoughts on Jared Diamond and Bill Bryson after this comment.

    “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.”

    I suggest you instead call for a return to professionalism in the USA. In education, for example, you have more credibility if you are not an educator. I see similar trends in medicine, science, the law…

    • Daniel Schmuhl
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 7:00 am | Permalink

      I try to get more rigorous pop science books but the selection is often quite limited.

      I’ve found that the only pop science books by journalists that I can stand are usually written by those with some kind of degree in science (there are a couple of exceptions).

    • Filippo
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

      “In education, for example, you have more credibility if you are not an educator.”

      I gather that those with the most credibility regarding education are business CEO’s, to hear business CEO’s tell it.

      I’d like to be a fly on the wall watching some Fortune 500 CEO substitute teach incognito at the middle school level. However well-known s/he might be in the corporate world, that wouldn’t mean doodly-squat to an oppositionally defiant adolescent, who can’t be “fired” for insubordination or “at will” like a “human resource.”

  9. AndrewD
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Now Jerry,if you want a less charitable assessment of Gladwell try this site

    • Achrachno
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 8:33 am | Permalink

      Wow! It’s apparently worse than I’d have imagined.

  10. FTFKDad
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    Not everyone is as sophisticated, as deeply educated (or as patient!) as you,sir. Myself, I enjoy the superficial science-y with the deep. One thing these superficial books do encourage, I believe is simply to have the reader ask questions they had not thought about before, or to look at topics in a slightly different way. Is that not a good thing?. If somebody is brought to a point that is counterintuitive … well perhaps it will simply cause that person to take a slightly different look at other areas of life. I enjoy tackling the deep and serious science writers, and always come away realizing how incredibly little I know, but how rich and interesting and deep our knowledge is on other subjects. The light-reading of a “pop-science” book does allow me to get an overview (no matter how incomplete) of an area. Why is it not a good thing to perhaps draw people to science through some of these reads?

    • Achrachno
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 8:30 am | Permalink

      Science books can be accurate, informative and yet easy for any literate person to read. There is no reason to waste time on empty junk books by the likes of Brooks and Gladwell. Carl Zimmer and Jonathan Weiner are two writer/journalists who produce irresistible books that explain real science in detail. Read them and you’ll actually come out understanding something. Gladwell … who knows what in something by him can count as knowledge?

  11. Greg Fitzgerald
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    If my relatives are any indication, the audience for science-lite books like Gladwell’s is the same as for “The Secret” and diet books that promise immediate, amazing results. They both peddle self-affirming bullshit, and scientific accuracy is an afterthought.

    Although Jerry seems a little m

    • Greg Fitzgerald
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      ore skeptical, I think the best self-help books must necessarily be scientifically rigorous. A great example is “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”.

  12. matt
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    for very readable, yet technical (easy to get through with a little concentration), books on the brain, Joseph Ledoux does a great job.

  13. Achrachno
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    “What we need are … scientists who turn their hand to journalism and popular writing.”

    Yeah, some scientist should write a popular book on why evolution is true.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      Isn’t someone called PZ working on that? ;-)

      I’ll get my coat; which window would you prefer?

  14. Greg Esres
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Thanks for capturing why I find Gladwell-type books distasteful. It’s inevitable that books of such popularity will be shallow, and the more that casual acquaintances recommend them, the more I avoid them.

  15. George
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    I agree that both Haidt’s and Brooks’s stuff borders on pseudoscience (never read Gladwell and Lehrer, nor I intend to), but Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man” falls in the same category as Heidt or Brooks in my opinion; his others books are okay. Gould did more demand to the public understanding of anthropology than anyone else.

    • Greg Esres
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 9:22 am | Permalink

      “Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man” falls in the same category as Heidt or Brooks ”

      I agree that the approach of the book was a bit unscientific. He conducted his analysis of the IQ research in order to debunk it, not find out if it was true, which isn’t the proper scientific attitude. At the beginning of the book, he argued that he was qualified for the task, but I didn’t find his argument convincing.

    • George
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      A typo: the above is supposed to say “demage,” not “demand.”

  16. Greg Esres
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Steven Pinker is one of my favorite people to listen to or read. He doesn’t hold back on criticism, but he so gosh-durned nice while he’s doing it. Gladwell would probably be flattered by Pinker’s review, even though Pinker delivers a serious wound.

    • CJ
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      Gladwell responded in print to a review that Pinker did for one of his books. Outlier? Anyway, Gladwell was not pleased with it. I loved when Pinker referred to Gladwell as a “minor genius”. Pinker has stated that he does enjoys Gladwell’s books though.

      • Greg Esres
        Posted August 11, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

        Well, minor geniuses can be a bit touchy… .;-)

    • Mary - Canada
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink

      I’m currently reading Pinker’s Blank Slate. He’s very talented in forming counter-arguments.

  17. Mark
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    I think Gladwell takes too much heat sometimes. Yes, parts of his books are superficial and poorly argued but he still serves a useful function of communicating with the broader public about certain research results. He typically mentions the names of the researchers so anyone who has any initiative can google and read more on the subject.

    For instance, Gladwell and Steven Pinker both present the “Culture of Honor” hypothesis for why homicide rates in the U.S. are comparatively high and I think both do a good job of presenting it. It turns out this hypothesis has come under fire on empirical grounds but it is still a very influential idea among social scientists.

    But I agree that we would be even better off by having the researchers themselves present their own work in terms non-experts can understand.

    • Scott near Berkeley
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      I recall the “culture of honor” hypothesis, but I cannot recall which author gave the example of the “study” (student bumps student, makes nasty remark).

      The difficulty that science tries to overcome, which even the carefully-planned “study” cited by the “culture of honor” passage does not rise above, is this:
      Anecdotal information is the worst kind of example, for scientific study.

      The series of anecdotal examples are always entertaining reading, but falsely illuminating…maybe. They could be right, they could be wrong.

    • Mark Fuller Dillon
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      These “little details” of history are too often ignored in the United States, and I’ll admit, they make Pinker’s basic argument sound unearthly and untenable to me. For that reason, I’ve hesitated to read his book.

