Friday, October 4, 2013

Why Malcolm Gladwell Matters (And Why That's Unfortunate)

Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker writer and perennial bestselling author, has a new book out. It's called David and Goliath: Misfits, Underdogs, and the Art of Battling Giants. I reviewed it (PDF) in last weekend's edition of The Wall Street Journal. (Other reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Millions, to name a few.) Even though the WSJ editors kindly gave me about 2500 words to go into depth about the book, there were many things I did not have space to discuss or elaborate on. This post contains some additional thoughts about Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath, the general modus operandi of his writing, and how he and others conceive of what he is doing.

I noticed some interesting reactions to my review. Some people said I was a jealous hater. One even implied that as a cognitive scientist (rather than a neuroscientist) I somehow lacked the capacity or credibility to criticize anyone's logic or adherence to evidence. A more serious response, of which I saw several instances, came from people who said in essence "Why do you take Gladwell so seriously—it's obvious he is just an entertainer." For example, here's Jason Kottke:
I enjoy Gladwell's writing and am able to take it with the proper portion of salt ... I read (and write about) most pop science as science fiction: good for thinking about things in novel ways but not so great for basing your cancer treatment on. 
The Freakonomics blog reviewer said much the same thing:
... critics have primarily focused on whether the argument they think Gladwell is making is valid. I am going to argue that this approach misses the fact that the stories Gladwell tells are simply well worth reading.
I say good for you to everyone who doesn't take Gladwell seriously. But the reason I take him seriously is because I take him and his publisher at their word. On their face, many of the assertions and conclusions in Gladwell's books are clearly meant to describe lawful regularities about the way human mental life and the human social world work. And this has always been the case with his writing.

In The Tipping Point (2000), Gladwell wrote of sociological regularities and even coined new ones, like "The Law of the Few." Calling patterns of behavior "laws" is a basic way of signaling that they are robust empirical regularities. Laws of human behavior aren't as mathematically precise as laws of physics, but asserting one is about the strongest claim that can be made in social science. To say something is a law is to say that it applies with (near) universality and can be used to predict, in advance, with a fair degree of certainty, what will happen in a situation. It says this is truth you can believe in, and act on to your benefit.

A blurb from the publisher of David and Goliath avers: "The author of Outliers explores the hidden rules governing relationships between the mighty and the weak, upending prevailing wisdom as he goes." A hidden rule is a counterintuitive, causal mechanism behind the workings of the world. If you say you are exploring hidden rules that govern relationships, you are promising to explicate social science. But we don't have to take the publisher's word for it. Here's the author himself, in the book, stating one of his theses:
The fact of being an underdog changes people in ways that we often fail to appreciate. It opens doors, and creates opportunities and educates and permits things that might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.
The emphasis on changes is in the original (at least in the version of the quote I saw on Gladwell's Facebook page). In an excerpt published in The Guardian, he wrote, "If you take away the gift of reading, you create the gift of listening." I added the emphasis on create to highlight the fact that Gladwell is here claiming a causal rule about the mind and brain, namely that having dyslexia causes one to become a better listener (something he says made superlawyer David Boies so successful).

I've gone on at length with these examples because I think they also run counter to another point I have seen made about Gladwell's writings recently: That he does nothing more than restate the obvious or banal. I couldn't disagree more here. Indeed, to his credit, what he writes about is the opposite of trivial. If Gladwell is right in his claims, we have all been acting unethically by watching professional football, and the sport will go the way of dogfighting, or at best boxing. If he is right about basketball, thousands of teams have been employing bad strategies for no good reason. If he is right about dyslexia, the world would literally be a worse place if everyone were able to learn how to read with ease, because we would lose the geniuses that dyslexia (and other "desirable difficulties") create. If he was right about how beliefs and fads spread through social networks in The Tipping Point, consumer marketing would have changed greatly in the years since. Actually, it did: firms spent great effort trying to find "influentials" and buy their influence, even though there was never good causal evidence that this would work. (See Duncan Watts's brilliant book Everything is Obvious, Once You Know the Answerreviewed here—to understand why.) If Gladwell is right, also in The Tipping Point, about how much news anchors can influence our votes by deploying their smiles for and against their preferred candidates, then democracy as we know it is a charade (and not for the reasons usually given, but for the completely unsupported reason that subliminal persuaders can create any electoral results they want). And so on. These ideas are far from obvious, self-evident, or trivial. They do have the property of engaging a hindsight bias, of triggering a pleasurable rush of counterintuition, of seeming correct once you have learned about them. But an idea that people feel like they already knew is much different from an idea people really did know all along.

