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The problem with Popular Science

At least he didn't use a red and white color scheme. That's even worse than academic dishonesty.

At least he didn’t use a red and white color scheme. That’s even worse than academic dishonesty.

Malcolm Gladwell, popular author of collections of counter-intuitive factoids, recently published a new book, and it’s catching a lot of flack. As the AV Club puts it:

Malcolm Gladwell has made a mint taking true-life stories and statistics, then wrapping them up together into an easily digestible whole. Like the writers of Freakonomics, he trades in counter-intuitive arguments, showing how conventional wisdom is, more often than not, wrong. It’s a good hook, and he’s been successful with it over and over again. But every hook can become overused, and Gladwell’s latest, David And Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, And The Art Of Battling Giants, fails to recognize that rather obvious lesson.

Wall Street Journal reviewer Christopher Chabris has even harsher words:

To make his point about the general benefits of difficulty, Mr. Gladwell refers to a 2007 experiment in which people were given three mathematical reasoning problems to solve. One group was randomly assigned to read the problems in a clear typeface like the one you are reading now; the other had to read them in a more difficult light-gray italic print. The latter group scored 29% higher, suggesting that making things harder improves cognitive performance. It’s an impressive result on the surface, but less so if you dig a bit deeper.

First, the study involved just 40 people, or 20 per typeface—a fact Mr. Gladwell fails to mention. That’s a very small sample on which to hang a big argument. Second, they were all Princeton University students, an elite group of problem-solvers. Such matters wouldn’t matter if the experiment had been repeated with larger samples that are more representative of the general public and had yielded the same results. But Mr. Gladwell doesn’t tell readers that when other researchers tried just that, testing nearly 300 people at a Canadian public university, they could not replicate the original effect. Perhaps he didn’t know about this, but anyone who has followed recent developments in social science should know that small studies with startling effects must be viewed skeptically until their results are verified on a broader scale. They might hold up, but there is a good chance they will turn out to be spurious.

This flaw permeates Mr. Gladwell’s writings: He excels at telling just-so stories and cherry-picking science to back them.

Gladwell is probably figuring out the same thing Jonah Lehrer did: it’s tough to come up with entertaining articles, and counter-intuitive facts can quickly run out. There isn’t a good solution.

Popular science articles need plenty of elements to truly become popular — catchy titles; punchy analogies; a fast pace; evocative descriptors; a high concept topic; a fetish-level focus on facts or otherwise seemingly quantifiable accomplishments; and, most importantly, the subversive topic, which must confront the audience with a conclusion that seems to contradict commonly-accepted sense but it shown, through fact and analogy, not to.

Not that that isn't a good name, too.

They’re called test tubes, not crazy theory tubes.

The act of subversion is subversive. No, that’s not a tautological statement; rather, it should be obvious. If expectations are around to be subverted, than there must be a reason behind their existence. This reason, as decreed by Occam’s Razor, is typically because the expectation is a decent reflection of reality. As a result, academic articles live an arcadian existence, eking out the occasional 2000 words of fodder from among the cracks between reality and an audience’s expectations of reality. The struggle for an innovative topic, understandably, drives authors to ever more tenuous tricks.

One of the questionable methods of capitalizing on a breakthrough is to jump on one before it’s been properly confirmed. Academia skillfully sidesteps this problem, allowing less refined news services to spew click-bait about the latest particle to exceed the speed of light. Still, articles try to have their cake and consume it too, reporting on speculation while reminding the audience that speculation is all it is. Scientific studies are a grey area sensational enough to be acceptable: the implications of a study proving ______ is proportional to _____ are free to run wild as long as the requisite chestnut that “correlation isn’t causation” gets tossed in there somewhere. Accuracy might not be upheld with both hands, but darned if the topic isn’t entertaining.

Personally, I’ve found a different solution to the problem: I write fiction.


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