A few weeks ago, you had a chance to ask Malcolm Gladwell about his writing and social science research. Below you'll find his answers to your questions.Genetics
by Anonymous Coward
Today, your continued belief in the Tabula Rasa myth seems increasingly outdated and contradicted by a wide variety of research from many notable evolutionary psychologists and genetics researchers. How do you continue to believe that intelligence and ability is not significantly genetic despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary?
Gladwell: I'm not sure where you got the idea that I'm a "Tabula Rasa" believer. believe me: as a life-long competitive runner, I'm only too aware of the large contribution innate differences make to performance. I guess I would just say that I find the environmental piece of the equation more interesting, from an analytical perspective, because its the portion that we, as a society, can do something about. In looking at things like the 10,000 rule, I've always been interested in the interaction between nature and nature--as in, what kind of effort and resources are necessary to express native ability?
You have made a career out of writing books that popularize scientific findings - it seems like this is a task fraught with potential dangers, in terms of representing something that your readers misinterpret and misapply, or perhaps taking a published study and drawing an unwarranted conclusion yourself that attracts the ire of the original researchers. Certainly, much science journalism lately can be criticized for sensationalizing scientific results in the pursuit of better headlines, sometimes at the cost of being deliberately misleading. Can you expound a bit on the issues you've run into as a purveyor of scientific results, and explain how you balance the need for a faithful presentation of the source material with the desire to find something relatable and compelling enough to write a book about?
Gladwell: Its a good question. there is always a tension between specificity and accessibility. If you are writing for an elite audience--as an academic does--the line gets shaded to one end; if you are writing for a popular audience--as I do--the line gets shaded to the other end. There is no simply or easy solution as to how those two conditions ought to be balanced. Those who pretend that you can do both simultaneously--that is, represent the full complexity of an issue and also render it comprehensible to a mass audience--are smoking crack.
by i kan reed
The areas you work in focus on very small sample sizes: software billionaires, major cultural shifts, and cases where the most improbable result happened.
Within these areas, you've developed mental frameworks off of shared elements between each. This runs into a problem, the Texas Sharpshoot fallacy. You pick out some characteristics that are shared by the things you're looking at, and then the only available data to confirm your hypothesis is the data you extracted your predictions from.
How did you address this when researching your books?
Gladwell: Story-telling is an exercise in learning from case studies. Anthropology and field sociology are, for example, exercises in extrapolating from the specific. Economics, say, or experimental psychology are exercises in drawing conclusions from group observations. I think you need both approaches. I would never say that my books should be the last word on any subject. At the same time, however, anyone who tries to construct a world view entirely from collections of empirical data will miss something crucial about the human experience.
Opinion On Basic Income
I'm curious to know what your take is on a basic income for all US citizens versus our current 'conditional' welfare system. What do you think short term and long term outcome would be? Would the increased tax burden on the upper classes result in a total collapse rendering a basic income useless? My personal opinion is that it is necessary given the increasing rate of job automation coupled with our increasing population size (not to mention aging). Am I delusional? If so, why?
Gladwell: I haven't studied this issue, I'm afraid. But you've piqued my interest!
Left-Right dichotomy vs Compass
As a statistician, I am seriously annoyed with the usual Left-Right dichotomy we see in most press articles. While I like the Political Compass I am a bit nervous of their clustering algorithm, and the questions they use to feed the analytics. Even more interesting is Johathan Haidt who has achieved some TED Talk fame describing a five-dimensional feature space (though he does try to reduce to two clusters - liberals and conservatives). So I pose a two part question, (1) do you think the public discourse is hampered by the popular press always reducing politicians and voters to "liberals" and "conservatives"? And if you are concerned, (2) what can we do to push back against such simplifications, especially here on Slashdot?
