education philosopher

The Gladwellization of Information: Pros and Cons

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on May 10, 2010

Recently, there has been a plethora of books put out by journalists like Malcolm Gladwell Stephen Dubner, Stephen Levitt, and David Shenk dealing with scientific issues in a way explainable to the lay public. I’ve heard some folks call this the “Gladwellization” of  information. Of course, this was meant as a pejorative meaning something similar to the “simplification” of information. And in a sense, that is what these journalists are doing: taking highly specialized information from disciplines and writing books intended to explain to and interest the lay public.

Instead of either praising or bemoaning the trend, I want to think about the benefits and costs of this new emerging breed of popular science writer. First, it should be noted that while the trend of writing science books for the lay public is not new, it has tended to be done by that rare breed of scientist who has a knack for distilling complex concepts into simple and readable prose: Gary Becker in economics, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins in biology – all of these writers are bonafide experts in their field as well as popular writers devoted to explaining their science to the masses.

Not man y will argue that this is not a useful or necessary endeavor. Well, correct that: it is not necessary that the general public understand genetics or supply-side economics, but it is certainly good to provide the option to interested members of the lay public. After all, no one wants to see a world where only scientists understand what scientists do, and only economists can understand economics.

But these new journlsits – Gladwell and the like – are just that: journalists. They are often writing about areas they have not gotten degrees in, reading journal articles aimed at a technical audience, and (often without technical acumen) are interpreting data for us.  So, it begs a question: in what ways is this a good thing and in what ways is it a bad thing?

To attempt an answer, it is necessary to understand that all of this is being done on account of the division of labor (or, we might say, the division of knowledge).  The sciences, and most other fields we see nowadays, have advanced to a point where careers are devoted to them. That is a good thing in that it means we are advancing a great deal (because the more advanced the field and its knowledge, the more time initiates must spend mastering that field and its knowledge). But there is a downside here: it kinda leaves the general public – those whose careers are not devoted to that particular science – behind. (Even professionals in other closely related fields often don’t know the ‘inside’ information of fields around them because each sub-discipline now often rests on knowledge exclusive to those in that sub-discipline.)

So, the obvious good of having journalists writing books distilling these often heady and complex fields for the lay public is that it, to the degree possible, disburses previously monopolized information. In a sense, it lessens the barrier between disciplines and between the technician and the expert. True, I don’t exactly need to understand molecular biology or chaos theory, but at least I can, in theory, get it if I want it. Going along with the American (and European) tradition of egalitarianism, these journalists make sure that everyone’s got a shot at this information.

But here is where I see a subtle downside. While this egalitarianism is a nice ideal, it is all too easy to fall into the empowering illusion that the wall between expert and layperson can be broken down by these journalists, or at very least, that the wall is unjustified. Let me explain.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers was a runaway bestseller. Those in the halls of academia disdain this trend because Gladwell is sensational, highly anecdotal, and in some sense, is motivated primarily by a desire to entertain and intrigue rather than (as a scientist might) put out a falsifiable theory and mount (generally unsexily unanecdotal) data to support it.

And the laypublic response to this? Outrage against the academics. And in a sense, they have a point. The laypublic isn’t about to, and shouldn’t be expected to, read the scholarly literature in scholarly journals. They don’t have time for the nuanced and technical writings and theorizings that academics do. So, to disdain public attempts to understand science by saying that they are not going far enough is a tad elitist.

On the other hand, the academics have a point. One is simply in error to think that Gladwell’s book is anything more than an extended Newsweek article. He is a journalist who is not trained in science. His job, as a journalist, is to distill information in a way that gets and keeps reader interest. It is not beyond the realm of possibility, and could be in the realm of probability, that his and books like his would gladly settle for a simple and interesting “fudging” of the data than a complex and arcane accurate telling of the data.

Here is a related downside: we can never, but often do, forget that these authors are not experts on the subject and reading their works is not sufficient to enable one to render an expert judgment. For this, I will use my own ignorance as an example. I am profoundly ignorant, and always will be, on the matter of global climate change. Is it occurring? Is it human caused?

The truth: I have no idea and often hate to discuss the subject with others because, despite seeing Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and reading Lomborg’s Skeptical Environmentalist (as well as hearing many authors give talks on the subject), I am acutely aware of my own ignorance. But many I have talked to are not aware of their own ignorance: they cite newspaper stories they have read, Gore’s film, Lomborg’s book, etc., and gladly say they are quite sure that they know whether global climate change is occurring.

But here is the thing: we are not climatologists and do not have the background necessary to really judge arguments against climatological evidence. To me, Gore says it one way and Lomborg says it another. But how am I to evaluate who is right? I can always listen to author talks, television talking heads, newspaper articles, and anything short of climatological articles that are impossible for me to understand. But then what do I have? Just one more distilled opinion that I STILL have no means of evaluating!

This is, quite simply, a problem that occurs with the division of intellectual labor: try as the outsider might, the technical stuff will always be over their head. And that is okay, because we have areas we are knowledgeable on and others have areas they are knowledgeable on. We can’t all be experts on everything because none of us have the time and most of us don’t have the inclination. (I really don’t WANT to understand too much climatology; it is, to me, a dry field that I will gladly leave to experts. Of course, the upshot is that I can’t really render much of an opinion on global climate change save for believing whatever the majority of experts seem to agree on. And in American, with our egalitarian ideals, we HATE to do this!)

So, the problem with journalists like Gladwell et al., is that they can subtly lull us into forgetting the intractability of this divide. When one reads Matt Ridley, one feels like one really understands biology. When one reads Gladwell, one really feels like one understands psychology. When one reads Gore, one really feels like one understands climatology. Of course, all these authors do is give us a glimpse into the field in a way that is entertaining enough for those of us who don’t make that particular field our lives and may come with only a passing interest.

Yes, what they do is a good, good thing. Without them,  the divide between expert and layperson would be total, with the layperson always at the complete mercy of the expert. But we cannot let our egalitarian excitement fool us into seeing these folks for more than they are: journalists who are not experts in their fields, but laypersons who happen to get paid to devote their time to understanding (or trying to) these big ideas. I have watched Gore’s film, and am under no illusion that I understand the ins and outs of the climate change debate. I have read Dubner and Levitt and am not under the impression that their book even gets at the complexities of academic economics.

the final message: read, but read responsibly.

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