      For those here who have read THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE: do you feel that my hesitation is unfair? Or would you argue, instead, that Herman and Peterson have a point?

      • Occam
        Posted August 12, 2012 at 5:46 am | Permalink

        … do you feel that my hesitation is unfair?

        Injudicious, rather. When a serious work like Pinker’s Better Angels stirs such a controversy, the only way to form an opinion is to read it — or to desist from commenting on it.
        I have read it, am still working on it, and I am more than doubtful about Pinker’s premises and assumptions. Many aspects of the data and historical and statistical methodology are in my view questionable. But serious work, probably several times the sheer size of Pinker’s original volume, would be needed to correct or rebut the errors, if averred. In short, to paraphrase Joe Louis, there “might be a lot wrong with Pinker but nothing Herman and Peterson can fix”. Their pamphlet is, for all their many citations, just an ideological harangue. A tirade in the traditional left-wing mould described by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. as “a new expression of the old complaint by those who find satisfaction in large gestures of rejection against those who find satisfaction in small measures of improvement”.
        A solid, substantiated critique of Better Angels should be made of sterner stuff. If you want to know what it’s about, read the book.

        • Wayne Tyson
          Posted August 14, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink

          I heard one of his lectures (it should be available via BookTV’s archive) on the book, but I’ve mislaid my notes (I’m a poster-boy for envelope-scratching). I got the impression that it was a trolling pot-boiler, so haven’t read it. I have yet to read the extensive refutation piece, so can’t comment on its substance.

          I did, however, find Pinker’s lecture useful as an example of . . . well . . .

    • stevenjohnson
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

      Bravo for finding a good source addressing some of the ocean of BS spewing from Pinker. Pinker’s book is so dreadful that even this rather long review barely touches the surface. But as much as I admire your effort, it’s not an accident that Pinker is specifically cited as an admirable example.

      Coyne et al. who delight in Better Angels don’t care to wonder what it means to talk about homicide rates that omit infanticide. Or in what sense there is less violence when the advance of medical technology (including rehydration meds,) are lowering the final death tolls, rather than less war. Or why there is no discussion of sources of systematic sampling error in estimating “homicide” rates in prehistoric societies. If questions that simple haven’t occurred to them, Pinker’s games with percentages certainly will not bother them.
      Pinker’s racist and reactionary views are far too congenial to criticize.

      • Wayne Tyson
        Posted August 11, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

        In the great floods of opinion in which most of these commentaries indulge, there bobs here and there a suggestion that specifics and details might be more intellectually invigorating and scientific than ad hominemery, sandbox arguments, and puffed-up poseury? Please pass more salmon.

      • Wayne Tyson
        Posted August 14, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

        Notice the deafening silence on your point? What does this mean?

    • Pliable Charms
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      I got as far as “Barack Obama regime” and then fainted from the over-heated rhetoric. Sorry, you’ll have to find a more credible critique to convince me.

      • Mark Fuller Dillon
        Posted August 11, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

        Yet even if you don’t care for the rhetoric, the list of events, invasions and violent acts really is hard to ignore… and has been hard to ignore for decades, now.

        My question is, does Pinker indeed ignore them in his book? And if so, why?

  18. Posted August 11, 2012 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    G+ is the new social media on the block–going over a year now. It has a curated and excellent Science Sunday hashtag stream (There is also a Sacred Sunday hashtag photo stream, which is more artistic than religious as a counterpoint). I love it. You get to ask questions of the scientists who posted the info. Some of the science posts have even made it into What’s Hot so they get pretty good coverage over there. Most of the scientists have blogs also with which they link.

    One common theme is that these articulate and into-connectivity scientists bemoan how their colleagues balk at doing the same. Still lots of resistance to get out and use social media to talk about their work and science. I follow one scientist who just can’t understand how someone who is passionate about their work would not want to yap and gab about it. I got to agree with him.

    These pushers of science lite are usually into capitalizing on the current useless meme of ‘Think outside the box’. Anything basically goes with that mentality. It a misleadingly liberating trope. I tell these people that I just love thinking in the box, lol.

    Are there any science lite best selling women writers? There v well could be, I just can’t think of any at the moment. Olivia Judson and Natalie Angier also are two excellent science writers to add to the list of worthwhile science coverage.

    Ah, I just thought of one, Susan Greenfield, once an excellent writer, who now dabbles in conjecture presented as solid science.

    • Posted August 11, 2012 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      Greenfield made the mistake of believing her own press, I think.

      She is still an impressive speaker, however. I had her as an external keynote speaker at an event I was chairing a few years ago, and she got the best scores of any other external speaker before or since.


  19. darrelle
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    “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.”

    Could not agree more. Particularly these days when so much of journalism seems to be opinion shaping and driven primarily by getting the most hits rather than conveying the science well and accurately.

    On a related issue, I was lucky to attend a pretty good high school that had lots of high level classes available, what these days are called AP classes I guess. The reason the school was so good is that pretty much all of the high level science and math classes were taught by retired professionals from technology industries who had used what they taught for their entire careers, and who really enjoyed teaching what they knew to others. Two of those teachers were the best I ever came across, and my first two years of college the only new material was in the undergraduate ancient Greek history course I accidentally got into due to a registration snafu.

  20. Posted August 11, 2012 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Some interesting commentary. I agree with some of the critiques of Gladwell (I haven’t read Lehrer or Brooks)- while his writing is fascinating, I’m not entirely sure how valuable his analysis is.

    As the founder of a small publishing company, I try to adhere to the following quote attributed to Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

    My background is primarily in medicine, and I’ve witnessed many physicians succumb to what the Heath Bros. (authors of “Made to Stick”) refer to as the “Curse of Knowledge”- a phenomena whereby knowledgeable individuals may lack the ability to identify with those less knowledgeable.

    This is particularly true in medicine. Medicine is overburdened with inaccessible jargon. Take for example the word “idiopathic,” ie “Your condition is “idiopathic” (which really means “we don’t know what caused your condition.”)

  21. Jason
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    I tend to be wary of reading the books by “science journalists.” My area of focus is psychology, so when I pick up a psychology book I know where to go to fact check it if need be, and I tend to know if the author is misrepresenting anything too egregiously.

