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October 09, 2013

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E. Scott Fruehwald

While I agree with your criticism of Gladwell's approach, his 10,000 hour statement is backed up by solid scientific research. E.g., Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow 238 (2011); K. Anders Ericsson, The Influence of Experience and Deliberate Practice on the Development of Superior Expert Performance, in The Cambridge Book of Expertise and Expert Performance (K. Anders Ericsson et.al. eds., 2006);K. Anders Ericsson et, al., The Role of Deliberative Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, 100 Psych. Rev. 363 (1993).

Enrique

This post is bullshit ... The product of an obscure academic's envy of a successful author

Michelle Meyer

@Scott: It depends what you mean by "backed up." Gladwell didn't make up the 10,000 hour rule, and there’s certainly something to it, but I think the science is, as usual, more complex than Gladwell suggests. There's long been anecdotal "evidence" about the effects of practice on expertise, followed by a more formal paper in the 1970s (on chess, I think), followed in turn by the seminal paper by FSU's Ericsson in 1993, which you cite. In that paper, Ericsson and colleagues interviewed student violinists and faculty at an elite music academy. They asked the students to estimate how many hours they'd practiced since taking up the violin, and they asked faculty to group students into thirds: good, better, and best. They found that the students who reported having spent about 10,000 hours practicing tended to be rated by faculty as "best," while those rated "better" and "good" reported (if I recall correctly) 8000 and 4000 hours of practice, respectively.

That's certainly an interesting finding, but you can't conclude from that observational study that 10,000 hours of practice is the only, or even the most important, causal factor in producing expertise. Even assuming that student self-reporting of practice and faculty categorizations of expertise are trustworthy, and even ignoring all the violinists who may have practiced 10,000 hours (or more) but who realized they weren’t good at the violin and didn’t make it to the elite academy that was studied, the correlation between practice and expertise would have to be perfect before we could conclude that practice is the only--or even primary--driver at work.

And it turns out that the correlation isn’t perfect, suggesting that additional variables are at work. Studies since then by, e.g., Hamrick et al. have found that only about 50% of the variance in expertise is explained by practice; the rest is explained by a variety of innate and environmental factors largely outside the control of the individual. (Here’s a Hamrick blog post explaining his work: http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/1310675. And here's Hamrick’s recent paper: http://scottbarrykaufman.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Hambrick-et-al.-2013.pdf)

In short, although the 10,000 hour rule is extremely attractive, as Gladwell’s stories almost always are, both before and after the Ericsson paper there has been a great deal of debate within the relevant scholarly community about the relative contributions to expertise of “practice” and “talent.” Indeed, a 2013 Oxford U Press anthology edited by Scott Barry Kaufman, The Complexity of Greatness: Beyond Talent or Practice, nicely captures this longstanding scholarly debate. As far as I can tell, proponents of the 10,000 hour rule, like Ericcson, represent one end of a spectrum of opinion, with most participants in the debate urging that both practice and talent are critical. The problem with Gladwell’s discussion of the 10,000 hour rule is that he presents it as scientific consensus. (See this blog post by Scott Barry Kaufman for a nice history of the scholarly debate (and the ToC of his book): http://www.creativitypost.com/psychology/the_complexity_of_greatness_beyond_talent_or_practice)

There was also a recent kerfuffle between Gladwell and the author of the new book The Sports Gene, who devoted a chapter to debunking the 10,000 hour rule as applied to sports. Gladwell's response in the New Yorker was that he didn't intend for the rule to apply to sports, although Ericsson (from whence Gladwell got the rule) so applied it.

Michelle Meyer

@Enrique: LOL. I'm not sure who the obscure, jealous academic is supposed to be -- me or my husband (and also Steve Pinker, David Shaywitz, and the many others, both academics and non, who have made similar criticisms of Gladwell?). In any event, in response to substantive criticisms of Gladwell's work made by many people over the years, you can respond substantively in kind...or you can make ad hominem remarks according to which the merit of these critics' substantive criticisms somehow is supposed to depend on what you imagine to be the inner workings of their minds.

In an NPR interview today, even Gladwell dismissed as “unfair” the theory that his critics (and Chris in particular) are just jealous wannabes. Instead, he continues to say that (1) his critics misunderstand his purpose and his audience, and (2) they have some contempt for popularizations of science. I just disagree, on both counts.

