Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Malcolm Gladwell and/or Daniel Pinchbeck?

On a hunch (call it intuition, a blink) I bought Daniel Pinchbeck's 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (Tarcher/Penguin, 2007) along with Gladwell's Blink in the airport on my way home from vacation. I was expecting to find similarities between these books that could help build my case against "popularizations" of social research. I assumed that social scientists who have a favourable view of Gladwell as a popularizer would more easily be able to see similar weaknesses in a book on New Age spiritualism. These more obvious weaknesses could then serve as fresh paradigms for my attempts to explain what I think is wrong with Gladwell. While there are indeed similarities (some more striking than I had imagined), I was more surprised at the differences. It turns out that Pinchbeck is in an important sense more truthful about the science he reports on than Gladwell.

Reading the closing paragraphs of their introductory chapter is a strangely 'synchronious' experience. The similarities may stem from some common handbook of popular writing, or it may (more likely) just be natural to close your introduction with a statement about what sort of book you've written and what you want from your reader. Here, in any case, is some of what they say. First, Gladwell:

There are lots of books that tackle broad themes, that analyze the world from great remove. This is not one of them. Blink is concerned with the very smallest components of our everyday lives — the content and origin of those instantaneous impressions and conclusions that spontaneously arise whenever we meet a new person or confront a complex situation or have to make a decision under conditions of stress. When it comes to our understanding of ourselves and our world, I think we pay too much attention to those grand themes and too little to the particulars of those fleeting moments. But what would happen if we took our instincts seriously? What if we stopped scanning the horizon with our binoculars and began instead examining our own decision making and behavior through the most powerful of microscopes. I think that would change the way wars are fought, the kinds of products we see on the shelves, the kinds of movies that get made, the way police officers are trained, the way couples are counseled, the way job interviews are conducted, and so on. And if we were to combine all of those little changes, we would end up with a different and better world. (16)

And here is Pinchbeck's very different, and yet strangely similar, statement:

I offer this book as a gift handed backward through space-time, from beyond the barrier of a new realm—a new psychic paradigm that is a different realization of temporality, a reordering of thought that embraces prophetic as a well as pragmatic dimensions of reality. ...

If we were to conclude, after careful consideration, that our modern world is based upon fundamentally flawed conceptions of time and mind, that on these fatal defects we had erected a flawed civilization—like building a tower on an unsound foundation that becomes increasginly wobbly as it rises—then logic might indicate the necessity, as well as the inevitablity, of change. By clsoing the gap betweeen science and myth, rationality and intuition, technology and technique, we might also understand the form that change would take. Such a shift would not be the "end of the world," but the end of a world, and the opening of the next. (15)

Notice the theme of making a "better world" by a kind of paradigm shift in the way we understand ourselves, in both cases, by correcting an erroneous tendency in our thinking. Their ambitions are not quite on the same scale—one seeks to improve the world while the other seeks to replace it with another—and the books are very different in style and temper (and humour) but both openly want to reorient our thinking, i.e., the reader's thoughts.

But notice, now, how differently they construct the possible results of reading their books. Again, we begin with Gladwell:

I believe — and I hope that by the end of this book you will believe it as well — that the task of making sense of ourselves and our behavior requires that we acknowledge there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis. (17)

And Pinchbeck:

My aim is to help the reader share in my understanding. But a text can only act as a scaffolding of concepts, a ladder for others to climb. Real knowledge of what I am saying must be earned, and lived, by each individual, in his or her own way. (15)

I want to emphasize that Gladwell here openly declares what I accused the genre of over at OrgTheory: he has written a book to be read and believed, not crititicized. Pinchbeck, by contrast, proposes to let the reader appropriate whatever wisdom the book might offer through hard won experiences that confirm it.

And this difference in rhetorical and epistemic posture carries into the presentation of the work of other researchers. Consider, again, Gladwell on Gottman's uncanny ability to predict who will get divorced:

Gottman has proven something remarkable. If he analyzes an hour of a husband and wife talking, he can predict with 95 percent accuracy whether that couple will still be married fifteen years later. If he watches a couple for fifteen minutes, his success rate is around 90 percent. ...

When I met Gottman, he had just published his most ambitious book, a dense five-hundred page treatise called The Mathematics of Divorce, and he attempted to give me a sense of his argument scribbling equations and impromptu graphs on a paper napkin until my head began to swim.

Indeed, as I noted in my last two posts, Gottman managed to push Gladwell well out of his depth with his ostentatious display of the scientific nature of his work (note the "dense" 500-page "treatise", the equations, the graphs, etc.) At first glance, we find exactly the same sort of rhetoric in Pinchbeck's account of ESP (a very apt comparison, I will note):

Although the fact is little known, psychic effects of various kinds have been demonstrated in controlled scientific experiments. The influence of directed thought causes significant statistical deviations from random variation in many areas, including casino games and experiments where images or feelings are transferred between subjects who are not in contact with each other. Dean Radin, director of the Consciousness Research Laboratory at the University of Nevada, has compiled and analysed the statistical evidence for "psi" phenonmena, presenting the data in his 1997 book, The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. According to his meticulous study, thousands of experiments in telepathy, precognition, and claivoyance have fulfilled the scientific requirements of verifiability and repeatability, indicating that these phenomena do, in fact, exist and can be measured.