    But when it comes to the world of contemporary biology or engineering or physics, I can never really be sure if the science journalist author has actually understood the material or the scientists he’s quoting from.

    As a result, I tend to only read the books written by the professionals themselves. That doesn’t solve all the problems, because some professionals are better than others. Some have an attachment to a pet theory that isn’t well supported, some are trying to cash in on the superficial market, and others are bad writers. But overall, reading the books by the scientists themselves does seem to substantially diminish the problem.

  22. PeteJohn
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Of that lengthy list I’ve only read “Outliers.” I finished it pretty quickly, and all that I could think was “well, obviously.”

    The folks who would read the book already know that success isn’t only about that which is inside of a person, but the context into which they are born and in which they grow and live.

    The folks who think otherwise probably wouldn’t read the book, or would put it down when Gladwell started talking about the Canadian hockey players, ‘cuz Canada is socialist, or something.

    Highly readable and engaging clearly =/= compelling research.

  23. Malcolm Gladwell
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    I have to say that I find some of the hostility here towards my work a bit puzzling. As anyone who writes for a living knowns, it is very difficult to write about science in a way that satisfies all audiences. You have to choose who you want to reach–and if you aim at the left side of the continuum it is almost inevitable that you will alienate someone on the right side of the continuum. (And vice versa). I have chosen, for better or worse, to be “popular” science writer, which necessarily entails sacrificing some degree of complexity for accessibility. My hope is that some of my readers will find the introduction I provide to the world of ideas sufficiently enticing that they will continue to explore for themselves. Those who don’t, I believe, are still better off for getting a glimpse of psychology or sociology or history–as opposed to nothing at all.
    If you find this kind of trade-off unacceptable, then don’t read my books. They are not for you.

    • MadScientist
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      Bullshit. Explaining complex ideas in an understandable way is one thing – I do it all the time – but substituting reasonable explanations with nonsense is just a sign of incompetence.

      • whyevolutionistrue
        Posted August 11, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

        Ummm. . . yes, you make a point, but since Mr. Gladwell was kind enough to come over here to defend himself, it’s not very seemly to use the word “bullshit.”

        • Wayne Tyson
          Posted August 11, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

          Well, yes, let us not get madder and madder and hatter and hatter here. Let us use our time and pixels more wisely and talk about issues rather than personalities. And, once a specific issue has been introduced, let us use intellectually honest modes of discourse.

          Or would that be unforgivably distracting from all the narcissistic drivel that clogs this blog much of the time?

      • Posted August 12, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

        Foul language is unintelligent bullying, use it on other sites, dude.

        • Filippo
          Posted August 12, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

          Some alternatives?:



          Bosh. (H.L. Mencken. I think it is a short form of what I gather is the archaic “shuboshuate” [sp.?])

          Buncombe. (Mencken. Name of a W. North Carolina county, named after a corrupt politician.)

          Hokum. (Mencken)

          Beast Refuse.

          Fauna Scat.

    • Posted August 11, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      “Igon Value” showed a harmful level of carelessness. What steps have you taken to make sure something like that never, ever happens again?

    • stevenjohnson
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

      Sir, the crticisms from people benighted enough to uphold Steven Pinker as a science writer are obviously not to be taken seriously. The problem with your work is clearly the supposed “populism.”

      Personally I enjoyed Outliers, though I must admit I thought of it more as a well-chosen set of anecdotes and small case-studies.

      • Posted August 12, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink

        Sure you enjoyed it — it’s a bestseller! It’s designed to lie to you to trigger warm fuzzy emotions, duh.

        Read real science, you won’t enjoy it but you’ll learn something.

        Do you want to enjoy your doctor’s advice?

    • Posted August 11, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      Mr. Gladwell, I’ve enjoyed your books very much. I think this is simple: either Pinker is correct or he’s not. I don’t really want to chase a bunch of links, so maybe Dr. Coyne can specify *how* you might have misrepresented saggital plane, power law etc.

      If Pinker is wrong, so is Coyne. Can we get to the details of this?

      We wouldn’t even need this kind of scrutiny if the American public were trained to read a book, understand that anyone *can* write a book, and scrutinize it. Look up the sources and read each STUDY before they determined if the book (or study, or body of evidence for that matter) were accurate.

      Set a good example and specify.

      • Wayne Tyson
        Posted August 11, 2012 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

        Aye, aye! Kindly carry on, and “never give up–never, never, never give up!”

    • abab
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

      Malcolm – ever watch the South Park episode about John Edward?

      Neither you nor he gets to say, “You do you, let me do me” because you both convey wrong information and make people a little dumber and have made it into a hugely profitable racket.

      MadScientist has the right of it, and you have it wrong. Let’s call this the Gladwell Effect – I will hereby stake a million dollars of internet money that not one person has ever been inspired to learn more and pursue true scientific insight by reading one of your books. As Jerry says, science is hard work, and as you freely confess, the whole point of a Gladwell book is it’s just so easy and all the rough edges have been sanded off.

      The fact that you peddle your bullshit (sorry Prof. Coyne) easy answers to Midwestern dentists for fat fees makes you no better than Tony Robbins, John Edwards or a thousand other frauds and hucksters. That you drape yourself in the mantle of “popular science” is an affront to real scientists, of whom there are many on this blog, which might explain the hostility to your work that puzzles you so.

    • Posted August 12, 2012 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      The problem is that matters of fact are not matters of style.

      When facts are fudged to sell more books that’s just lying.

      Selling more books is fine. But using superficial tagging on of “science” to give credibility to one’s solipsistic ideas, opinions and anecdotes is just rhetorical trickery.

      Why not just be honest and say — I have a bunch of ideas, opinions and stories to share and a unifying theme? That’s the truth.

  24. MadScientist
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    It is an old phenomenon – a lot of managers are what I call “Bestseller Managers” – the sort who pick up the latest worthless book by the likes of Jack Welch, flick through the pages while sitting on the toilet, and crow about what wonderful managers they are because they’ve memorized some of Jack’s buzz words.

    Unfortunately I see this nonsense in most of the current lot of alleged science shows on TV. There’s just so much stuff that is so abysmally and inexcusably wrong. (How many ‘epigenetics’ shows can they produce in a year?)

