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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Malcolm Gladwell

"You don't start at the top if you want to find the story. You start in the middle, because it's the people in the middle who do the actual work in the world," writes Malcolm Gladwell in the preface to WHAT THE DOG SAW.

"How do we know whether someone is bad, or smart, or capable of doing something really well?" he asks in his book 'Blink'. In this book he looks into how educators evaluate young teachers, how the FBI profiles criminals, how job interviewers form snap judgments.

In 'Outliers' he tries to figure out why some people are successful. He comes to the conclusion that we've focused too much on the individual and failed to consider the other factors around successful people. We fail to see the forest for the trees.

Interestingly he gives an example of successful people. Jewish men who grew up during the depression whose fathers worked in the garment district apparently have done quite well as corporate lawyers in New York City. Our hero R. Feynmen also fits this category.

'The Tipping Point' explores meaningful changes and what really brings them about.

I've struggled all my life to understand this world. I got into the science business to seek refuge from a demon haunted world. Things were no different. There is of course the beauty of real science that occasionally works its way into the mess that professional scientists have created. But the world seemed even more bizarre watching people with PhDs use science in the manner that they do. Professional scientists are people who want to be known as smart. They want to be experts. Actual scientific people would never devise a thing such as the peer reviewed journal. RNAi does not come from scientific minds. Biotechnology hasn't failed for no reason.

This blog wonders how a group of highly educated individuals with billions of dollars create the system of scientific research that now passes for "discovery"? We are still standing on the shoulders of giants, but we seem to be looking in the wrong direction.

Along my journey I have extracted ideas from people and things I've read and observed. These ideas tend to follow what is considered to be the scientific method. That doesn't mean the ideas have always come from scientists. Malcolm Gladwell for example is a journalist. People who are good at what they do have the ability to see what matters. Gladwell applies new questions to old problems. Why are some people, of equal ability, more successful than others? When do good ideas (and bad) become accepted? To those of us who are dissatisfied with current explanations, this is a breath of fresh air. The books serve two purposes. First to see new explanations to old problems and, more importantly, to take the journey of how they were obtained.

Malcolm G. is not without his own flaws however. In the future I hope that he re-visits the following ideas posted on his website:

Journalism is not like the business world, where the mechanics of decisions and procedures take place behind closed doors. It is, rather, like science, where the fruits of all endeavor are put on public display. In the world of science, that transparency allows the profession to be self-policing. It is very hard to commit scientific fraud because all significant findings are published, scrutinized by other members of the scientific community, and—if they are sufficiently controversial—independently tested.

No one's perfect.


Anonymous said...

It's interesting you should reference Malcolm Gladwell in this introduction. I actually came across your blog because it was the first result of a google search I did for the phrase "cargo cult science malcolm gladwell". That I was doing a search for that phrase certainly shows my own bias in the matter.

I enjoy Gladwell's books quite a bit. He is a an excellent writer, one who utilizes organization and pacing to achieve some impressive feats of argument and essay. However, I believe he is a perfect example of a cargo cult scientist. Compelling as his writing is, there is no original research in them. Rather, he reviews some original, though by no means conclusive, studies by others and attempts to build a loose, metastudy tying them all together into an insightful statement about human behavior. It's inductive reasoning that's great food for thought and grist for the mill at cocktail parties or over a joint, something Feynman himself would've welcomed as a foil, I can imagine.

Ginsberg said...

I've thought about this since I first came across Gladwell. His writing is not science or journalism. At the book store his books are in the "thought provoking" or simply the non-fiction section. He offers up ideas, food for thought, and he leaves his audience to think and discuss. Cargo Cults, professional Big Pharma scientists, and FOX News will tell the audience something and the audience is left to regurgitate what they've heard. They tell people what to think.

Gladwell glides his audience into a new pasture. One where you are free to agree or disagree with the path you just took. He thinks and he makes mistakes that he must admit are not avoidable. The human condition is complex and he has jumped right into the mix to find new patterns. He isn't perfect but he is not a Cargo Cult Leader. He is a tribesman who isn't regurgitating what his leaders have told him. He is offering new thoughts that are peer reviewed. His peers are everyday people. Therefore he is not on the list of Cargo Cult Scientists.