Janet Maslin's New York Times review of David and Goliath begins by succinctly stating the value proposition that Gladwell's work offers to his readers:
The world becomes less complicated with a Malcolm Gladwell book in hand. Mr. Gladwell raises questions — should David have won his fight with Goliath? — that are reassuringly clear even before they are answered. His answers are just tricky enough to suggest that the reader has learned something, regardless of whether that’s true.
(I would only add that the world becomes not just less complicated but better, which leaves the reader a little bit happier about life.) In a recent interview with The Guardian, Gladwell as much as agreed: "If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn't read them: you're not the audience!"

I don't think the main flaw is oversimplification (though that is a problem: Einstein was right when he—supposedly—advised that things be made as simple as possible, but no simpler). As I wrote in my own review, the main flaw is a lack of logic and proper evidence in the argumentation. But consider what Gladwell's quote means. He is saying that if you understand his topics enough to see what he is doing wrong, then you are not the reader he wants. At a stroke he has said that anyone equipped to properly review his work should not be reading it. How convenient! Those who are left are only those who do not think the material is oversimplified.

Who are those people? They are the readers who will take Gladwell's laws, rules, and causal theories seriously; they will tweet them to the world, preach them to their underlings and colleagues, write them up in their own books and articles (David Brooks relied on Gladwell's claims more than once in his last book), and let them infiltrate their own decision-making processes. These are the people who will learn to trust their guts (Blink), search out and lavish attention and money on fictitious "influencers" (The Tipping Point), celebrate neurological problems rather than treat them (David and Goliath), and fail to pay attention to talent and potential because they think personal triumph results just from luck and hard work (Outliers). It doesn't matter if these are misreadings or imprecise readings of what Gladwell is saying in these books—they are common readings, and I think they are more common among exactly those readers Gladwell says are his audience.

Not backing down, Gladwell said on the Brian Lehrer show that he really doesn't care about logic, evidence, and truth—or that he thinks discussions of the concerns of "academic research" in the sciences, i.e., logic, evidence, and truth—are "inaccessible" to his lowly readers:
I am a story-teller, and I look to academic research … for ways of augmenting story-telling. The reason I don’t do things their way is because their way has a cost: it makes their writing inaccessible. If you are someone who has as their goal ... to reach a lay audience ... you can't do it their way.
In this and another quote, from his interview in The Telegraph, about what readers "are indifferent to," the condescension and arrogance are in full view:
And as I’ve written more books I’ve realised there are certain things that writers and critics prize, and readers don’t. So we’re obsessed with things like coherence, consistency, neatness of argument. Readers are indifferent to those things. 
Note, incidentally, that he mentions coherence, consistency, and neatness. But not correctness, or proper evidence. Perhaps he thinks that these are highfalutin cares for writers and critics, or perhaps he is some kind of postmodernist for whom they don't even exist in any cognizable form. In any case, I do not agree with Gladwell's implication that accuracy and logic are incompatible with entertainment. If anyone could make accurate and logical discussion of science entertaining, it is Malcolm Gladwell.

Perhaps ... perhaps I am the one who is naive, but I was honestly very surprised by these quotes. I had thought Gladwell was inadvertently misunderstanding the science he was writing about, and making sincere mistakes in the service of coming up with ever more "Gladwellian" insights to serve his audience. But according to his own account, he knows exactly what he is doing, and not only that, he thinks it is the right thing to do. Is there no sense of ethics that requires more fidelity to truth, especially when your audience is so vast—and, by your own admission, so benighted—as to need oversimplification and to be unmoved by little things like consistency and coherence? I think a higher ethic of communication should apply here, not a lower standard.

This brings me back to the question of why Gladwell matters so much. Why am I, an academic who is supposed to be keeping his head down and toiling away on inaccessible stuff, spending so much time on reading his interviews, reviewing his book, and writing this blog post? What Malcom Gladwell says matters because, whether academics like it or not, he is incredibly influential.

As Gladwell himself might put it: "We tend to think that people who write popular books don't have much influence. But we are wrong." Sure, Gladwell has huge sales figures and is said to command big speaking fees, and his TED talks are among the most watched. But James Patterson has huge sales too, and he isn't driving public opinion or belief. I know Gladwell has influence for multiple reasons. One is that even highly-educated people in leadership positions in academia—a field where I have experience—are sometimes more familiar with and more likely to cite Gladwell's writings than those of the top scholars in their own fields, even when those top scholars have put their ideas into trade-book form like Gladwell does.

Another data point: David and Goliath has only been out for a few days, but already there's an article online about its "business lessons." A sample assertion:
Gladwell proves that not only do many successful people have dyslexia, but that they have become successful in large part because of having to deal with their difficulty. Those diagnosed with dyslexia are forced to explore other activities and learn new skills that they may have otherwise pursued. 
Of course this is nonsense—there is no "proof" of anything in this book, much less a proof that dyslexia causes success. I wonder if the author of this article even has an idea what proper evidence in support of these assertions would be, or if he knows that these kinds of assertions cannot be "proved."