As for the first, Gladwell keeps reminding us that he’s writing and speaking largely for a lay audience, not for scientists; but no one’s disputing that. The question, rather, is whether one has to sacrifice truth when communicating science to laypersons. I think the answer is clearly No, although I will admit that remaining faithful to scientific truth (which usually means the “truth” of scientific uncertainty) probably makes it that much more difficult to *entertain* a lay audience--and much, much more difficult to inspire them (though neither is impossible). If Gladwell’s response is that he prefers entertainment and inspiration to truth, then my response is that he has an obligation to tell his readers that, much as Mike Daisy had an obligation to tell his audience that he was engaged in fictional spoken-word art rather than journalism (see This American Life debacle).

As for Gladwell’s claim that his critics look down upon popularizations of science, nothing could be further from the truth. Many of his critics -- Chris and Steve Pinker among them -- have published bestselling trade books, written countless op-eds and book reviews, and otherwise engaged the public, notwithstanding the fact that the academy mostly doesn’t reward this kind of effort. For my part, I’m on record as saying that scientists have an *obligation* to engage the public and to ensure that their work is accurately portrayed. It’s precisely because I take the democratization of science seriously that I get cranky when science communicators with incredibly large platforms feel that they have no obligation regarding the quality or accuracy of that communication, beyond ensuring that the story is entertaining.

I’ll leave you with what Boyce Rensberger, Gladwell's former WaPo editor, had to say this week. Perhaps you'll be more open to hearing him:

"Gladwell is the same Gladwell as when I was his editor at The Washington Post. At first, I fell for his approach and brought him over to the science pod from the Post's business staff. Then I realized that he cherry picks research findings to support just-so stories. Every time I sent him back to do more reporting on the rest of the story, he moaned and fumed. When I read his proposal for "The Tipping Point," I found it to be warmed over epidemiology. It was based on a concept and a perception so old it was already an ancient saying about straw and a camel's back. But gussied up in Malcolm's writing style, it struck the epidemiologically naive as brilliant. Brilliant enough to win an advance of more than $1 million."

See: comment at http://ksj.mit.edu/tracker/2013/10/should-we-stop-believing-malcolm-gladwel

Ronquillo

Pot, meet kettle.

CHS

I guess the question is why this is worth a family effort across the Internet to make this point. Of course Gladwell is going to dismiss the jealousy argument, as any even reasonably well brought up person would. There are some observations that are better made by third parties.

CHS

Also, the mention of the amount of money he got for an advance is key. If the problem were just the flaws mention, why does the money matter?

Paul Horwitz

I sympathize with the point that mentioning money weakens an argument. But I think this question--"I guess the question is why this is worth a family effort across the Internet to make this point"--is actually quite problematic. For one thing, a blog post in addition to a Slate piece is not really a big effort. For another, and more importantly, I don't think there should be a marriage penalty for writers with the same interests. It's not conspiratorial for two people who share interests to marry, and to both continue writing about those interests, and even to compliment each other's work. You can discount, of course, but I don't find anything terribly ominous about "a family effort," nor do I think that every time a couple writes about the same issues it should be seen as "a family effort," as opposed to collaboration or identity of intellectual interests and views. In any event, it's not as if Gladwell has not been engaged and criticized by many, many people on the substance of his work. I suppose they could all be jealous, but it helps and is not coincidental that they all tend to coalesce around the same criticism, which is that he overuses his one big tool, overdraws the lessons that can be drawn, and sometimes does a disservice to the underlying work in the process. That strikes me as a pretty accurate criticism of Gladwell, even though I liked The Tipping Point a lot.

Michelle Meyer

@CHS: Fair point about Gladwell's polite response to accusations that his critics are just jealous. (On the idea that anyone who criticizes Gladwell but is less successful than he is must be jealous, though -- given how very successful he is, would that leave many people who are allowed to criticize him? That can't be right.)

As for the rest, I didn't intend the post as a family effort. I've long been interested in science communication and in the sometimes blurry lines between science/scholarship and art, and have blogged about these topics here on several prior occasions (e.g., on This American Life's story involving Huntington's Disease; on a grad student's art project on DNA facial recognition; on the work I do with SSGAC communicating the results of behavioral genetics; on the debate about the effects of OA on the integrity of the scientific literature, etc.). This time, my husband happens to have weighed in, a fact that I thought I ought to disclose. I assume that many TFL readers are familiar with Gladwell's work, but I'm not sure how many were aware of the criticisms of his approach to science communication. I thought there might be interest in that, as well as in discussing related questions about how legal scholars do and ought to conceive of their writing, in its various forms.

