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Interviews: Malcolm Gladwell Answers Your Questions 48

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Today, your continued belief in the Tabula Rasa myth seems increasingly outdated and contradicted by a wide variety of research from many notable evolutionary psychologists and genetics researchers.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?



How
by werepants

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.



Sharpshooter fallacy
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
by Scottingham

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
by FreedomFirstThenPeac

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
by werepants

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.



Increasing automation
by werepants

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
by Sonetta

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!
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Interviews: Malcolm Gladwell Answers Your Questions

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  • Divisions (Score:4, Insightful)

    by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2014 @03:38PM (#48516773) Journal

    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.

    This is a real issue....Americans have much more in common with each other than not, even if they fight forever on details like abortion. Politicians try to focus on our differences and emphasize them because that's how they get elected.

    But it's important to realize that manipulation before you get too involved in hating the 'other' team.

    • by swb ( 14022 )

      How is abortion still an issue? Who are these people that lay awake at night worrying about whether someone will have an abortion?

      In a historical way, I can see why it might have been agitating in pre-sexual revolution era (since it was probably always less about dead babies than keeping some kind of existential threat of pregnancy as a way to limit women's sexuality), but now? Do they think making abortion illegal now is going to actually change sexual behavior or have any kind of cultural impact?

      • >> How is abortion still an issue?

        It's used both on the right ("pro life") and on the left ("war on women") as a wedge issue.

        >> Who are these people that lay awake at night worrying about whether someone will have an abortion?

        Mostly "base" voters who are almost assuredly going to vote for either the right or left for other reasons, but who are cynically motivated to get off the couch by "pro life" or "war on women" advertisements full of BS. You can call people who buy into this stuff dumb, but

        • by TopherC ( 412335 )

          Well said.

          This and the original question Gladwell was answering reminded me again of a basic question I've had since youth: why a political dichotomy anyway? Why not three types of people, or just individual issues that we have independent opinions on? Haidt explains some of this from the perspective of personality traits, but I wonder if another part of the answer lies in the most common voting system in the US: plurality voting. That system has the feature of a 3rd-party-spoiler effect, where a 3rd politi

          • by S.O.B. ( 136083 )

            ... But when Gladwell pointed out that Canadians aren't so obsessed with the liberal-conservative dichotomy I started to wonder. ... Okay, I see that Canada also has a plurality voting system, so I'm likely full of ... it. Eh, I'll post this anyway. :)

            It's not just plurality voting that makes Canada different. There are also three major parties and a couple of minor ones so it gives people (and the media) more places to slot themselves thus avoiding the US vs. THEM mentality.

            If there were more choices than the Democrats and the Republicans I'm guessing it would be more like Canada and less like a WWE smackdown.

            Diclaimer: I'm a Canadian but an avid observer of American politics.

        • What I find interesting is politicians who pander to anti-abortion people by making grand gestures that the Supreme Court would strike down, while not working on writing laws that go right up to the Roe vs. Wade limits.

      • by LDAPMAN ( 930041 )

        Why would you think that changing sexual behavior or cultural impact would be leading reasons why someone would oppose abortion? I don't even think most are religiously motivated. For many the issue is that they see it as ending the life of an actual or potential human being.

        • by swb ( 14022 )

          Why would you think that changing sexual behavior or cultural impact would be leading reasons why someone would oppose abortion? I don't even think most are religiously motivated. For many the issue is that they see it as ending the life of an actual or potential human being.

          Because almost everyone who opposes abortion is almost never in favor of cheap, easy and widely available contraception, sex education that's not abstinence or welfare benefits to support all these seemingly valuable babies that MUST get born. I won't even include the handful who take it a step further and think that sexual assault, the health of the mother or severe birth defects aren't acceptable justifications, either.

          What possible reason can you have for opposing abortion AND contraception AND sex educ

          • by LDAPMAN ( 930041 )

            Why would anyone need to be an advocate for "cheap, easy and widely available contraception" when that is already the case? Are you claiming that that is not the current state of things? For all but the most destitute, access to contraception is a non-issue.

            • by swb ( 14022 )

              You're really going to argue that after the Hobby Lobby case?

              • Yes actually! In that case the insurance plan covered some twenty type of contraceptives. Their objection was to paying for a couple of specific types. Those types are still available at the persons own cost. Neither are expensive enough that paying for them yourself should be an undue burden.