One final indicator of Malcolm Gladwell's influence—and I'll be upfront and say this is an utterly non-scientific and imprecise methodology—that suggests why he matters. I Googled the phrases "Malcolm Gladwell proved" and "Malcolm Gladwell showed" and compared the results to the similar "Steven Pinker proved" and "Steven Pinker showed" (adding in the results of redoing the Pinker search with the incorrect "Stephen"). I chose Steven Pinker not because he is an academic, but because he has published a lot of bestselling books and widely-read essays and is considered a leading public intellectual, like Gladwell. Pinker is surely much more influential than most other academics. It just so happens that he published a critical review of Gladwell's previous book—but this also is an indicator of the fact that Pinker chooses to engage the public rather than just his professional colleagues. The results, in total number of hits:

Gladwell: proved 5300, showed 19200 = 24500 total
Pinker: proved 9, showed 625 = 634 total

So the total influence ratio as measured by this crude technique is 24500/634, or over 38-to-1 in favor of Gladwell. I wasn't expecting it to be nearly this high myself. (Interestingly, those "influenced" by Pinker are only 9/634, or 1.4% likely to think he "proved" something as opposed to the arguably more correct "showed" it. Gladwell's influencees are 5300/24500 or 21.6% likely to think their influencer "proved" something.) Refining the searches, adding "according to Gladwell" versus "according to Pinker" and so on will change the numbers, but I doubt enough corrections will significantly redress a 38:1 difference.

When someone with this much influence on what people seem to really believe (as indexed by my dashed-off method) says that he is just a storyteller who just uses research to "augment" the stories—who places the stories first and the science in a supporting role, rather than the other way around—he's essentially placing his work in the category of inspirational books like The Secret. As Dan Simons and I noted in a New York Times essay, such books sprinkle in references and allusions to science as a rhetorical strategy. Accessorizing your otherwise inconsistent or incoherent story-based argument with pieces of science is a profitable rhetorical strategy because references to science are crucial touchpoints that help readers maintain their default instinct to believe what they are being told. They help because when readers see "science" they can suppress any skepticism that might be bubbling up in response to the inconsistencies and contradictions.

In his Telegraph interview, Gladwell again played down the seriousness of his own ideas: "The mistake is to think these books are ends in themselves. My books are gateway drugs – they lead you to the hard stuff." And David and Goliath does cite scholarly works, books and journal articles, and journalism, in its footnotes and endnotes. But I wonder how many of its readers will follow those links, as compared to the number who will take its categorical claims at face value. And of those that do follow the links, how many will realize that many of the most important links are missing?

This leads to my last topic, the psychology experiment Gladwell deploys in David and Goliath to explain what he means by "desirable difficulties." The difficulties he talks about are serious challenges, like dyslexia or the death of a parent during one's childhood. But the experiment is a 40-person study on Princeton students who solved three mathematical reasoning problems presented in either a normal typeface or a difficult-to-read typeface. Counterintuitively, the group that read in a difficult typeface scored higher on the reasoning problems than the group that read in a normal typeface.

In my review, I criticized Gladwell for describing this experiment at length without also mentioning that a replication attempt with a much larger and more representative sample of subjects did not find an advantage for difficult typefaces. One of the original study's authors wrote to me to argue that his effect is robust when the test questions are at an appropriate level of difficulty for the participants in the experiment, and that his effect has in fact been replicated “conceptually” by other researchers. However, I cannot find any successful direct replications—repetitions of the experiment that use the same methods and get the same results—and direct replication is the evidence that I believe is most relevant.

This may be an interesting controversy for cognitive psychologists, but it's not the point here. The point is that Gladwell says absolutely nothing about the controversy over whether this effect is reliable. All he does is cite the original 2007 study of 40 subjects and rest his case. Even those who have been hooked by his prose and look to the endnotes of this chapter for a new fix will find no sources for the "hard stuff"—e.g., the true state of the science of "desirable difficulty"—that he claims to be promoting. And if the hard stuff has value, why does Gladwell not wade into it himself and let it inform his writing? When discussing the question of how to pick the right college, why not discuss the intriguing research that debates whether going to an elite school really adds economic value (over going to a lesser-ranked school) for those people who get admitted to both. Or, when discussing dyslexia, instead of claiming it is a gift to society, how about devoting the space to a serious consideration of the hypothesis that this kind of early life difficulty jars the course of development, adding uncertainty (increasing the chances of both success and failure, though probably not in equal proportions) rather than directionality. There was so much more he could have done with these fascinating and important topics.