    15 years or so ago I used to do volunteer work at the local hands-on science museum (something like the San Francisco Exploratorium); I’d design exhibits (and fix others) and come up with some text to explain the phenomenon being demonstrated. Other people who design exhibits for such places fake the phenomenon and put in a long, tedious, and wrong explanation. I was in the camp firmly (and loudly) opposed to the fakes, but a hell of a lot of people supported the crappy fakes and came up with blithe excuses like “what harm does it do?” As a scientist I really hate marketing crap and I just go nuts when I see people doing a less-than-half-ass job demonstrating simple concepts in science.

    • Filippo
      Posted August 15, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      That’s “Neutron Jack,” eh?

      Remember “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap?

  25. Malcolm Gladwell
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    “Bullshit” and “nonsense” are awfully strong words–particularly when they are used in the absence of any supporting evidence. I will accept the criticism that my books present simplified versions of complex arguments. (They are intended to). And I will accept the criticism that I occasionally make spelling errors. (Igon Value, chief among them). But “nonsense”? Good lord. I am engaged in what I would have thought was the relatively innocent and harmless task of introducing science to a mass audience. You would think, from the tenor of some of these comments, that I committed a crime. You guys need to take a chill pill.

    • Arlin
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      I enjoy your essays, in print and recorded form. Probably I have read several times your story of the boardwalk pitchmen– it’s such a fascinating tale with so many dimensions.

      I hope that you don’t change anything except maybe get a consultant with a PhD to screen out those groaners like “Igon value”.

      With respect to Coyne’s criticism, I just don’t get it. I also groaned today when I read the following passage elsewhere on this site (

      “Here’s a cat video with intellectual meat. Applying both slow-motion video and the principles of physics, a cat-loving scientist demonstrates how a falling cat rights itself. The solution involves angular momentum in a manner similar to that used by ice-skaters in their final spin. None of this, of course, is consciously decided by the cat: the motions have been worked out by natural selection programming the cat’s neurology.”

      The “intellectual meat” in the last sentence seems to have gone a bit off– in case you were wondering what it looks like when a high-falutin scientist with a PhD gives an absurdly breezy explanation of What Causes Behavior.

      • onkelbob
        Posted August 12, 2012 at 6:49 am | Permalink

        Pray tell, what is your reason for the ability and apparently instinctual employment therein of the cat to employ principles of angular momentum? Although I cannot speak for the host, I am sure if you have a cogent, coherent, and correct explanation why cats (and other mammals) land on their feet when falling he would be glad to entertain a guest post.
        BTW – anecdotal evidence is that racoons have the same behavior. Obviously there is some evolutionary advantage to not shattering your spinal column when falling from a tree.

        • Wayne Tyson
          Posted August 12, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

          Perhaps cats and other animals have not given up using the part of their brain that we have replaced with the need for calculation? How many equations do we run when we throw a spear or a rock with decent accuracy? Or drive a car?

          • Filippo
            Posted August 12, 2012 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

            “How many equations do we run when we throw a spear or a rock with decent accuracy? Or drive a car?”

            Concur. It’s no less of true of a golfer, like Phil Mickelson. He has a contract (worth how much, does anyone here know?) with ExxonMobil to go around to science/math academies for teachers (on a not-to-interfere with his golf tour schedule, and if the academies are conveniently located nearby on his tournament itinerary) doing I’m not sure what – dropping by to give a pep talk to teachers?

            Nice “work” if you can get it.

            He surely doesn’t perform some y = -(ax^2 + bx + c) calculation before each non-putting golf shot.

            • Wayne Tyson
              Posted August 14, 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink

              Relatively little is known about this aspect of brain function, and frankly, most “scientists” don’t give a damn. BIG mistake!

              Why? Because if you listen to those who have achieved breakthroughs, it is quite common for them to remark that they don’t know where the “idea” came from . . . Archimedes in his bath, Lofti Zadaeh in in motel room–ah-HA! That’s IT! Darwin’s insights, Wallace’s too.

              The one thing they all seem to have in common is that they were in a RELAXED state of mind, when “it came to them.”

              • Filippo
                Posted August 15, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

                Not sure why it came to mind and whether it’s relevant, but it occurs to me that many people look down their noses at manual labor, but make an exception for (professional) sports, which involves moving oneself and/or some object from Point A to Point B.

    • Mark Fuller Dillon
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

      >>You guys need to take a chill pill.

      If these points are true, Mr. Gladwell –

      – then I will gladly say no to your chill pill… and to anything else that you might have to offer.

      • Malcolm Gladwell
        Posted August 11, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

        The SHAME PROJECT attacks on me are, to put it mildly, a pack of lies. To evaluate the most outrageous–and laughable–of their charges–that I am somehow a defender of the tobacco industry–I invite you to read three things.

        1. The article in the Washington Post that serves as the basis for their allegation, which actually argues the opposite of what they claim it does.

        2. The chapter in my book The Tipping Point devoted to outlining a more effective anti-tobacco strategy.

        3. The New Republic article in which I critique existing anti-smoking policies as inadequate:

        If you read what I’ve actually written on smoking and still believe SHAME, I can’t help you.

        • Mark Fuller Dillon
          Posted August 11, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

          And the other points?

          • Malcolm Gladwell
            Posted August 11, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

            Equally ridiculous.
            Read for yourself. Do you think this is evidence of “shilling” for Big Pharma? It actually proposes an course of action–aggressive use of generics–that would cost Pharma billions of dollars.

        • Mark Fuller Dillon
          Posted August 11, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

          >>The article in the Washington Post that serves as the basis for their allegation, which actually argues the opposite of what they claim it does.

          According to SHAME:

          “In 1990, a Gladwell article in the Washington Post warned that laws banning cigarettes could ‘put a serious strain on the nation’s Social Security and Medicare programs.’”

          According to your article:

          “Even if the overall balance of costs and benefits of smoking is difficult to determine, it is clear that an end to smoking will produce an enormous increase in the financial obligations of the federal government.”

          You certainly do emphasize the cost, Mr. Gladwell. How is that “the opposite”?

