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The Paterno Defence: Gladwell’s Tipping Point?

“We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly. . . . The Tipping Point is the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” — Malcolm Gladwell, 2000.

Gladwell’s recent book got some negative reviews. No big deal. He’s the world’s leading science writer, the author of a series of best-sellers and promulgator of science-based slogans (“10,000 hours,” etc.), secure in his perch at the New Yorker, and I’d assume “review-proof” in the same way as other brand names such as John Grisham, Stephen King, and George Lucas. Gladwell admits that he’s not into research, that he’s more into working with his first impressions. Again, that’s not new. Conditional on Gladwell already being a leading media figure despite issues of scientific accuracy dating back more than a decade, it’s reasonable to suppose that he can withstand the inevitable criticism that will come with any new work of his.

I don’t know, though, if Gladwell’s reputation will fully withstand this:

Gladwell: You know I have that chapter on Jerry Sandusky in my book, and it’s all about how I feel the leadership of Penn State was totally, outrageously attacked over this. I think they’re blameless.

Simmons: Yeah.

Gladwell: But with Joe Paterno… Joe Paterno essentially did nothing wrong. . . . He’s been thinking football 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for 60 years. He is not going to be alert to the darkness inside the heart of one of his former coaches. You can’t ask him to do that. . . .

I don’t think anyone was asking Paterno and the Penn State administration to be “alert to the darkness inside the heart of” Sandusky; I think the concern was how they acted after they learned about Sandusky’s actions.

I wasn’t there. I have no idea why the leadership of Penn State let that child molester hang out in their football program all those years. Speaking more generally, once someone’s “in” within an organization, they can stay around forever; it can just seem like less effort to work around them than to try to kick them out. We can think of lots of prominent examples of abusers hanging around forever in all sorts of institutions.

To me, the interesting question right now is not, What happened at Penn State?, but rather, How could Gladwell have thought that it would be a good idea to mount a public defense of Joe Paterno and the leadership of Penn State? Not just a defense around the edges, but labeling the university’s leadership as “blameless.” Beyond any moral issues, this all just seems like an incredibly unstrategic move for Gladwell’s career. That’s fine, people do unstrategic things at all time for good reasons. Still, I’d like to know what those reasons are.

Maybe Gladwell’s just angry at what he perceives as an injustice to Graham Spanier, Joe Paterno, and other public servants. Or maybe it just seemed like harmless contrarianism, a fun bit of anti-intellectual, anti-media populism, kinda like when Tom Wolfe came out against evolution, or when Michael Moore wrote that he thought O. J. Simpson was innocent, or when the Freakonomics team wrote about “global cooling,” or when Scott Adams expressed his admiration of Charlie Sheen.

I wonder if Gladwell didn’t realize how bad it could look to make a high-profile defense of Paterno and Paterno’s bosses and not realize how. It’s not that this should make anyone think that Gladwell is evil, or that he’s soft on child molestation, or anything like that. It just shines a bright light on Gladwell’s poor judgment, his willingness to believe contrarian stories without looking into them. (You might say that this trait of Gladwell is fine, that it’s a refreshing corrective to the usual thing of people believing the conventional wisdom, and maybe you’re right. But the point is that Gladwell does have a track record of falling for junk science, so the Paterno defense fits into a pre-existing pattern.)

The Paterno thing is so weird . . . I haven’t been following the details. But it seems a bit much to not only excuse Paterno but the entire leadership of Penn State! Or maybe there’s something about the Paterno story that I’m missing. I remember Bill James defended Paterno too. I’m guessing that both Gladwell and James were so deep in the media bubble that they were more angry at the media being (possibly) unfair to Paterno, than they were about Paterno and Penn State for not handling Sandusky.

Or maybe Mark Palko is right when he proposed that Bill James and Malcolm Gladwell are coming from different directions, with James being idealistic and naively falling for Paterno’s gentleman-and-a-scholar shtick, and Gladwell being a sucker for con men like this guy. In some sense, it’s no surprise that Gladwell can get conned, as much of his career is based on taking outrageous claims (such as from this guy) at face value. Getting conned is central to Gladwell’s reporting strategy. No wonder he’s so impressed by journalists who actually do research. Reading things takes a lot more effort than just calling people up and believing whatever they tell you.