But at least the difficulty finding a simple experiment to serve as metaphor might have jarred Gladwell into realizing that the connection between the typeface effect, however robust it might turn out to be, and the effect of a neurological condition or loss of a parent, is in fact just metaphorical. There is no relevant nexus between reading faint type and losing a parent at an early age, and pretending there is just loosens the threads of logic to the point of breaking. But perhaps Gladwell already knows this. After all, in his Telegraph interview, he said readers don't care about stuff like consistency and coherence, only critics and writers do.

I can certainly think of one gifted writer with a huge audience who doesn't seem to care that much. I think the effect is the propagation of a lot of wrong beliefs among a vast audience of influential people. And that's unfortunate.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Part Before the Colon: Is There a Trend Toward Cleverer Journal Article Titles?

I joined the Society for Personality and Social Psychology last year, even though I am not a social psychologist, because I had to in order to give an invited talk at a pre-conference session of the annual SPSP meeting, which was held in New Orleans. I had a good time, despite having a bad headache during most of my visit. Social psychologists give lots of interesting talks, they tend to be social, and they also dress better than cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists. It was also fun to see which ones made a visit to the casino across the street from the conference hotel.

As an SPSP member, I now receive their flagship journal every month: Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (PSPB—academics love to refer to journals with acronyms). One of the best parts of the journal, to a non-specialist like me, is the article titles. In psychology, as in many areas of science, there are different strategies for a good title. One is to concisely state the main finding of the paper or the main theoretical claim (occasionally formulated as a question rather than a statement). Another is to precede that kind of title with a clever quip, allusion, pun, or other phrase that grabs attention and orients the (potential) reader towards some aspect of the research you want to emphasize or that makes the work stand out. That is the part before the colon.

An example of this latter strategy is the 1999 article that Dan Simons and I published in Perception. The title was "Gorillas in our midst: Sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events." (Thanks to M.J. Wraga, a fellow postdoc in the Harvard psychology department at the time, for suggesting the part before the colon.) If you are a real black belt in journal article writing, you can be like Dan Gilbert and combine both a statement of the main finding and a clever quip all into one phrase, as in his wonderful 1993 article  (with two co-authors) "You Can't Not Believe Everything You Read." If there were a best title award this would surely be in the running. At least it's one of my favorites.

I think all kinds of titles can be good, if they are done well. There seems to be a trend toward more clever titles, at least during my time in psychology and social science. Consider the latest issue of PSPB (volume 39, number 10). Here are the article titles, just the parts before the colon:

1. "Show Me the Money"
2. Losing One's Cool
3. Changing Me to Keep You
4. Never Let Them See You Cry
5. Gender Bias in Leader Evaluations
6. Getting It On Versus Getting It Over With
7. The Things You Do For Me
8. "I Know Your Pain"
9. How Large Are Actor and Partner Effects of Personality on Relationship Satisfaction?
10. Touch as an Interpersonal Emotion Regulation Process in Couples' Daily Lives

I classify seven out of ten articles (all but #5, #9, and #10) as following the clever title strategy. That seems like a lot more than I used to see. To hastily test this intuition, I looked at the tables of contents for the same journal 10, 20, and 30 volumes ago, using issue 10 in 2003 and the final issue in 1993 and 1983 (since there were fewer than ten issues per volume then). There seems to have been a sharp increase:

2013: 70%   (7 out of 10)
2003: 10%   (1 out of 10: "The Good, the Bad, and the Healthy")
1993: 0%     (0 out of 11)
1983: 17%   (2 out of 12: "You Just Can't Count on Things Any More" and "Lonely at the Top")

Coincidentally, I received the latest issue of Clinical Psychological Science (volume 1, number 4; TOC apparently not online yet) today as well. It also has ten articles, and none of them have clever parts before the colon in their titles. Maybe clinical psychologists and their subject matter just aren't as funny.

Of course, this is hardly a serious statistical analysis of the phenomenon, and the quippy titles might have just coalesced at random in this particular issue, or this journal might have editors who encourage this kind of title. I should also say that I perceive the trend to exist in other areas besides social psychology. But I have heard it argued that this trend towards cleverer titles—if it really exists!—is a deleterious one, since it puts pressure on authors to come up with clever titles, and makes reviewers and editors and journalists expect to see them, and therefore it may distort the entire research endeavor towards work that can be summed up in not just the proverbial "25 words or less" but in the much higher standard of "10 very clever words or less." I have no strong belief as to whether all this is happening, or in what fields of study, but perhaps it's something to think about.

If someone does the research and writes a journal article on this, they are welcome to use the title "In 25 Words or Less: The Effect of Trends Toward Clever Pre-Colon Article Titles on the Content and Quality of Research." Just make sure to cite this blog entry, or come up with a catchier title yourself.

PS: I am fully prepared to be told that someone else has already said all this, or even done the research relating title catchiness to citation counts or other metrics. I have anticipated this in my other article, "Leap Before You Look: The Surprising Value of Writing Blog Entries Without Doing Your Research First."