The perils of contrarianism: Gladwell and the Freakonomicists versus Pinker, Krugman and the entire scientific community



Malcolm Gladwell at TED

The New York Times currently carries two reviews of Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw, one by Janet Maslin and one by Stephen Pinker. Both offer back-handed criticism of this much-imitated writer and his occasional tendency to warp the reality he portrays in order to gain maximum narrative leverage. I think these reviews have something in common with the backlash against Superfreakonomics. They might even signal a change in critical sentiment about the modern style of non-fiction writing.

Here’s Maslin on Gladwell:

This book full of short conversation pieces is a collection that plays to the author’s strengths. It underscores his way of finding suitably quirky subjects (the history of women’s hair-dye advertisements; the secret of Heinz’s unbeatable ketchup; even the effects of women’s changing career patterns on the number of menstrual periods they experience in their lifetimes) and using each as gateway to some larger meaning. It illustrates how often he sets up one premise (i.e. that crime profiling helps track down serial killers) only to destroy it. For instance, criminal profiling “is not a triumph offorensic analysis,” he concludes, at the end of a piece that began with a startling description of one profiler’s accurate guesses about the terrorist known as the Mad Bomber in the 1940s and 1950s. “It’s a party trick.”

Here’s Pinker on Gladwell:

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,” “saggital 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 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.

And here’s Krugman on Superfreakonomics:

At first glance, though, what it looks like is that Levitt and Dubner have fallen into the trap of counterintuitiveness. For a long time, there’s been an accepted way for commentators on politics and to some extent economics to distinguish themselves: by shocking the bourgeoisie, in ways that of course aren’t really dangerous. Ann Coulter is making sense! Bush is good for the environment! You get the idea.

Clever snark like this can get you a long way in career terms — but the trick is knowing when to stop.

What do these reviews have in common? A growing skepticism of narrative strategy as pathways to truth. As John Quiggin points out,

The main point, though, is that the fuss over the global cooling chapter in Levitt and Dubner’s new book is the first occasion, I think, where the refutation of specific errors has taken a back seat (partly because, in this case, it’s so easy) to an attack on contrarianism, as such. The general point is that contrarianism is a cheap way of allowing ideological hacks to think of themselves as fearless, independent thinkers, while never challenging (in fact reinforcing) thestatus quo.

In the 2000’s, good writing and clever arguments can get you fame, a minor fortune and a regular gig at TED. But can it get you closer to the truth than the kind of deep, long-term engagement with your subject matter that true expertise represents? In an extreme case, this tendency can even lead you to write that a miles-long hose dumping sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere  is the best way to address dangerous climate change.

I’m a huge fan of Gladwell’s writing; Levitt and Dubner much less so. But both Gladwell and the Freaknomicists run the same risk: by acquiring a skein of knowledge about a certain topic, they can sometimes mount such clever arguments and write so compellingly, they not only convince their readers and editors they know what they’re talking about, they can even convince themselves.

No wonder Stephen Dubner is so upset.

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