Is this Gladwell’s tipping point? I have no idea.

61 Comments

  1. 2nd paragraph after the gladwell quote:

    > it can just seem like ****more**** effort to work around them than try to kick them out.

    I think if you reread that sentence you meant to say ****less****

  2. Jake says:

    Wasn’t Gladwell in Jeffrey Epstein’s address book?

    • zbicyclist says:

      Yes, but like everyone else who ever met Epstein, he remembers nothing. Epstein must have had one of those memory erasure devices like Will Smith had in the “Men in Black” movies.

      from https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/07/jeffrey-epstein-high-society-contacts.html

      “It includes influential names listed in his black book, people he flew, funded, and schmoozed, along with others whose connections to him have drawn renewed attention. Certainly, not everyone cited here knew of everything he was up to; Malcolm Gladwell told New York, “I don’t remember much except being baffled as to who this Epstein guy was and why we were all on his plane.” Some said they never met Epstein at all, or knew of him only through his ex-girlfriend and alleged accomplice, the socialite Ghislaine Maxwell. Others backed away from him after the scandal. But all of the influential people listed here were attached in some way to Epstein’s world. The sum of their names constitutes a more concrete accounting of Epstein’s power than could any accounting of his disputed wealth. Consider this a pointillist portrait of enablement that all too chillingly overlaps with a significant slice of the Establishment.

      —Frank Rich”

  3. Matt Skaggs says:

    I am always struck by how we Americans debate whether the higher-ups should be held accountable. It just played out with the Astros cheating scandal.

    This discussion never happens in, say, Japan. Here managers think that their higher salary is a reward for winning the competition for the job, rather than compensation for taking on more responsibility.

    Decades ago, somebody at work posted a little story about the difference in cultures. This was back when the US was losing its industrial base to Japan. The story went something like this:

    The US and Japan got in a rowing competition. The Japanese sent six rowers and a “manager,” the US sent one rower and six managers. The Japanese won by a mile. Embarrassed by the failure, the US team promised to implement improvements. So they fired the rower.

  4. steven t johnson says:

    Recovered memories are bad science. It would be proper to criticize Gladwell for another failure in science writing if he were defending recovered memory therapy.

    I was under the impression that Gladwell was criticizing the role of recovered memories in the prosecution. I don’t know if the case really was based on recovered memories. Perhaps that was where Gladwell’s reliance on impressions led astray. Or perhaps my memory has failed me and I have recovered the facts incorrectly? I don’t read Gladwell any more because, though the basic ideas seem generally to be valid, the presentation never assess the ifs, ands, buts enough, much less scan alternative hypotheses. Still, putting a minus in front of Gladwell’s plus means saying things like change is necessarily gradual or experience is not a decisive factor in creativity, etc. It is not clear which science writers really cover anything in sufficient detail. I once read a Carl Zimmer article on blood groups that never even considered the possibility that blood groups are maybe not adaptive!

    • gec says:

      > recovered memories

      I assume you’re talking about the hypno-therapy work from the early 90’s, which is indeed susceptible to the creation of “false memories”, as the extensive work of Liz Loftus has shown.

      But the evidence against Sandusky was not based on this technique and was strongly corroborated by multiple witnesses and by phone and text evidence.

    • Roger says:

      Yes, the case against Sandusky was based 100% on recovered memories. Every prosecution witness had told a different story before the memories were recovered, and they all collected monetary settlements from those revised stories.

      • digithead says:

        Could you point us to the part of PSU assistant coach Mike McQueary’s trial testimony of him witnessing Sandusky raping a boy in the locker room shower then telling Paterno about it where McQueary says that incident came from a recovered memory?