          • Malcolm Gladwell
            Posted August 11, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

            The article I wrote was about an NBER study showing that tobacco kills smokers much quicker and earlier than had been assumed, so that smokers die too young to pose a burden to Social Security. Pointing out that smoking kills people faster than we thought is not a pro-tobacco position. It is the opposite.

            • Mark Fuller Dillon
              Posted August 11, 2012 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

              Then why did you put such an emphasis on the health costs of *quitting*?

              • Malcolm Gladwell
                Posted August 11, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

                A good question. In the 1990′s, when that piece was written, it was common for people to couch health-care arguments in economic terms. (Then HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan did this all the time). Battling illness and disease, it was claimed, would save money. I thought at the time (and still think) that that is a dangerous line of argument, because there are lots of cases where healthier people cost the healthcare system more. (The person who has a perfectly healthy life and dies at 100 “costs” us more than the person who dies of a heart attack at 55). You shouldn’t be anti-smoking because its cheaper, then. That’s a bad argument. You should be anti-smoking because smoking is a terrible practice, that destroys lives and creates illness and suffering. Part of my motivation in writing that article was to move the anti-smoking movement away from self-defeating economic arguments and towards the much stronger position that smoking is wrong because smoking is dangerous. The folks at SHAME would not–or perhaps, cannot–wrap their heads around this point.

          • Gary W
            Posted August 11, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

            Mark Fuller Dillon,

            Gladwell does emphasize the cost of anti-tobacco campaigns to Medicare and Social Security, but he doesn’t say that that cost exceeds the benefit from saving lives. In fact, he writes:

            None of the economists who study this issue say their conclusions should discourage Sullivan’s anti-tobacco campaign … their results suggest that the war on tobacco is more appropriately cast as a public health crusade than as an attempt to save money.

            The SHAME piece you cite mentions only Gladwell’s point about SS and Medicare costs, implying that Gladwell is suggesting that anti-tobacco compaigns are a bad idea, when in fact he explicitly disavows that position. It’s the SHAME writers who are engaging in misrepresentation here, not Gladwell.

            I haven’t looked at the rest of the SHAME claims in detail, but the stridently partisan nature of the website does not inspire confidence that it’s terribly interested in a fair and impartial presentation of the facts.

        • Mark Fuller Dillon
          Posted August 11, 2012 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

          >>The New Republic article in which I critique existing anti-smoking policies as inadequate:

          As you probably know, Mr. Gladwell, this link is for subscribers only.

      • prasad
        Posted August 13, 2012 at 4:49 am | Permalink

        I’m not a fan of Gladwell, but my impression is that this “Shame Project” is an exercise in hackery, reflecting poorly principally on those involved in it. I first came across it in this moronic article on Salon aimed at Steven Levitt (again, a controversial fellow, but whatever):

        The badness of the article is eloquent, but the comments push back.

        • Posted August 13, 2012 at 5:08 am | Permalink

          Mr Gladwell’s writing is glib, but that Shame Project page is blithering rubbish.

    • Posted August 11, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

      Mr. Gladwell, the problem many of us have with your writing is not that you oversimplify to make science accessible to a wider audience, it is that you seem more interested in telling a good story than in establishing the truth. A perfect example is the quarterback/draft order argument. Your point is clearly, obviously, demonstrably wrong. Yet you don’t seem willing to admit this, which suggests that you either don’t understand why you are wrong, or you don’t want to let facts get in the way of a good story. In either case, it makes your work suspect.

      • Malcolm Gladwell
        Posted August 11, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

        “Clearly, obviously, demonstrably wrong.” Strong words! Well, the source for my argument was a paper published in a peer-reviewed academic journal. What’s your source?

        • Posted August 11, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

          The criticisms of that paper. I’m sure you are familiar with them. Just because something is published doesn’t make it true. Are you honestly saying that you are unfamiliar with the criticism of that paper, or that you don’t believe they are valid?

          • Malcolm Gladwell
            Posted August 11, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

            I’m saying that “clearly, demonstrably, obviously wrong” is a inappropriate way to describe one side of a academic disagreement.

            • Posted August 11, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

              Ok, maybe a bit strong. But do you still believe that there is no connection between draft position and future performance? Has the criticism of that paper not changed your mind?

              • Malcolm Gladwell
                Posted August 11, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

                I have. And my conclusion is that this is a question that is ultimately unknowable. Here’s the problem. Dave Berri says: the judgments of general managers and coaches about quarterback ability are flawed. Why? Because if you compare the records of those drafted in positions 50-150 they are equivalent (actually slightly better) than those drafted 1-50. Berri’s critics say—aha! That’s only because the “bad” quarterbacks taken in positions 50-150 never play, so we have survivorship bias. Joe Smith was taken 300th by the Packers, and he washed out the first day of training camp and he’s not being factored into the comparison.
                Fine. But who made the decision that Joe Smith was a washout? General managers and coaches. Do you see the problem? Berri’s critics assume that Joe Smith was a lousy quarterback and that by excluding him we biased the comparison in favor of low draft picks. But the only evidence we have that Joe Smith was a lousy quarterback is the opinion of GMs and coaches—and the quality of the opinions of GMs and coaches is precisely the thing that we are attempting to evaluate with the study
                Both sides of the argument, in other words, are making a leap of faith. Berri says that Joe Smith could be as good as Peyton Manning because coaches can’t judge quarterback talent. Berri’s critics say that Joe Smith can’t be as good as Peyton Manning because coaches can judge quarterback talent. But Joe Smith never play more than a day in training camp—so who’s to know who’s right? My hunch is still that Berri has the stronger case, and that there are more diamonds in the rough that people believe. But that’s just a hunch. I think I overstated my case in that article. But I also think that my critics have overstated their case as well.

            • beyondbelief007
              Posted August 11, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

              I have some sympathy with your position, Mr. Gladwell, but when you avoid answering a question and instead berate the questioner for his tone… I kinda lose my sympathy for you being attacked.

              To the original critic of the Quarterback/draft order flaws…. Post a link to the critiques. If Malcolm won’t look at them, I will because I’m interested in deciding if the critiques of Gladwell are well founded. Gladwell’s forcing me to do this extra work has already cost him a few credibility points.

