As humans we love to tell and listen to stories - good story tellers seem to occupy a special place. A lot of great story telling is fiction, but we realize that. Some is non-fiction and can be very useful. The dangerous stuff is when bad information is passed off as truth by a good storyteller .. we tend to believe the garbage.
An example of a good story teller who builds his work on bad and cherry picked information is Malcolm Gladwell. Many of the pieces he presented as solid science turn out to be myth and pseudo-science.
The gripe about Gladwell is his selective use of such information—not letting facts get in the way of a good story. A different story, certainly a more nuanced one, would result if other studies, other personal narratives, other experts had been considered. The average reader is not aware of what has been left out and thus can be easily mislead. His selective use of the research literature turns scientific findings into another form of anecdote. This is particularly bothersome to scientists whose own first commandment is something like: thou shalt address all relevant evidence, not merely the findings that support the most interesting, attention-getting hypothesis.
But so what? The man is writing popular books for a general audience, not reviews of the scientific literature. He introduces people to fascinating topics they might not otherwise have known about or considered interesting enough to merit attention. He offers novel, surprising perspectives on topics that everybody wonders about, like the bases of extraordinary success. Gladwell is like a lot of journalists and public intellectuals whose greater commitment is to what is interesting, not necessarilytrue. Gladwell isn’t obligated to consider competing perspectives or contradictory findings. His only obligation is to engage his readers. It’s hard to build a compelling narrative out of “on the one hand this, on the other hand that,” even if that would be the most accurate characterization of what is known about a topic. Nothing is gained if people won’t pick up the book. Such books are valuable because they’re stimulating: readers are moved to think and talk about important questions, situations, and events. There are plenty of easily accessible sources for readers who want to know more. Besides, there is always some truth to what he is saying; the evidence may be circumstantial but he doesn’t just make it up. And the books are enjoyable: vivid characters, surprising findings, and anecdotes to share around the water cooler. It’s all benign.
Gladwell gets a lot of grief, but he does his job Damnwell. Reading is good. Knowledge is good. Enjoyment is good. Take the book for what it is and have fun. Or go read a novel.
But here’s something to consider. What if in telling one of these stories, the author inadvertently made life much harder for a large group of people who are disadvantaged in some way? What if it resulted in fewer people being able to overcome that disadvantage? What if it added to the considerable burdens that such individuals and their families already experience?
Could the Gladwell treatment be harmful to children?
It sounds like the plot for a new Indiana Jones film.
Archaeologists say they have discovered the 'Gates of Hell', the mythical portal to the underworld in Greek and Roman legend.
The site, in the ancient Phrygian city of Hierapolis, now Pamukkale in southwestern Turkey, is said to closely match historical descriptions of what was known as Ploutonion in Greek and Pluutonium in Latin.
While I was working out this morning I caught a WNYC Soundcheck segment on Mr Magoo's Christmas Carol. It turns out this was the pioneering holiday animated show on television - before the Grinch, Charlie Brown and even Rudolph.
It is now 50 years old and will be shown Saturday night on NBC
(the segment begins at the 25:00 mark and runs a bit over 10 minutes)