He seems, that is, to follow the same playbook as Gladwell: he presents in confident tones the results of "scientific" research that "demonstrates" (like Gladwell's "proves") his chosen theory. There's even a book to read with a nice scientific sounding title.

But Pinchbeck in fact does something that Gladwell does not; he frames the discussion by clearly marking the fact that Radin's views are not held by the majority of scientists. "The modern perspective," he begins, "rejects the legitimacy of psychic phenomena" (36) and later even notes that "the evidence for psychic phenomena [has been] ignored and suppressed" (37). While this is a somewhat paranoid way of putting it, it closely follows his source (Radin does actually think that psi phenomena are actively marginalized by mainstream science despite their proven existence), and in any case makes it clear to the reader that we are talking about a fringe position. As it turns out, of course, Gottman's work is as marginalized by mainstream psychology (just as Ekman's work has been called "hokum") as Radin's, but you don't learn that from reading Gladwell. Indeed, after reading Gladwell you are likely, as he hopes you will, to believe every word of it. In the case of Pinchbeck's Radin, by contrast, we know we're talking about something vaguely freaky.

Pinchbeck's veracity seems to carry through to the smallest details. Even in passing references to someone like Carlos Castaneda, whose work reaches conclusions that are as convenient for Pinchbeck as Ekman's and Gottman's conclusions are for Gladwell, Pinchbeck carefully marks the controversy that has surrounded the Don Juan books, noting their "sketchy provenance" (144). That is, he supplies you with a reason to not just believe what he is telling you, sending you back to your experiences and experiments to find out for yourself.

Interestingly, there may be a historical explanation for the difference in intellectual posture between Gladwell and Pinchbeck. Both live and work in New York, but while Gladwell is a staff writer for the New Yorker, a bastion of "mainstream" journalism and the focus of much of the ire and ridicule of the counter-culture in the 1960s (the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson was to serve as an alternative to the New Yorker in particular), Pinchbeck has written for Esquire and the Village Voice, i.e., in the institutions that grew out of (or at least embraced) that same counter-culture. We can make too much of this, of course: Gladwell's mother is a psychotherapist while Pinchbeck's mother was once romantically involved with Jack Kerouac, which is not the opposite sort of thing, but interesting too. Gladwell's father was a professor of engineering. Pinchbeck's father was an abstract painter. I don't know. Maybe it means something.

4 comments:

Jonathan said...

So with really outrageous claims, you could qualify them enough, introduce enough doubt to make yourself seem reasonable, but still seem reasonably veracious.

"If the moon is made of green cheese, then this could have radical implications for our future food supplies. Of course, mainstream science rejects this view, but... "

Nothing false here. I'm not really misprepresenting any
anything, just framing it in a certain way.

Thomas said...

Well, we're comparing two writers. The first says, "The moon is made of green cheese. Weird, huh? Though mainstream scientists think is total bullshit, there's this kooky guy in Kansas (let's say) who claims he can prove it..."

The other says, "An astronomer in Kansas has now proven that the moon is made of green cheese. He's an unassuming, mild-mannered guy, wears wire-rimmed glasses..."

(Also, because of the convincing tone of that second guy, NASA begins to invest in technologies to harvest moon-cheese. Cf. the SPOT program in US airports. Also, a "hard sci-fi" show begins to develop "realistic" plot lines around the idea.)

The premise behind this comparison is that both of the scientific claims are (very probably) false, and both of the popularizers nonetheless "believe" them to be true. One writes about this belief honestly, I would argue, and the other less so.

Jonathan said...

I got your point. Pinchbeck makes his claims in a more modest and intellectually honest way. Wouldn't Gladwell say that Pinchbeck has a bit more to be modest about, though?

Gladwell ultimately fools more people, because, well, he's writing things that have some plausibility, whereas Pinchbeck is in green cheese territory.

Thomas said...

I'm not sure about that in this specific case. Gladwell writes so plausibly that we don't notice that he's claiming something that's as unlikely as ESP. He says that there is enough information in a videotaped interaction between newlyweds to decide, with 95 percent accuracy, whether or not they will divorce within 15 years. That's about as unlikely to be true as intention affecting "in a statistically significant" way the outcome of coin tosses.

He's saying divorce is "in the cards" from the beginning. That it depends only on facts about the couple at the time of the marriage, and that anything that might happen over the years has, at most, a 5% influence on the relationship. Surely that's crazy.