              • Posted August 11, 2012 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

                Here’s a link. I would’ve done it sooner, but was on my phone, which makes even typing difficult and linking near impossible.


              • Posted August 12, 2012 at 12:29 am | Permalink

                Steve Sailer? Fantastic. Maybe you can find something on VDARE itself, that’d surely convince.

              • Posted August 11, 2012 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

                Well, Mr. Gladwell, I’m glad you’ll admit that you overstated your case. I disagree with your interpretation of the criticism of the Berri paper – I think you are willfully misinterpreting it, specifically by ignoring the practice and pre-season performances of lower drafted quarterbacks – but I don’t think we need to continue. If we can extrapolate this episode of “overstating the case” to your other writing, you can see why some of us are unimpressed.

        • Posted August 11, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

          Additionally, that paper, flawed as it is, does not actually support your conclusion. A “weak correlation” is not the same thing as “no connection.”

          • Malcolm Gladwell
            Posted August 11, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

            Well, I appreciate your graciousness and open-mindedness as well. It has been my pleasure.

          • Posted August 12, 2012 at 4:15 am | Permalink

            And to DavidGerard above, address the argument, not the person making it. Even a**holes can be correct occasionally. To use a cliche (and Godwin this conversation; it is overdue), when Hitler says “2 plus 2 equals 4″ that doesn’t make it wrong.

    • Posted August 13, 2012 at 6:56 am | Permalink

      Sir, the gaffe about “Igon value” is an error that goes way beyond spelling. The “eigen” in “eigenvalue” is not a proper name. It is a German word for “self” which is an essential part of the concept.

      Example from calculus: if the “operator” in question is the “derivative” operator “d/dx”, then the function e^(ax) is an eigenfunction with eigenvalue “a” because d/dx (e^(ax)) = ae^(ax); that is, the operator “d/dx” takes the function e^(ax) to a scalar multiple of itself.

  26. Alex SL
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    “igon value”



    That may well have made my day.

    Dammit, that reminds me of that time when a student came into my office with a very shaken impression on her face. She then told me she had just been approached by a professional science communicator after giving a test talk. The communicator said her talk was very nice but had too many technical terms, like P value, what does that even mean?

    • Posted August 13, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

      P-value….oh dear.

      Ho: “professional science communicator knows science”.

      Ha: Ho is false.

      Reject Ho with p < .01….easily.

  27. Posted August 11, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    In the beginning of books on the American market there needs to be a disclaimer: “This is a science book. Anyone can write a book. The information is based on the author’s interpretation of published studies.”

    Followed by a detailed manual on how to read a study: sections of it, methods, results, what are biases, what are assumptions. Why a study may be wrong and how subsequent studies contribute to the literature and what that does to each study individually.

    Maybe we wouldn’t be frying under the sun right now if the American public understood science.

    • Cian O Rathaille
      Posted August 14, 2012 at 5:56 am | Permalink

      You mean to say we need to teach Adult Science Literacy classes, and probably include them at high-middle school level aswell.

      The only question is how to convince the general adult to want to go to these courses, especially when so much of the works (funded by the public) are not publically available.

  28. Mark Fuller Dillon
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    To Mr. Gladwell,

    I’m sorry, but site features did not allow me to reply to your comment here:

    “You shouldn’t be anti-smoking because its cheaper, then. That’s a bad argument. You should be anti-smoking because smoking is a terrible practice, that destroys lives and creates illness and suffering. Part of my motivation in writing that article was to move the anti-smoking movement away from self-defeating economic arguments and towards the much stronger position that smoking is wrong because smoking is dangerous.”

    Although you did raise this point — quietly — early in the article, you then went on to put much more text and much more emphasis upon the social costs of *not* smoking.

    If you had ended this article with your intended point, then your position would have become clear.

    As you know, in writing, intentions count for nothing; results count for everything. And as your article stands right now, the emphasis is not at all upon the dangers of smoking, but on the financial dangers of NOT smoking.

    If you can’t write clearly about your own intentions, how can you be expected to write clearly about science?

    • Malcolm Gladwell
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

      I give up.
      Stressing the high costs of non-smoking is, logically, equivalent to writing about the lower costs of smoking. Right? In any case, both points support the broader argument that smoking is much more lethal than commonly supposed.

      Please read the Tipping Point chapter and the New Republic piece, if you are at all curious about my positions on smoking.

      • Mark Fuller Dillon
        Posted August 11, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

        I’m afraid your link is for subscribers only… which might be for the best.

        • Malcolm Gladwell
          Posted August 11, 2012 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

          If you care about this point as much as you seem to, you could always go to the library. Making up your mind based only on the most conveniently available evidence is not usually the path to the truth.

          • Mark Fuller Dillon
            Posted August 11, 2012 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

            I agree.

            If people have mistaken your motives, then you have my sympathy. If I have mistaken your motives, then I apologize.

            But from your comments here, you seem either dishonest about your intentions, or unable to express them with clarity, which makes me doubt that your books and articles are worth reading in the first place.

            After all, if we can’t rely upon the clarity and force of our own words, why should we expect to be read?

            • Thanny
              Posted August 12, 2012 at 12:05 am | Permalink

              I have read nothing by Gladwell other than his comments on this post. He laid out his position on smoking quite clearly just in those comments. He thinks smoking actually reduces healthcare costs, because people die faster (and dead people don’t visit doctors). Because of that fact, he thinks its both absurd an counter-productive for anti-smoking advocates to use economic arguments. He believes that the problem with smoking is that it kills people, and that’s the only core argument against it that you need.

              Your comments, however, have shown you unable to grasp these quite clearly stated points of his. It seems you are completely unwilling to admit that you, and your source, are entirely mistaken. Judging solely, again, from what I’ve seen in these comments, I wouldn’t trust that “shame” website any further than I could throw the servers it’s hosted on.

              • Mark Fuller Dillon
                Posted August 12, 2012 at 4:35 am | Permalink

                Which is fine.

                For my part, I can only go by the Washington Post article, and by its emphasis, which is not as Mr. Gladwell describes it.