        • vaifan says:

          This response is a perfect of example of why people who only know what they heard on a 30 second CNN report should take a little time to maybe look up the facts? Like, for example, Mike McQueary NEVER testified at ANY POINT that he saw Sandusky raping a boy in the shower. Or, that in Sandusky’s most recent appeals hearing, his attorneys obtained emails from the Pennsylvania Attorney general’s office where McQueary asks the lead investigator for the state why they twisted his testimony around in the grand jury presentment. In response, the investigators admitted that they had deliberately distorted his testimony to improve their chances to convict Sandusky. Furthermore, when McQueary indicated that he wanted to have a press conference to set the record straight, the investigators told him not too because it would hurt their case. This is not rumor; it is official evidence entered into court record. FYI, the lead investigator for the state recently lost his law license for his unethical conduct in the Sandusky investigation, and Penn State’s attorney at the time of the investigation (a former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Judge, by the way) faces public reprimand for her unethical conduct in the investigation.

          Does this mean that Sandusky is innocent? No. However, I think that this comment, and some others in the thread, are perfect examples of what Andrew likes to point out–unquestioning acceptance of findings, (scientific, legal, whatever you may), leads to the perpetuation of beliefs which turn out in the end to be nothing at all like the initial media sound bite.

          • Andrew says:

            Vaifan:

            Not to get too far down the rabbit hole, but . . . a quick google search turns up this:

            During his court appearance Tuesday, McQueary testified that he came into the Lasch building’s locker room and ‘heard showers running, heard slapping sounds, …The slapping sounds alerted me that more than just a shower was going on.”

            Through a mirror, “I saw an individual behind a minor individual in the shower,” he added.

            “Were you able to identify who that individual was?” Ditka asked.

            “Jerry Sandusky,” McQueary replied.

            “it was Jerry right up against the boy … skin to skin?” the prosecutor continued.

            “Yes,” McQueary said.

            He said he was “shocked” and moved to get a better look. He said he slammed a locker door to make noise and hopefully stop what was going on.

            “I looked in the shower one more time and Jerry and the boy were now separated. Jerry was looking directly at me,” McQueary said. He said neither of them uttered a word. . . .

            McQueary said a week to 10 days later, Curley summoned him to a meeting where he told Curley and Schultz what he’d seen. “I told them I saw Jerry molesting a boy, that what he was doing with a boy on a Friday night was over the line,” he said. He said he never described the Sandusky shower incident as “horseplay.”

            “You made it clear that what you saw was a sexual incident in that shower?” Ditka asked.

            “Without a doubt,” McQueary said.

            • John Richters says:

              Andrew: Well, you’ve done it again. You initiate dialogue about an important issue, the conversation gets rolling, someone takes it in an unexpected, emotionally charged, “creative”, running-with-scissors direction, and just as the sparks begin to fly you bring it to a screeching halt with the oldest trick in the world: cold, hard, well documented, unambiguous facts. No rhetorical flourish, no axe-grinding, no passionate argument, no strained logic, nothing ad hominem, no inferential leaps: just the facts. What’s the point? Rational discourse and reasoned judgement? What a conversational buzz-kill!! What a great, admirable thing!! Kudos!!!

          • digithead says:

            Actually, I’m quite familiar with the Sandusky case as sex offending is one of my areas of research and regardless of your cherry-picking certain transgressions by court actors, McQueary, as Andrew found in a cursory google search, did say that the behavior was of a sexual nature. Did he say rape? No, but Pennsylvania law is quite clear that the age of consent is 16 so sex with someone below that age is considered rape. So is sexual activity with someone you have supervisory authority over including coaches. Hence, I used the word rape because that’s plainly what McQueary testified witnessing.

            Moreover, _all_ of Sandusky’s appeals have failed and he remains incarcerated for his crimes.

        • Roger says:

          Yes, that McQueary testimony was a recovered memory. It was invented years later, and used by McQueary to collect millions of dollars from Penn State.

          The story is also wildly implausible. If it true as McQueary later described, then McQueary made a deliberate decision to let a 60-year-old ex-coach rape a young boy at the university, and did nothing to intervene. He could have physically stopped it, but he walked away, did not call 911, and did not make a police report.

