Friday, December 05, 2008

Some Thoughts on Patrick Smith’s Takedown of Malcolm Gladwell

You’ve already heard me complain about articles in the general-purpose media that dress up unfounded, sometimes downright false, assertions with one-sided vignettes and quotes, expert and non- to sell a story. In fact, the media both good and bad always rely heavily on the anecdotal approach to reach the general public. This is not an ideal situation, but there is no way to get around this, short of rendering the news on any given subject inaccessible to all but the truly initiated. Thus, we rely on the journalists to get the underlying story correct even as they entertain, and on experts both pro and amateur to call them to task when they don’t.

In the past, the general public only became aware of the lie when the clamor from the experts became loud enough to past through the filter of the mass media. The Internet has changed this, as it unleashes, unites, massive hordes of online Mavens—to use a term popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller The Tipping Point—who gleefully expose the lie. Much of this activity takes place on blogs and in chat rooms, filtered by online debates and by what I’ll call super-Mavens, experts who play the role of arbitrators in the cyberspace market of ideas. From the consumer’s perspective, online magazines can be seen as filters that save the general public the time and effort of identifying these super-Mavens. From the experts’ point of view, they may not pay much, but keep plugging away, and more munificent deals for deadwood publications and personal appearances will (hopefully) come their way, analogous to what is happening in the indie music world with open-sourced outlets and gigs and recording deals.

And that is a long way of coming to my main point, which is the latest from Patrick Smith, an airline pilot by trade and most entertaining and informative writer of Ask the Pilot, as he takes down—politely, unlike this blog—that same Malcolm Gladwell for his claim that “[t]he single most important variable in determining whether a plane crashes is not the plane, it's not the maintenance, it's not the weather, it's the culture the pilot comes from”. I gather from what Smith says in his essay (I have to take it on faith that he’s not playing with the facts as well) that when Gladwell talks about “culture” as the cause of more accidents, he is talking about “hierarchical” cultures that he see in places like Columbia/Latin America and South Korea/Asia.

Gladwell’s mistake was that he did not bother to check the facts. He created a nice story involving culture, found some cases to fit the facts or labeled the facts to fit the story—does anyone have an operative definition of “hierarchical” cultures and a scale to measure them?—and just winged it the rest of the way. But a quick check of the facts by Smith shows that he was in essence just making it up.

Smith is careful not to knock Gladwell’s work entirely; he dispassionately stays within his competence; that is another measure of his particular value as a super-Maven. I myself am reading The Tipping Point now, for the second time. Galdwell clearly the knack of taking good, innovative thinking and making it easily accessible to the general public. Thomas Friedman is another such, if far less skilled, writer. But at the end of the day, they are journalists; it is hard for them sometimes to let such simple things as facts get in the way of the story. This is where super-Mavens such as Patrick Smith and the intellectual filters such as Salon (as long as you stay aware of its liberal leanings where political issues are concerned) come in for people e like me, who find more specialized publications such as Nature often above my head.

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