This is the third installment of a four-part series on the cultural context of contemporary popular science writing. Part I is here, Part II is here, and Part IV will appear next week.
The first decade of the new millenium put the big—as in big money—in “Big Ideas.” From The Tipping Point (2000) to Freakonomics (2005) to Ted Talks (which started streaming in 2006), an intellectual economy emerged that put a premium (and a price) on counterintuitive conclusions.
In many ways, this was what I called “the house that Gladwell built” in my first post. However, my second post suggested a more structural explanation for the sort of popular science peddled by Malcolm Gladwell and what one source has called “the Gladwell clones and wannabes who specialize in writing counterintuitive books that explain the world.”
Let’s flesh this out a bit further. When people “copy Malcolm Gladwell,” what exactly are they copying? Is it different if the person in question is a journalist, a scientist, an academic, or none of the above? With specific reference to Jonah Lehrer, is there something about his position vis-a-vis Gladwell (e.g. in the image above, or as heir apparent) that set him up for the fall that spurred these posts?
What’s so special about Gladwell? It’s not (just) his writing: though he’s got a way with words, so do tons of others—some of whom also get jobs with the New Yorker. Though there’s certainly a market for the artful rendering of difficult, technical topics—witness the rise of Nate Silver—I don’t see Gladwell as better enough than the competition to justify his earnings on that alone.
Nor is it what we might call “the ideas themselves,” since—famously—they’re not his own, but rather (as Steven Pinker put it) “counterintuitive findings from little-known experts” (more on expertise in a second). In reality, it’s probably some combination of the two: it’s these particular ideas, packaged in this particular way, that’s made for a winning combination (and million dollar advances).
This seems right, but it leaves unexplained what precisely “these ideas” are and why there’s such a market for them now. Oh, and what did Malcolm Gladwell have to do with it? It happens that many would agree with Ross Douthat’s “quotation” (you see the irony) of Allen Ginsberg on the matter:
|Douthat on Lehrer (Source: https://twitter.com/DouthatNYT/status/230319900135137282)
Okay, but how? If New York
was even partly right to say that, in the last decade, “the shocking hidden side of everything became the only side of anything worthy of magazine covers and book deals,” then does Gladwell deserve credit or was it just “right place, right time” (an argument Gladwell himself prefers
One interpretation I like
is that Gladwell’s “non-threatening answers” were timed perfectly. The Tipping Point
coincided with a real “tipping point”: the dot-com bubble burst within a month of the book’s appearance. We needed a sense of security and Gladwell reassured us that “our elites know what is going on, and the complexity of the world can be explained in a calm, hip, erudite way
This genre—into which Lehrer’s work certainly fits—wasn’t just about being hip and erudite. These books are about “big ideas,” in the sense (according to one definition
) that they “center around a counterintuitive or provocative theme” and explain “why things are not as they seem.”
Coming up with such claims is tough: hence, if you’ve got one, you’ll probably reuse it (self-plagiarism) and, if you haven’t, you might be driven to pretend that you do. Slate took this analysis to the extreme
: as sales went up, Lehrer “ceased to be a writer” and “moved into the idea business”:
This is the world of TED talks and corporate lectures, a realm in which your thoughts are your product. For the idea man, the written word is just one of many mediums for conveying your message and building your brand.
“Ideas” are the way you get from writing to lecturing—in which you can sell the same ideas again and again, for prices that keep going up and up. A New York Observer piece
put it best: “Old model: tour the country to promote your book. New model: write a book to tour the country.”
Is this bad? Not necessarily. But it does raise another issue that’s central to science studies: the nature of expertise. I’ll wait til next week to get into the details of “evolutionary psychology” and the boundary-work
that goes on around it. Today, let me close instead with another figure in the world of popular social science (in this case, statistics): Nate Silver
Much (digital) ink’s been spilled about Silver since the election (here’s a guide
)—some pronounced him the actual winner of the 2012 election
, others derided his data-driven approach as a joke
. What I’m most interested in is the upshot of Silver’s remarkable success: political reporting will now be more data-driven, many say, and journalism in general should cultivate new experts on an old model.
post called “Statisticians on the Bus
” (among others) calls for a new generation of “Quant Pundits” to displace the “mile-wide, inch-deep political reporters” of yesteryear. Silver himself agrees—for example, he told Stephen Colbert that if he had the choice between pundits and ebola, he’d choose the latter
Though I’m tired (and skeptical) of the “statistics vs. narrative” framework in which this discussion’s taken place, I think we have to recognize both the pull that binary has and what the stakes are in terms of who we trust.
A recent post on Scientific American
connects Silver to “the ascendence of expertise” in an interesting way
. Though the politics are a bit flat-footed, the post’s author correctly notes that Silver’s success has ridden on a general trend at the New York Times
to hire “people with real expertise” to provide commentary.
Though some see expertise in accreditation (e.g. a Ph.D.) and others see it as self-guided exploration (e.g. long-term bloggers), it seems to be the province of hedgehogs rather than foxes. Knowledge can be wide; expertise has to be deep. What’s more, the sort of stuff Silver’s up to requires real statistical chops—not necessarily top of the line stuff, but enough to get by in an age of big data.
Whether that’s exactly expertise I’ll leave to the reader. What I wanted to point out, by way of foregrounding my next (and final) post, is that there’s something at stake in the difference between a Silver and a Lehrer—and that it’s hard to figure out precisely what it is. Next week, I’ll zero in on what makes Gladwell and Lehrer different from Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond.
*Note: Gladwell applied his trademark approach to the problem of plagiarism itself back in 2004.