          • Andrew says:

            Roger:

            Unfortunately, this is not at all wildly implausible, as we’ve been hearing of lots of cases of serial rapists in schools, churches, etc., who can go on for years without anyone calling them on it. People have loyalty toward the institution, or whatever it is, but it seems to happen over and over again, in many different settings.

            • steven t johnson says:

              I am not aware of lots of cases of bystanders who catch someone in the act itself who simply ignore it. Perhaps it’s my distaste for reading much of true crime that I’m not aware of this pervasive phenomenon. (Fictional gore doesn’t usually distress me.)

              Nor do I know that any details alleged by Roger are true.

              At this point, outrage and indignation and the pervasive assumption the authorities are always right (one phenomenon I am aware of,) leaves me skeptical of being able to resolve the issue without a major research project. For example, the quote you did cite says in itself that McQueary deliberately warned whoever was there and then omitted reporting it to anyone, much less police, for two weeks. As such, he had an interest in not being prosecuted or sued as an accomplice. I’m not quite sure it is definitive. It certainly doesn’t seem to have much to do with recovered memories or Joe Paterno either.

              What I am sure about is, criticizing Gladwell for regarding use of recovered memories in a court as bad science—what I thought he did—is wrong.

          • digithead says:

            I can’t tell you what McQueary’s thinking was regarding his reactions to witnessing a rape, but to say that it’s wildly implausible is silly. As Andrew points out regularly on this blog, the human condition is one of variance and uncertainty, so to say that there will be one and only one reaction to witnessing a crime is just dumb. Some people panic, some people freeze, and some people react well.

            Sandusky had status, emeritus coach, at PSU that McQueary, a grad assistant, did not. That may have influenced his reaction, we don’t know. But we know it influences those who are victims of sexual assault so it’s not implausible it would influence witnesses. We do have it confirmed that McQueary did report it to his supervisors which went up the chain of command to Curly, Schultz, Paterno and Spanier and that was the basis for their troubles, both legal and employment.

            Indeed, their conduct resulted in Paterno being fired, Curly and Schultz pleading guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment charges and Spanier convicted of the same but the conviction was later overturned on a technicality. It remains to be seen if the Commonwealth will try him again.

            PSU paid millions in fines for violating the Clery Act and millions more to Sandusky’s victims. There are no winners here, even with the restitution PSU has made to the victims.

            One of Sandusky’s sons has gone onto become a sex offender himself, pleading guilty to child porn charges.

            Even McQueary, despite his million dollar settlement, lost his vocation and livelihood as he’ll never work in football again. Imagine losing your lifelong ambition due to someone else’s crime.

            Lastly, this case is a sickening example of what happens when people try to protect the brand first instead of dealing with crime. You may write that off as a polemic driven by the emotions of the case, but the facts in their entirety tell the same ugly story no matter which way you slice it.

            • Martha (Smith) says:

              “I can’t tell you what McQueary’s thinking was regarding his reactions to witnessing a rape, but to say that it’s wildly implausible is silly. As Andrew points out regularly on this blog, the human condition is one of variance and uncertainty, so to say that there will be one and only one reaction to witnessing a crime is just dumb. Some people panic, some people freeze, and some people react well.”

              +1

            • Roger says:

              I say that the story is wildly implausible because there is no confirmed example of anything similar ever happening anywhere.

              We know that McQueary reported something to his supervisors, but it is unlikely that he alleged a crime. A crime would have been reported to the police.

              McQueary did not lose anything from someone else’s crime. If people don’t want to hire him, it is because of his own despicable behavior. By his own account, he facilitated a child rape, and protected the rapist for years. I would not want him anywhere near children.

              Sure, there is variation in the human condition, but nearly everyone pretty strongly disapproves of the anal rape of a child. McQueary is an outlier.

              • Jake says:

                > A crime would have been reported to the police.

                Says whom?

