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April 18, 2011

Malcolm Gladwell's sloppy, sloppy science

Someone recently asked me why I dislike Malcolm Gladwell's writings so much. This piece in The Register starts to get at my issues with his work: namely that his evidence doesn't prove his claims, his science is sloppy, and his claims just end up being boring. It's a shame, because I love me some science and the *actual* science that Gladwell uses as grist for New Yorker-column mill is pretty fascinating, but what he extracts from it ends up either just plain wrong or stultifyingly banal. The dumb, dumb world of Malcolm Gladwell • The Register
Gladwell is a walking Readers Digest 2.0: a compendium of pop science anecdotes which boil down very simply to homespun homilies. Like the Digest, it promises more than it delivers, and like the Digest too, it's reassuringly predictable. The most famous book Tipping Point, takes an epidemiological view of social trends and throws in a bit of network theory. You won't draw anything more profound from this than "we're all connected" - gee! - and you certainly won't get the drawbacks of epidemiology - much of which is now indistinguishable from junk science. A good book to write would be about how how epidemiology became so debased so quickly: it's now merely a computer modeling factory for producing health scares, or in the case of British foot-and-mouth disease, catastrophic policy responses that cost billions of pounds. John Brignell's The Epidemiologists [Amazon reviews / author's site] does just that. (For good measure, Milgram's Six Degrees theory, has subsequently been debunked since Tipping Point appeared. Gladwell could have done that himself using a bit of investigative research of his own - but he probably wouldn't have liked the conclusion.) The next book, Blink published in 2004, asks (in his own words) - "What is going on inside our heads when we engage in rapid cognition? When are snap judgments good and when are they not? What kinds of things can we do to make our powers of rapid cognition better?" But he ends up pursuing the idea that rationality is overrated - and with only speculative cognitive science to go with, it isn't suprising that this book, too, doesn't get to any conclusion. And the message of the new one? Genius takes hard work. Again, it's something bleedingly obvious, but which leaves deeper questions unanswered. Take two geniuses: George Best and Tesla. What did they offer? Why do we admire them so much? There's obviously much more to each of them than perspiration - but we don't find out, and the book is as flattening and reductive as the others. . . .

Gigantic New SuperOrganism with 'Social Intelligence' is Devouring the Titanic

Gigantic New SuperOrganism with 'Social Intelligence' is Devouring the Titanic (Today's Most Popular)
In 2000, Roy Cullimore, a microbial ecologist and Charles Pellegrino, scientist and author of Ghosts of the Titanic discovered that the Titanic --which sank in the Atlantic Ocean 97 years ago -- was being devoured by a monster microbial industrial complex of extremophiles as alien we might expect to find on Jupiter's ocean-bound Europa. What they discovered is the largest, strangest cooperative microorganism on Earth. Scientists believe that this strange super-organism is using a common microbial language that could be either chemical or electrical -a phenomenon called "quorum sensing" by which whole communities "sense" each other's presence and activities aiding and abetting the organization, cooperation, and growth. The microbes are consuming the wreck's metal, creating mats of rust bigger than a dozen four-story brownstones that are creeping slowly along the hull harvesting iron from the rivets and burrowing into layers of steel plating. The creatures also leave behind "rusticles," 30-foot icicle-like deposits of rust dangling from the sides of the ship's bow. Structurally, rusticles contain channels to allow water to flow through, and they seem to be built up in a ring structure similar to the growth rings of a tree. They are very delicate and can easily disintegrate into fine powder on even the slightest touch.