Re: your second question, about the relevance of the amount of Gladwell's advance, first, just to be clear, this is his former WaPo editor, whom I quoted in full, and not me, making this comment. What I find remarkable about Rensberger's comment (besides his being willing to make it publicly) was his recollection that Gladwell--who identifies as a journalist--would gripe about being sent back to do more balanced reporting.

I agree that the amount of the advance is entirely irrelevant in judging the quality/veracity of the work. However--once one has arrived at the conclusion that the work is problematic on substantive grounds--I'm sympathetic to struggling science writers who try really hard not to overhype science, to present the full range of expert opinion, etc. but who aren't given the opportunities that Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer get (and keep getting; Lehrer's new book is forthcoming), and which they arguably get precisely because their writing is inspiring and entertaining at the expense of providing a more accurate picture of the state of the science. As journalism and publishing collapse, what little money remains seems to be going to a handful of writers whose success seems to have depended (among other things -- both Gladwell and Lehrer are gifted writers and engaging speakers) on glossing over important nuances in science, and that strikes me as bad for us all.

Howard Wasserman

But money is a relevant point to the argument in the Slate piece that Gladwell's work is so widely read and influential that he should be more concerned about the underlying scientific bases for his arguments.

CHS

Of course he can be criticized. It is just the energy and vehemence that invite suspicion. The passion seems out of proportion, and that kind of thing suggests there is something more under the surface. That could be wrong, but it is not unreasonable to wonder.

I know the salary thing was the comment of the editor, and I was not attributing that to you. I think it says something about the editor that he would comment that way about a writer that he worked with. What is the purpose of revealing that along with the comment about the advance?

Sbkaufman

hi Michelle, thanks for referencing my edited volume that shows the many complexities surrounding the determinants of greatness. The links you put in your comment didn't open for me, however. For those who are interested, here are the links that work for me:

http://scottbarrykaufman.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Hambrick-et-al.-2013.pdf

http://www.creativitypost.com/psychology/the_complexity_of_greatness_beyond_talent_or_practice

CHS

There are people who write, columnists for example, who have wide readerships and are influential, and do not make as much money as MG. The problem, to the extent that it exists, is that some feel his work is without adequate foundation. That, not the money, is the issue. Talking about the money he makes does smack of envy.

Christina Brooks

The more comments I read and links I follow the more astonished I am at the mean-mindedness masquerading as "academic rigor" that's on display here. Using a headline calling Malcolm Gladwell a "bullshitter" is clearly inflammatory. Is it somehow supposed to be interpreted otherwise by a 20-page article that's linked to, I suppose, rationalize the use of the word?

Another link to a quote from a previous editor of Gladwell's leads to an article by someone else and the quoted comment is actually way down the page -- part of an internet conversation that the said editor used as an opportunity to make a comment.

I suggest anyone in any field would find that comment unprofessional and petty, seen in the context of taking potshots at a former employee who's found some success. Hardly the best way to fortify the above writer's argument.


CHS

@ Christina Brooks-- Exactly --on your points about the former editor. Was MG fired because of his alleged bad habits? I don't know. If he was not fired, why not? It seems a bit much now, once MG has gone on to fame and fortune (and has become the kind of writer who can make a living as a writer without having a day job-- the kind of thing that journalists and many others dream of) to bring up all the problems with his work when he was a young reporter.

In the end, I think it's just a matter of personality. It may not be good are bad, just a matter of individual tastes. There are many things that may be true, but can't be said without making the person who says them look petty. Most people don't want to look petty, so they stifle the impulse unless some other strong emotion overcomes the reticence, and they say what they think is "the truth", no matter how it makes them look. What we’ve been discussing here is whether that emotion is envy. Different people have different thresholds for this. I can’t imagine being someone’s editor and then years later, once they’ve left the relationship and gone on to be enormously successful, dragging up in a public forum all the problems I had with them.

iamnotabat

I thought your post was very entertaining. Though it was interesting that you use a specific form of the term bullshit "...in the Frankfurtian sense...," then ended your argument with shift in meaning toward the vernacular. It appears then that your argument was merely an equivocation. This is rather bad form for an academic, ending an argument in a basic fallacy. Tisk Tisk.

kobi veste

If the authors commentary on Gladwell is written with sincerity, then the Frankfurtian sense of the term "Bullshit" qualifies her as a bullshitter as well. And if her commentary is not sincere, then what is it?

"Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in
experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the
truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts
about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical
dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial —
notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other
things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit."

-Harry Franfurt, Closing words of his above referenced piece, "On Bullshit"

Nonetheless, thanks for sharing...sincerely.

Mdervin

It's nice to see a wife follow the lead of her man.

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