              • Bob says:

                Have you read any of the reports into the sexual abuse in the Catholic church? You’d be amazed what ‘loyalty to the institution’, as Andrew puts it, will lead people to do.

              • Andrew says:

                Bob:

                And similar issues within other religious groups, certainly not limited to Catholics.

          • Terry says:

            Do you have a source for saying the McQueary testimony was a recovered memory?

            If so, that pretty seriously undermines the McQueary testimony. I thought the idea of recovered memories was that a traumatized victim might block out the memory, so I don’t understand why a witness would block out a memory.

            • jim says:

              “McQueary said a week to 10 days later, Curley summoned him to a meeting where he told Curley and Schultz what he’d seen. “I told them I saw Jerry molesting a boy, that what he was doing with a boy on a Friday night was over the line,” he said. He said he never described the Sandusky shower incident as “horseplay.” “

              If he reported up the chain of command at the time, it seems like a slim chance it’s any kind of ‘recovered memory’

              gec also pointed out:

              “the evidence against Sandusky…was strongly corroborated by multiple witnesses and by phone and text evidence.”

              • Terry says:

                That was my second question. Is there contemporaneous corroborating evidence?

                That’s enough for me. I’m switching skepticism off on this one.

              • Roger says:

                McQueary only told his father and Paterno at the time. His father told Dranov, and Paterno told Curley, Schultz, and Spanier. They all agree that McQueary never said anything about anal sexual intercourse or any other crime at the time. It only became an anal rape accusation about 10 years later. McQueary was eventually awarded $12 million for his role. All this is in Wikipedia.

                Here is an article explaining how the Sandusky trial depended entirely on recovered memories.
                https://thecrimereport.org/2016/09/07/why-jerry-sandusky-may-be-innocent/

              • Terry says:

                Roger:

                Thanks for the link.

                I understand your point about recovered memories. I would actually go much further to include disbelief in just about anything a lawyer has concocted to fit a desired narrative in a lawsuit. I rarely believe anything a lawyer says until I see the response because (usually) you can’t even form an opinion until both sides have spoken.
                (This is one of my personal hobby horses).

                That said, the fact that there was probably distortion and even fabrication does not disprove all the underlying allegations. All I know is that once a lawsuit starts and money and lawyers are involved, this sort of narrative-shaping is pretty much a certainty, so when I see it, it doesn’t prove much except that the prosecution’s case is probably exaggerated.

                That is why I have to look to corroborating evidence. And in this case, I haven’t done that and I don’t care enough to do so, so I’m just a lazy bystander with not much of an opinion on this subject.

            • jim says:

              Roger: “phone and text evidence”.

              Other people pleaded guilty to covering it up.

  5. oncodoc says:

    I find Mr. Gladwell’s defense of Joe Paterno strange. He says that JoePa prioritized the football program over the crimes being committed under his nose. Isn’t that exactly what Paterno’s harshest critics say?

  6. Roger says:

    Calling Gladwell “the world’s leading science writer” is giving him way too much credit. He is not really a science writer. But I agree with him completely about Penn State. Those officials did everything that they could reasonably be expected to do, given the allegations at the time. They were only smeared so that lawyers could drain Penn State money.

  7. Dzhaughn says:

    Is it a good time to mount a defence of Castro?

  8. Zad says:

    The reason I cannot *stand* Gladwell, apart from his fictional storytelling, is that he is very hostile against his critics, and even seems to hold a grudge against them. Steven Pinker has been a pretty fierce critic of Gladwell’s (and obviously for good reason), so it was very interesting to see this Munk debate where Pinker and Matt Ridley debated Gladwell and the philosopher Alain de Botton on the idea of human progress

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUmBWB54riE

    • Zad says:

      As one of the commenters on the video put it,

      “I’ve liked Malcolm Gladwell and Alain de Botton for years, but I’ve never seen them so irrational or obnoxious.”

    • Andrew says:

      Zad:

      Don’t get me started on Matt Ridley! All you’d have to do from there is throw Cass “Stasi” Sunstein into the mix and I think my head would explode!

      • jim says:

        Whats the issue with Ridely?

        I read “Rational Optimist”. I didn’t find a lot to disagree with, but I don’t remember a lot either because his writing style is weirdly sleep inducing, and I just lost interest in the book.

        I’m also currently listening to Stephen Pinker’s most recent book “Enlightenment Now.” Much more readable than “Rational Optimist”, but muchly covering the same ground and again I don’t find much to dispute.

        I do find listening a much lighter concentration load than reading. I find with listening I can kind of mentally explore my thoughts as I’m listening and still keep track of the narrative, but reading I have to stop reading to do that.

      • jim says:

        Oh! I can just read the link! ;)

        Well it’s pretty bad, I agree. But it’s standard editorial/column fodder. Editorial writers and syndicated columnists feel more or less unconstrained by fact. Well maybe I should say by truth, because many play a fact game, sharing the facts that support their POV and dutifully ignoring the ones that don’t. It pisses me off too, but no one gives a shit. It’s opinion, which, apparently, is a license to unabashedly mislead people.

    • Terry says:

      Zad:

      Thanks for the link to the Munk debate.

      I didn’t find Gladwell all that obnoxious. It is customary in that type of debate to engage in sharp repartee. Both sides gave as well as they got.

      Gladwell’s problem was that he was playing a weak hand and Pinker and Ridley were very good at relentlessly drilling in on weaknesses.

      I learned a lot from the debate. Once again, it is edifying when both sides are allowed to speak. It is very convincing when one side get trounced after being allowed to put on a spirited defense.

  9. Prof. Eric Wornoff says:

    I missed something. This person was a coach at an American university, and he “molested” a boy child in the showers? Was the child a football player? What was a child doing in the University football team showers? (I know nothing about this incident other that the comments above, but based on them, it sounds odd.)

    • jim says:

      I didn’t know much about this but I was kind of curious because while there are obvious reasons to go against the grain on some issues, it’s hard to figure why there would be “Sandusky is Innocent” conspiracy theorists. Not a lot to be gained on that road that I can see.

      Sandusky was a football coach at Penn State where he was an integral part of a highly successful – in fact legendary – program, under head coach Joe Paterno. He retired in 1999 but was given full emeritus privileges in accordance with his legendary status, so the facilities were open to him all the time. He also operated a youth charity football program. Sandusky built personal relationships with several different boys and often took them to football games. How he came to be with a kid in the Penn State locker room in the particular incident in question isn’t totally clear to me; did the program have operations with the Penn State football team, or did Sandusky just utilize his privileges there to take kids there for football game and a shower? either way, pretty gross.

  10. jim says:

    I agree with others Gladwell isn’t a science writer. I’ve read several of his books but I’ve never perceived them as “science writing”. On the science scale he’d have to be a few steps below food guy Michael Pollan.

    His books aren’t that great or entertaining. The most recent one I read, the David and Goliath one, at the end I was like “that was it?” His books are also really short. I read a lot of mammoth history books (think Chernow), which are twice the size in every dimension except thickness, where they’re three times the size of Gladwell’s books.

  11. Gene Callahan says:

    “kinda like when Tom Wolfe came out against evolution”

    That didn’t happen, and what’s more, I think you *know* it didn’t happen. What he *did* do was to claim Darwinism can’t account for the rise of speech.

    But it seems *any* deviance from full faith in Darwin gets one smears like this…

    • Andrew says:

      Gene:

      Here’s what Tom Wolfe said:

      I think it’s misleading to say that human beings evolved from animals. I mean, actually, nobody knows whether they did or not.

      You can make of that what you will.

      • Andrew says:

        P.S. I’m a big Tom Wolfe fan. Dude wasn’t perfect, he took his contrarianism a bit too far sometimes. And he wasn’t always honorable. But nobody’s perfect, and he was a great writer. If taking ridiculous positions was part of what it took for him to be a great writer, then I can deal with that.