                As a journalist, he most likely understands that the placement of ideas in an article determines the weight of their significance. If he had meant to emphasize “that the problem with smoking is that it kills people,” then he should have given that point greater weight than arguments about the social cost of anti-smoking campaigns.

                It’s entirely possible that his intentions were sincere; but in this particular case, the structure of his article has not made that clear. And I’m sure that he also understands, as a journalist, the importance of clarity and the costs of failing to be clear.

  29. Dave
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    I have the same opinion of some college textbooks for non-majors. When I started teaching I was appauled at the level of complexity, they are more junior high level.

  30. Wayne Tyson
    Posted August 11, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    Generalizations and digressions are not widely thought of as qualities of a disciplined mind. I appreciate Gladwell’s contributions to this blog, and I hope he will not give up. I do disagree, however, with his apparent endorsement of paywalls, which inhibit rather than promote broad discourse and understanding that are so crucial to curing the ills fostered by “faster.” Such proprietary impulses, particularly among the successful, superior, and noble, retard rather than advance intellectual discourse and science.

    • Bob Andray
      Posted August 11, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

      I tend to doubt that Mr Gladwell can be blamed for the New Republic’s paywall.

      • Wayne Tyson
        Posted August 14, 2012 at 8:16 am | Permalink

        Straw. I disagreed with Gladwell on his APPARENT endorsement; I said nothing about blaming him for New Republic’s paywall.

  31. Posted August 12, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    The comments here about, and indeed directed at, Mr Gladwell seen unreasonably hostile and abusive. You got to ask questions about his work, which he answered courteously, but then he is, essentially, accused of lying, possibly for financial gain.
    Of course he simplifies, relying on anecdotes (that is, researched stories and interviews) to make his points – but so what? That’s what journalists do.
    By all means dismiss his oeuvre an lightweight pop-history/science/psychology but it seems graceless at best to suggest that he writes in bad faith.

    • Wayne Tyson
      Posted August 12, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      Straw man fallacies are common among the intellectually lazy, prima-donna poseurs who fancy themselves brilliant beyond words, especially when they are backed into a corner. Their game is to bait others into a confrontation where they can, in their eyes, “win” an argument. Anyone who has to resort to rudeness speaks so eloquently of himself that no comment is necessary or worth one’s time.

      Let them indulge themselves in whatever fantasy they choose. Simply ignoring the irrelevant is the best medicine for these pesky little pretenders.

      • Posted August 12, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        “… the intellectually lazy, prima-donna poseurs who fancy themselves brilliant beyond words … Anyone who has to resort to rudeness speaks so eloquently of himself …”

        Hoist by your own petard, there, Wayne. ;-)


        • Wayne Tyson
          Posted August 14, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

          Straw. My comment/assessment said nothing about any individual or group, but about attitudes and practices. They either exist or they do not. If not, then I should, and am eager to, stand corrected on the substance.

  32. Mike Collins-Dowden
    Posted August 12, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Kudos to Gladwell for being willing to engage his critics here.

    I take his books to be interesting introductions to some thought-provoking ideas in the social-sciences. However, I think readers need to keep in mind that the conclusions he draws are hardly definitive and there is still substantial legitimate controversy in many of these areas.

    The trouble is that Gladwell and the other authors Coyne mention often present their ideas as conclusive facts, rather than tentative hypotheses. Perhaps if they gave greater emphasis to the nuances of these issues, readers would be more likely to seek further information.

  33. Posted August 13, 2012 at 5:17 am | Permalink


    Now you tell me!

    I’d held off reading any of Gladwell’s books – despite being urged to so for years – precisely because I felt they sounded, from the blurb on the back-cover, “science-y” rather than real science.

    I finally bought all of them recently, though haven’t gotten round to them.

    It seems to me that he, Lehrer, Brooks, Eagleman (“Sum”, etc), and perhaps Iain McGilchrist’s “The Master And His Emissary”(?!) all share the same lack of scholarship, and – as a result – are in danger of being lumped with David Barton, of “The Jefferson Lies” infamy: (

    I agree that we need more scientists writing for the public – like Dawkins, Hawking, Greene, etc.

    Kindest regards,


    • Posted August 13, 2012 at 5:22 am | Permalink

      We need another Asimov – a good, clear writer who gets the idea of science and can write about multiple fields without embarrassing himself.

      Is there any Asimov science fact writing that isn’t hopelessly outdated in 2012? I grew up on the stuff. *sigh*

      • Posted August 13, 2012 at 6:49 am | Permalink


        Agreed, David – I still have his two volume, “Guide to Science”, “The Left-Hand Electron”, and his books on astronomy.

        He wrote on anything and everything – including the bible!

        John Gribbin did a similar work on scince: “Almost Everything You Need To Know About Science”.

        Nowadays, you’d have to buy the Encyclopaedia Britannica to get the same coverage as Asimov… *sigh*

        Kindest regards,


        • Persto
          Posted August 13, 2012 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

          There is a joke, perhaps, initiated by Asimov himself “that he had published books in all ten categories of the Dewey Decimal System.” Not true, he couldn’t conquer philosophy but he was proficient in every realm of human thought.

      • Filippo
        Posted August 13, 2012 at 7:38 am | Permalink

        “Is there any Asimov science fact writing that isn’t hopelessly outdated in 2012? I grew up on the stuff. *sigh*”

        I’d conjecture that there remains much such writing that isn’t outdated, and hardly any “hopelessly” so.

        Looking at chapter six, “Planets Have an Air about Them,” of his revised (1976) “Only a Trillion,” first published in 1957, Asimov’s note at the end of the chapter includes the following:

        “In the twenty years since this was first written . . . astronomers have discovered more about the details of planetary atmospheres than they had in all of time previously – thanks to the coming of the space age and of the launching of satellites and probes. However, the material in this article remains essentially correct.”

        I think one can reasonably make that assumption regarding the vast majority his science fact writing.

        I have several Asimov books, both science fact and science fiction. I ploughed through his “Foundation”; I enjoyed his s.f. short stories more and his science fact writing best.

        The intro of his essay, “The Imaginary That Isn’t,” contains a great zinger directed at a self-regarding sociology prof who, in a lecture, wrote on the board two lists classifying humankind as “realists” and “mystics,” including mathematicians in the latter category because they believed in numbers not found or represented in “reality.” His specific target was the square root of negative one.