Gladwell: Great question! As an immigrant to the United States (from Canada) I've always been amazed at the extent to which Americans love to exaggerate their differences: that is, they dwell on the left/right distinction well past the point that that particular division serves as a useful descriptor. For example, I would be labeled, in American terminology, as well left-of-center. But when I have conversations with self-styled Republicans or Libertarians, I find myself with far greater areas of agreement with them than disagreement.
Long term effects of filter bubbles/silos
by An dochasac
There is a positive feedback between human confirmation bias and reliance on information sources which increasingly give us what we want (e.g. Google/Facebook "filter bubbles", Amazon "if you like this... you'll like that." Do you expect this to create more social balkanization and extremism or other social effects? Is there anything we can do to stop or slow this process?
Gladwell: I'm suspicious of those kinds of filters that claim to give us what we want based on what we previously wanted. the things that most interest me and capture my imagination are invariably those that depart--often dramatically--from my previous patterns of experience. Filter bubbles assume we are consistent in our beliefs and wants. But what is particular about humans, surely, is our capacity for inspired and radical inconsistency. Gorbachev reached a deal with Ronald Reagan; protestants in Northern Ireland made peace with the IRA. Are these the aspects of human experience that matter the most?
Recent religious topics
I imagine that the different circles you run in might have dramatically different responses to the religious emphasis in your recent work. What kind of reactions (wanted and unwanted) have you gotten from your recent move towards Christianity?
Gladwell: A very small amount of cynicism. A very large amount of genuine and heart-warming support.
We've got dramatic and sudden changes forecasted in the use of automation in various industries. The trucking industry alone could change in a few short years with the advent of self-driving vehicles, leaving millions out of work. What kind of social impact do you foresee with these developments - do you think this kind of automation will be a fundamentally different kind of technological advance than our society has previously dealt with?
Gladwell: I'm a skeptic. We've been replacing human labor with machines for getting on to 200 years now. Someone needs to convince me why the current automation revolution is any different from the numerous automation revolutions that have come before. A lot of the scare mongering that occurs over this issue seems to me to come from people who aren't reading their history.
Writing & Research Methods
Elaborate on what ways have technological advances altered or impacted your craft. In terms of research I imagine that you must have begun as a Journalist at the end of the card catalog era. Many research studies and books are available via internet yet you continue to frequent libraries, perhaps due to the types of items and information you find within the library. Further, first person interviews are a basis to your books. Explain the significance of the face-to-face or one-on-one and the technological tools which assist you with those interviews. Also, do you ever utilize pen and paper and notebooks? Gracias!
Gladwell: I'm old school. I still go to the library. I still use paper and pencil, as well as a computer. I still love the face to face interview. Then again, I don't believe that the tools a writer uses ultimately make that much of a difference. Its your effort and the quality of your thinking that matter!
Reduced lead leading to reduced crime?
by Paul Fernhout
In The Tipping Point you advance the argument that it was better policing against minor infractions that reduced crime. "Economist Steven Levitt and Malcolm Gladwell have a running dispute about whether the fall in New York City's crime rate can be attributed to the actions of the police department and "Fixing Broken Windows" (as claimed in The Tipping Point). In Freakonomics, Levitt attributes the decrease in crime to two primary factors: 1) a drastic increase in the number of police officers trained and deployed on the streets and hiring Raymond W. Kelly as police commissioner (thanks to the efforts of former mayor David Dinkins) and 2) a decrease in the number of unwanted children made possible by Roe v. Wade, causing crime to drop nationally in all major cities -- "[e]ven in Los Angeles, a city notorious for bad policing"."
However, it looks like the drop in crime is most closely correlated with the fall in environmental lead (mostly from reducing the used of leaded gasoline). Since other places have seen their crime rate fall without drastic changes in policing, what do you think of the lead and crime connection?
Gladwell: Yes. I find a lot of the lead arguments very convincing. If I were rewriting The Tipping Point today, I think I'd definitely add a discussion of the lead question to my consideration of the decrease in crime in the mid-1990's. That's the problem with a 15-year old book!