        • Terry says:

          Whenever I see short quotes out of context that sound crazy, I want to see the larger context. For the record, here is the context of what Wolfe said (taken from an NPR article):

          One of America’s most distinguished men of letters says he believes that speech, not evolution, has made human beings into the creative, imaginative, deliberate, destructive, and complicated beings who invented the slingshot and the moon shot, and wrote the words of the Bible, Don Quixote, Good Night Moon, the backs of cereal boxes, and Fifty and Shades of Grey.

          The Kingdom of Speech is Tom Wolfe’s first non-fiction book in 16 years. Wolfe tells NPR’s Scott Simon that speech is “the attribute of attributes,” because it’s so unrelated to most other things about animals. “We’ve all been taught that we evolved from animals, and here is something that is totally absent from animal life,” he says.

          There are no traces of any evolution of language through the sounds that apes make, or dolphins, for that matter. It is something that is completely new, and the reason for that is, it’s an invention, invention by human beings, who are the only creatures who are able to perform this trick. And the trick is, you convert sounds into codes. And the code may be t-r-e-e “tree,” or it could be “typhoon,” there’s no telling. But it enables this creature, man, to remember things … as a result, human beings rule every other creature in the world.

          Physically, we are really pretty pathetic … our dominance in the world is all thanks to this trick of coming up with these codes.

          [Darwin] could not figure out what it was. He assumed, because of his theory, that everything evolved from animals. And didn’t even include it in his theory, language, until he decided that it came from our imitation of the cries of birds. And I think it’s misleading to say that human beings evolved from animals — actually, nobody knows whether they did or not. There are very few physical signs, aside from the general resemblance of apes and humans. The big evolution, if you want to call it that, is that this one species, Homo sapiens, came up with this ingenious trick, which is language.

          https://www.npr.org/2016/08/27/491492977/in-tom-wolfes-kingdom-speech-is-the-one-weird-trick

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        “I think it’s misleading to say that human beings evolved from animals”

        I think of human beings as an animal species. We aren’t plants, or archaea, or bacteria.

    • Steve says:

      Nope, he said “evolution is a myth” on CBS August 30, 2016. You can google and find the YouTube video. Here is the link. https://youtu.be/cfg0pGly-LM. So, I think that you knew that Andrew knew that Wolfe came out against evolution. And, besides stating that Darwinism cannot account for the rise of speech is logically equivalent to denying evolution because if any organism has a trait that could not have arisen through evolution then that is definitive proof that Darwin’s theory of evolution is false.

      • jim says:

        Steve: +1

        Wolfe: “I came to the conclusion that the theory of evolution is another myth”

        He thinks of speech like it’s a superhero power! I’m embarrassed for him to watch it. But he can hardly speak himself, so one might suspect his faculties aren’t all that sharp.

        • Phil says:

          Speech is indeed a superhero power! If there were no such thing as speech, people would argue about ‘which would you rather have, the power of flight; invisibility; or the ability to let other people know what you were thinking, and vice versa?’ and there would be plenty of takers for the latter…except, of course, if there were no such thing as speech it would be impossible to pose the question.

          • Andrew says:

            Phil:

            If we had no speech, we could still let other people know what we are thinking by just writing it down. Speech is more fluid than writing, though, I’ll grant you that.

            • Martha (Smith) says:

              Is this a joke? I find it hard to imagine that the ability to write down what we think could develop before speech.

              • jim says:

                That makes me wonder: did speech precede symbolic art? Would people have made pictures of the sun before they gave it a name?

              • Martha (Smith) says:

                Yes, “which came first: pictures or names” is an interesting question (and went through my head when writing the comment above).

          • jim says:

            “If there were no such thing as speech, people would argue about ‘which would you rather have, the power of flight; invisibility; or the ability to let other people know what you were thinking, and vice versa?’ “

            And no doubt we’d be a sad species if we couldn’t do *THAT!* :)

            No doubt speech is wicked cool. I like it so much I talk way too much! But if you were to ask a dog: “what’s the best way to learn about a human?” would the dog say “oh, hey, get h/her to talk!”. No way, the dog would say: “sniff it’s crotch!”