        Asimov called him on it. The prof told Asimov to show him sqrt -1 piece of chalk. Asimov told him he would, provided that the prof could show him a 1/2 piece of chalk. The prof broke a new “regulation” piece of chalk in half and proffered it as if he had made good on the matter. Asimov said that the prof’s definition was strictly arbitrary and, in any event, they were both WHOLE pieces of chalk, and further told him that, supposing he granted that each was a half, how did he know one was not 0.48 and the other 0.52?

        The final Asimov comment that made the prof go ballistic:

        “And can you really consider yourself qualified to discuss the square root of minus one, when you’re a little hazy on the meaning of one half?”

        He could have pressed on with dividing the chalk until he got down to one molecule – one whole piece – of chalk which of course could be further divided, but then one would no longer have chalk.

        Finally, as I’ve read elsewhere, can anyone show, e.g., 2 1/2 pieces of chalk?

  34. JBlilie
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 5:51 am | Permalink

    Hurray for the shout-out for Mark Kurlansky’s Salt and Cod, which are two of my favorite books! Read these books!

  35. Posted August 15, 2012 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    Dear Prof. Coyne:

    I fully agree with your criteria for good science writing. We should show respect for the reader, and never dumb things down to the point of distortion. I’d like to add another far more basic criteria: We should exert at least a modicum of effort to gather evidence before making claims. Yet this blog post suggests that you have not so much as opened the cover of my book, The Righteous Mind. If you had, you’d see that it meets just one of your four criteria for science lite:

    A) enormous appeal to the popular mind, especially the part that wants easy answers and doesn’t want to think too hard about science
    –What easy answers to I give? What makes you think my book is easy? It is an academic book with nearly 900 footnotes. Reviewers on Amazon sometimes complain that it is too challenging for non-specialists.

    B) good writing.

    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.
    –There is none of this in the Righteous Mind. (And there is only a hint self-help in The Happiness Hypothesis, in chapter 2)

    D) annoyingly superficial analyses of difficult problems.
    –Where do you find this in either of my books? I show readers why each side in the debate offers incomplete solutions; I show why we need to draw from multiple perspectives – some of which may even offend us – to grasp the complexity of challenges in a modern society.

    Please state clearly for your readers: Did you read, or even skim, The Righteous Mind before dismissing it? If yes, then please back up your assertions. Provide some evidence for your claims about my work. If no, then please acknowledge that this post fails the most basic requirement of scientific writing and thinking: we gather evidence before making pronouncements. We don’t just make stuff up based on our gut feelings.

    You have done this before to me. You dismissed my arguments about group selection without reading them. You reacted only to my TED talk, and expected it to make a fully justified scientific case, which is not what a TED talk is for. In response I offered to send your readers the key chapter from my book, chapter 9 on multi-level selection. Several of your readers wrote to me, and one of them later retracted his initial nasty comment: “I apologize for and retract this comment. After reading Haidt’s views more thoroughly I realize that his argument is thoughtful and worth considering (even if I do not subscribe to it). My comment was inappropriate.”

    Prof. Coyne, I challenge you to read my work before the next time you write about it. To make it easy for you to do so without buying my books, I have just posted chapter 9 of The Righteous Mind on my web page:

    That chapter can be read as a stand alone essay. It has 93 footnotes. It takes readers through the complexity and history of the controversy. It does not claim that group selection is an established fact; rather, it makes the case that there’s a lot of new evidence since Dawkins demolished group selection in The Selfish Gene, and so the scientific community should re-examine the issue. I invite you and your readers to read the chapter and then vote: Am I guilty of “science-lite,” as you charge, or am I inviting the public to do some hard thinking about a complicated question with enormous ramifications for how we think about human nature? The vote is not on whether you agree with me. The vote is on whether my writing is more properly grouped with Jonah Lehrer or Steve Pinker.

    • Posted August 15, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for posting it, Dr. Haidt. I was curious to know why (and if, in case I’m wrong about this) in your studies why self-declared liberals and conservatives were chosen instead of choosing people based on how they are registered to vote.

      • Posted August 19, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        MOst of my research is done at We let people self-describe on the left-right continuum. It’s an international audience, so that dimension works for all, whereas party registration is only for Americans, and not all Americans. (We do ask party too, but left-right is more psychologically important in most cases).

  36. Wayne Tyson
    Posted August 18, 2012 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    Did Coyne read the books or not?

8 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Expands In Republican Counties How Your Water Company May Be Poisoning Your Kids Paul Ryan Science writing: lite and wrong (have I ever mentioned that Gladwell is a horrible person?) Share [...]

  2. [...] Per sua sfortuna, proprio in questi giorni è dilagata (insomma, sto esagerando…) una polemica su Science writing: lite and wrong sul blog di Jerry Coyne e, qualche giorno prima con Jonah Lehrer, Malcolm Gladwell and our thirst [...]

  3. [...] Some of the problems with “lite” science writing. And how the publishing industry can lead science writers down the path of neat stories, instead of complex truths. [...]

  4. [...] argument of my essay on Gladwell, Lehrer and the search of non-threatening answers in his piece Science writing: lite and wrong. Over at his eponymous website, writer and corporate consultant Eric Garland takes up an issue [...]

  5. [...] on a slightly different issue, we have the case where “science writers” write books on subjects that they know little about. One small sample via Jerry Coyne’s blog: I’m not the only one who shares these opinions. [...]

  6. [...] followed by the cry for rigor, echoing the interests of the scientists now revolting against Malcolm Gladwell et al. We have to fight mediocrity as well as plagiarism – the two are more closely related than you [...]

  7. [...] conversation. The essay ultimately encouraged a group of PhD scientists to seize on the moment and take Gladwell to task for cheapening the rigor of their profession in the quest for book sales. This surprisingly motivated Gladwell to actually defend himself in the [...]

  8. […] but it could help you understand whether a medical treatment is worth the risk or whether that one Malcolm Gladwell book is really full of crap or just has a light dusting of the brown […]

Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 25,589 other followers

%d bloggers like this: