Separate Ways

October 15, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Six years into a marriage is about the peak year for divorce.

Six years ago the ASA proposed to Malcolm Gladwell.  We gave him the Award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues, which
honors individuals for their promotion of sociological findings and a broader vision of sociology. The ASA would like to recognize the contributions of those who have been especially effective in disseminating sociological perspectives and research.
We were virgins. Malcolm was our first.  He swept us off our feet. He was cute and funny, and famous - he had TED talks, he’d been on NPR! But more important, he made us feel good about ourselves.  It wasn’t just the flattery of his beautiful words and clever phrases. He really paid attention to us, we thought, gazing deeply into our articles. He told us that what we did was important, relevant.

It was too good to last, and now the break-up seems imminent.  You can see it coming in tweets like this one by Matt Salganik of Princeton sociology.

Christopher Chabris, the author of the linked piece in Slate, is not a sociologist, he’s a cognitive psychologist, but you sense that sociologists too are seeing the same flaws. 

Oh, why didn’t we see them before. It’s not as though anybody has really changed all that much. The faults were always there. In fact, some sociologists did see them. Here’s a clip of Robb Willer telling his social psych class about his experience as a panelist at the ASA session where Gladwell was given the award.

[You can find the video in the UCLA course archives (here, starting at about the 8:40 mark).  It’s a great story, and Willer tells it well. He thought his role was that of a reviewer, so he prepared remarks that were in some ways critical of Gladwell’s recent book Blink, which Willer did not think was all that great. Only when he got to the session and heard the moderator and other panelists describing Gladwell and his work, a description that teemed with flattering adjectives, did Willer realize what the session was for, and he hastily rewrote his remarks to incorporate some of those adjectives.]

Chabris, in his deposition, speaks of our naïveté. Oh, yes, maybe we sensed that Malcolm wasn’t always telling the truth, but we rationalized.
perhaps I am the one who is naive . . . I had thought Gladwell was inadvertently misunderstanding the science he was writing about and making sincere mistakes in the service of coming up with ever more “Gladwellian” insights.
But he was playing us for a fool. He lied to us
according to his own account, he knows exactly what he is doing, and not only that, he thinks it is the right thing to do. Is there no sense of ethics that requires more fidelity to truth especially when your audience is so vast . . .?*
Oh well, these things happen. Life goes on.  We try again and again, kissing frogs (remember that date with David Brooks back in 2011?)** and hoping for a true prince.

* Chabris here is echoing Macbeth:

“I will not yield,
To kiss the ground before young Malcolm’s feet,
And to be baited with the rabble’s curse.” (V, 8)

** The list of award recipients is here.


PCM said...

Perhaps his writing and thinking has just become bad and worse.

I'll still stand behind Tipping Point unless someone can show me why I shouldn't.

Andrew Gelman said...

You gave the award to David Brooks? What the . . .?

Maybe next year you can give it to Gregg Easterbrook. Then, oh, I dunno, a posthumous award to Walter Duranty?

Jay Livingston said...

Well, not me personally. But yes, the ASA did give Brooks the award. The candidate pool is not all that large. If you have any suggestions, I'm sure the awards committee will be grateful.