            And that’s something to think about: what the hell good would speech be to a dog? It would be somewhat beneficial. A dog could talk about which deer to kill, or where the deer might be. But without opposable thumbs most of the benefits of speech are wasted. You won’t be explaining how your dog-friend can improve his flint-knapping technique, much less writing it down for future generations. And even if a dog could somehow manage to make a spear, it would be challenging to carry it around.

            So no doubt speech is a powerful tool, but without our other important adaptations it would be worth a lot less than it is.

  12. mpledger says:

    I think Gladwell’s underlying thesis was correct – that we miscommunicate when we don’t understand people in their cultural context. However, I don’t think he really bought it together with the examples he chose.

    I am sympathetic to Paterno — McQueary came to him with a hazy allegation and he in turn reported it to his superiors. At that point it’s in their hands – they can come to him for an opinion but all the information, investigation and decision making is all on them.

    In my mind, the way McQueary changed how we spoke about the incident is more to do with going from knowing little about how to speak about what he saw, to learning how to speak of it in legal terminology. So it is not recovered memories but an unfortunate education.

  13. Jordan Anaya says:

    I don’t know if there’s anyone scientists view more differently than the public than Malcolm Gladwell.

    Luckily I haven’t read any of his books, but unfortunately I do passively become aware of some of his work such as his article on marijuana.

    And the other day this video popped up for me on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7J-wCHDJYmo

    He takes two colleges, Harvard and Hartwick, and points out that the dumb STEM students at Harvard are as smart as the smart students at Hartwick. He then shows that despite this, the dumb students at Harvard are just as likely to drop out of the STEM degree as the dumb students at Hartwick.

    Instead of attributing this to the obvious explanation (STEM courses are more difficult at Harvard or graded on a curve guaranteeing some people will have to drop out, and those people will be the relatively dumb ones), he invokes a pop psychology theory (relative deprivation theory).

    If we ignore this his advice to students may not be bad: if your goal is to get a STEM degree go to a school with dumb kids so that you are the smartest one there. However, his advice for employers is bonkers. He started his talk by saying the dumbest kids at Harvard would be the smartest kids at another school, and then goes on to say that employers should be hiring on the basis of class rank instead of institution, even calling them morons for doing so. That would be like if an NBA team used their number one draft pick on the best player from Division III. No Gladwell, you are the moron.

    • Andrew says:

      Jordan:

      I think it’s a bit strong to call Gladwell a “moron.” It seems fair to say that he doesn’t understand statistics very well; on the other hand, he’s become a success at his chosen field of science writing. I don’t think Gladwell understands the process of science very well either, given that he promotes people such as John “93%” Gottman and given his (Gladwell’s) resistance to legitimate criticism. But Gladwell seems pretty savvy about choosing topics to write about, he’s a good writer, etc etc.

      If Gladwell’s job were to pick players for an NBA team, and he were to blow his draft pix on hidden gems form Division III, then, yeah, that would be moronic. But given that his goal is to get people thinking about offbeat ideas . . . for that, it’s not such a problem that some of these ideas are bad ideas. He’s still getting people thinking.

      I could be really cynical and say that his only goal is make money, which he does by selling enough books that he can keep getting those sky-high speaking fees . . . but I can’t believe that’s his only goal. Making money is fun—you can use it to buy cool things, you can use it to make your life easier, and it gives you that satisfying feeling that people value what you do—but I’m guessing that Gladwell enjoys writing about ideas, he enjoys making people think. And he’s been successful at that.

      Similarly, I don’t think psychology professor-politicians such as Robert Sternberg and Susan Fiske are morons. Yes, they’ve demonstrated a poor understanding of statistics and of science more generally, but they’ve been successful in their primary goal of promoting the field of psychology and in their secondary goal of winning awards for themselves, their friends, and their students. If they were complete morons, they wouldn’t be able to succeed at that so well. Politicking takes work!

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