          • Under the ACA, everyone in the United States is required to have health insurance, and health insurance plans are required to provide female contraceptives for free (however, men usually must pay full cost for male contraception). Every women in the United States already has access to free birth control, unless either they are either not complying with the ACA mandate or their employer is one of the very few that have an exemption. Even without insurance, female contraception is around $4-$5 per 28 days a

      • How is abortion still an issue?

        Because there are people who will not vote for a pro-abortion candidate. To them it's a matter of life and death.
        Similarly, there are people who will not vote for an anti-abortion candidate. To them it's also a matter of life and death.

        Anything that can be used to get votes will be.

      • Who are these people that lay awake at night worrying about whether someone will have an abortion?

        The same people who lay awake at night worried about people dying of starvation and/or violence. Whether or not you agree with whether an unborn child is alive or not, in their worldview the unborn child is alive, thus it is murder.

        Whether or not you are pro-life or pro-choice, I think understanding the pro-life worldview is not difficult. Its the same as whether or not you believe the earth is flat, or only 6,000 years old. Even if you don't believe it, you can at least intellectually comprehend that th

  • There's you clickbait headline, Gawker, et al. :)

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 03, 2014 @04:53PM (#48517365)

    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.

    I think he shouldn't rely on history so much - although, skepticism is warranted.

    Technology changes history and historical patterns - computers, anyone?. Looking back on history and thinking the exact same thing will happen the same way is an over simplification of the complexities of economics and society. It is just as silly as the folks who say automation is going to replace all workers.

    In the past in regards to automation, there were plenty of industries that were growing and needed human labor at all levels and more than compensated for the loss of jobs in the newly automated industry. The trouble with today is that automation is affecting all industries at all levels of employment. And new industries are automating as much as they can - and also many new industries are just not as labor intensive as old ones: for example, comparing manufacturing with social media. The Internet industry just doesn't need that many people to generate revenues as say the autmotive industry - even with their robots.

    It has been estimated that to do the same amount of business that Amazon does with Mom&Pop stores would require 1 million or more people. Amazon does it with a little more than 30,000 - mostly temps.

    The affects of automation is quite a complex issue and brushing it off as "nonsense! Look at the Industrial revolution!" or "The robots will make labor obsolete!" are both hyperbolic and do not reflect reality and what is actually happening in our economy.

    Anyway, see here. [technologyreview.com]

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Technology changes history and historical patterns - computers, anyone?

      Computers, what? Computers automated the jobs of thousands of transcriptionists, accountants, and filing clerks. Many of the displaced found work in programming, desktop publishing, and web design, and the automation allowed massive increases in productivity. It's not fundamentally any different than displacing thousands of cotton pickers with tractors, or thousands of stevedores with container handlers.

    • by Livius ( 318358 )

      The issue is not the degree of automation in any absolute sense, but whether or not automation is displacing jobs faster than the labour market can adjust. It's a valid question - there's no reason to think that this iteration of automation will be different than past ones, but also no reason to think it won't.

      • It's not just a question of automation speed vs. speed of labor market adjustment, but also a question of what people with lower skills can contribute economically. Before the Industrial Revolution, there was always work as a farm hand. During the Industrial Revolution, there was always factory work. Nowadays, the equivalent seems to be in the service sector, which doesn't seem to have the same opportunities as factory worker, and we're seeing low-level service jobs being automated. I'm also not sure w

  • I have been getting several questions about my book, "The Market is not Random.," [tminr.com] lately, and it is an amazing experience to engage with readers. Between posts on my blog TMINR [themarketisnotrandom.com], twitter messages, and general emails, it has been a tremendous learning experience.

    As my book has breached the top 75 on Amazon's finance section, I have noticed that I am slowly approaching the "Tipping Point" as Mr. Gladwell lovingly pointed out, and I hope to one day fall off that edge to be in a position to gather my own group

  • by Beck_Neard ( 3612467 ) on Wednesday December 03, 2014 @06:58PM (#48518489)
    • by j-beda ( 85386 )

      I've enjoyed Gladwell's books. It is a shame he does seem to have some significant conflicts of interest in much of what he has written.

    • That has to be the longest ad hominem I've ever read.

      • Pointing out conflicts of interest isn't ad hominem. An ad hominem is when you respond to someone's argument by attacking their character. But in this case Gladwell's authority is itself the argument. With a past like that, you have to take most of what he says with a grain of salt.

  • I wonder if the reply counts as a good enough "reputable source" to update the Wikipedia article on the Tipping Point?

    I was also glad to see two questions mentioning automation issues (one referencing a basic income). Maybe we'll see a new book on that as Malcolm Gladwell explores those issues more in depth?

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