Psychology

The Triumph of Steven Pinker and Disillusionment with Malcolm Gladwell

Once, not too long ago, I was enthralled by the fascinating subject matter and charming prose of journalist and essayist Malcolm Gladwell. Few interested in psychology or social science have not read at least one of his bestselling books, which include The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, or followed his essays in The New Yorker. Having devoured Blink in high school, I can still vividly recall many of its lessons, and even today occasionally catch myself applying Blink-ist thinking to real-world situations (a Gladwell book was an easy gift for a string of holidays). But I can also vividly recall reading what I then perceived as an overly critical review of Gladwell’s work by some guy named Steven Pinker, who said something like, “[reading Gladwell] had me gnawing on my Kindle.”

Fast forward to 2013, and Steven Pinker is no longer just some guy to me, but one of the world’s most interesting thinkers. He is currently a professor of psychology at Harvard, and has raised his profile over the years with public advocacy of science (you may recognize him by his locks – his hair has its own facebook fan page) and a string of best-selling books on language and cognitive psychology. His most recent work, The Better Nature of Our Angels, was hailed by Bill Gates as one of the most important books he’s ever read.

Now knowing a bit more (though not much) about statistics, logical fallacies, and the dangers of inept data interpretation, I have reread Pinker’s 2009 review of Gladwell’s work in the NY Times, and couldn’t agree more with its conclusions. Pinker points out that Gladwell is far from an expert on statistics or social science, and summarizes his concerns in the following way:

” . . . When a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong . . . The reasoning in ‘Outliers,’ which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle . . . Readers have much to learn from Gladwell the journalist and essayist. But when it comes to Gladwell the social scientist, they should watch out for those igon values.”

The reference to “igon values” is a stab at Gladwell’s sophomoric misuse and misspelling of linear algebra’s “eigenvalue”. Gladwell fired back in a response, and the two ended up in a bit of a written exchange over, of all things, football statistics. But the lesson here is even more important than those I’ve remembered from Blink. Social science is a tricky business, with vast amounts of room for error in interpretation. We have to be careful accepting conclusions based on anecdotal evidence, and especially of trusting individuals writing or speaking far outside their area of expertise.

The other lesson is to read often and read widely. My first bit of disillusionment with Gladwell actually came a few years ago, while simultaneously reading The Tipping Point and Dubner and Levitt’s Freakonomics. Both books, in what I assume was a coincidence, tried to answer the question of why crime rates had dropped so suddenly in New York City in the mid-90’s. I won’t spoil the conclusions for those who haven’t read the books, but let’s just say they were radically different, and it seemed clear to me that the take in Freakonomics was much more likely (and was backed up by much more data).

That’s not to say Gladwell doesn’t have much to offer (it’s also not to say that Pinker is infallible or should be read without some degree of skepticism either). I would agree with Pinker’s back-handed assessment of Gladwell as at least a “minor genius” with a unique voice and take on the world (though I’m not sure I agree with his take on the future of religion, here). In summary, I very much look forward to the next release of a Gladwell book; though this time I’ll know to spend more time savoring the prose than conclusions.

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Finding God In Arby’s – A Lesson in Self-Deception, Pattern Seeking, and Religious Tolerance on RadioLab

Ah, Radiolab. I just came across Season 11’s “Are You Sure?” episode themed, incidentally, around doubt and certainty. The first segment, which is what I’ll focus on here, is about religious doubt and leaves you feeling, as Radiolab often does, both fascinated and slightly melancholy. You should listen to the episode, because I’m going to comment on it below, and the summary won’t do it justice.

The gist is that this young guy named Jeff Viniard, who had been a devout believer all his life, found himself having a crisis of faith only a short while before he was to be married to his fiancé, Megan (also a devout believer – and I’m probably spelling her name wrong). Jeff was literally struck with the thought, “I don’t believe in God” while doing the dishes and was so shocked by it that his fiancé asked him what was wrong on the spot. He demurred, but a short while later explained what had happened, and, long story short, they postponed the wedding.

So Jeff took off on a bike trip across the Nevada desert, hoping to find some evidence for God. He couldn’t, and they called off the wedding (Megan was adamant she wanted her husband to share her faith). Another year goes by and Jeff finds himself still lost, still searching, having lost his faith and the girl he loved. Along the way he has a few encounters that he thinks could be divine evidence, like a minister talking to him at Arby’s and the wind pushing at his back as he walks up a mountain (really), but he still can’t make up his mind. Another year goes by and we find that…almost miraculously, all is well. Jeff had started attending church again, though still with doubts, and Megan began to cope with the fact that her husband’s beliefs would be different than hers. Jeff now says he does believe in God, though you can tell it’s not the kind of certain faith that Megan has (and you can also tell she still wants him to have her particular type of faith), but they make a choice to love each other and the wedding goes through.

It was quite a rollercoaster story, but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Jeff, even though it did all work out in the end.. It’s painfully obvious that he was essentially forced to admit a belief in God because he loved Megan, and because that was the only way he could conceivably be with her. He admits to looking for signs, which in his desperate state was clearly priming his brain to recognize false patterns (see Michael Shermer’s TED talk below this post on the funny things our brains can do). He seems so desperate, in fact, that I’m actually surprised he didn’t have a better religious experience/hallucination during his search. A proselytizing minister at Arby’s was the best he could offer up. I think his journey is an example of the depths people will go through to be with the one they love, to not be alone – which in this case is both sweet and slightly sad since it seems Jeff has forced himself into a delusion.

I wish Megan, and other believers, could learn to be more understanding of someone like Jeff’s position. Why make him go through all that? Why call off the wedding immediately? The fact is there just isn’t any credible evidence for God. If He exists, as Bertrand Russell would say, He’s gone through great pains to hide himself. So I find it silly that someone would break off their marriage to an individual they presumably loved, just because they can’t believe in the thing you believe in for which there isn’t any reason to believe in in the first place (other than you were taught to as a child and it makes you feel good).

Perhaps I’m simplifying it too much, but it seems more reasonable to me that marriages and relationships should be built on loving the other person, and not on what you each think happens after you die.