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Basbøll’s Audenesque paragraph on science writing, followed by a resurrection of a 10-year-old debate on Gladwell

I pointed Thomas Basbøll to my recent post, “Science is science writing; science writing is science,” and he in turn pointed me to his post from a few years ago, “Scientific Writing and ‘Science Writing,'” which stirringly begins:

For me, 2015 will be the year that I [Basbøll] finally lost all respect for “science writing”.

He continues: “especially since the invention of the TED talk (a “dark art”), it gave me the feeling of knowing without actually providing me with knowledge. Popular presentations of science tell us stories about what is known without giving us the critical foundations we need to engage with it, i.e., to question those stories.”

And leads to this stunning conclusion:

Knowledge was once something you acquired through years of study, guided by books, but framed by a classroom (other people), an observatory (other vistas), a laboratory (other experiences), a library (other books). If you did not have access to these “academic” conditions you did not presume to understand the topic. Scientists wrote about their discoveries for people who had the knowledge, intelligence, time and apparatus to test them. These days, “science” is becoming something that is produced in a lab and consumed in a book you buy at the airport.

I’m a sucker for nostalgia. But I still can’t bring myself to take the position that the old days were better—after all, the vast majority of people didn’t, and don’t, have the opportunity for these years of study—or, even if they did, it would only be in one narrow field—so I still like the idea of science writing, if we can get beyond the obsolete “science as hero” framework.

One think I like about the above-quoted paragraph is its Audenesque rhythm. (“Yesterday all the past…”). Then again, Orwell roasted Auden for that particular poem, and years later Auden renounced it. Something can sound good and even make a certain kind of logical sense but still be factually or morally wrong. Orwell knew this all along, it took Auden awhile to realize it, and there are lots of people who still don’t get the point.

Speaking of Malcolm Gladwell . . . In his 2015 post, Basbøll links to this blog discussion from 2010 which is kind of amazing in that Gladwell responds to Basbøll in the comments. And it wasn’t even Basbøll’s post! Blogs really used to matter, enough so that a big name Malcolm Gladwell would engage with critic A in the comments section of a post by blogger B. And they went back and forth!

I’m not the world’s biggest Gladwell fan, but I admire that he engaged seriously with criticism in that way. Here’s an example, from late in the thread:

What strikes me [Gladwell] most—reading all the comments—is how unwilling many of the commenters (most of whom, I’m guessing, are academics) are to deal with the trade-off presented in the original post. Academics have the luxury, appropriately, of dealing with ideas and arguments and social science in its full complexity. Those of us who have chosen to swim in the lay pool do not. We have to make compromises. My book Blink, for example, was a compromise: an attempt to nudge people away from the reflexive position that intuition and instinct are invariably reliable or useful. A complete summary of the academic understanding of those questions would have been read by a fraction of the audience. Figuring out where to draw that line is difficult, and I don’t pretend that I always do it properly. But I do think that the effort to expose as wide an audience as impossible to the wonders and mysteries of social science ought to be met with more than condescension—especially from a group of people who teach for a living.

I don’t think this response from Gladwell is perfect—for example, he does not address that in his books, he wasn’t just doing compromises and trade-offs; he was also actively promoting junk science such as John Gottman’s divorce predictions (see here—wow, that was from back in 2010 also! Such a long time has gone by.) and I don’t know that he (Gladwell) has ever retracted his endorsement of Gottman’s claims.

So, yeah, I think Gladwell misses the point in his replies, in that his paragraph sounds reasonable in isolation but it doesn’t address his devastating combination of credulity and unwillingness to admit specific errors. But I still very much appreciate that he at least made the effort: he showed the critics some respect, which is more than you can say of David Brooks, Susan Fiske, Cass Sunstein, etc.

The other stunning thing in that thread from 2010 is when Brayden King, who wrote the blog post that started it all, added this in comments:

Lots of completely legitimate academic articles are liberally sprinkled with “premature conclusions or misleading anecdotes.” I don’t see them as harmful as you do in either case. The point of much empirical work is to push theoretical boundaries and to get people to think. Gladwell is doing the same thing, the main difference being the intended audience.

Dayum.

I mean, yeah, sure, lots of academics make mistakes and don’t ever issue corrections. ESP, ages ending in 9, pizzagate, the disgraced primatologist, that dude from Ohio State with the voodoo dolls, air rage, himmicanes, beauty and sex ratios, that sleep researcher, etc etc. But that’s a bad thing, right?? No matter what the intended audience.

I do think there are some solid defenses of Gladwell. One possible defense is that the man has a workflow, and if he were to fact-check his writing too carefully, it would destroy the spontaneity that makes it all hang together. The second possible defense is that to correct the errors would destroy the willing suspension of disbelief that makes traditional science writing so effective.

In either case, the argument is: (a) the pluses of Gladwell’s writing (the sharing of true facts, the reporting and publicizing of good research, the engagement of the reader in the process of social science) outweigh the minuses (the sharing of false claims, the reporting and publicizing of bad research, the misrepresentation of social science), and (b) that removal or correction of the errors would be impossible as it would in some way destroy the ability of Gladwell to produce this work.

I think this argument is plausible. But, to make it work, you need both (a) and (b). Either alone is not enough.

P.S. Thanks to Zad Chow for the above picture of Polynomial Cats. Happy new year, Zad!

26 Comments

  1. Dale Lehman says:

    I would propose that we can all agree on some basic “facts”
    1. The world is complicated.
    2. Analysis of the world is complicated – at least, simplistic analysis has many flaws, and more complicated analyses are required if we are to get closer to the “truth.”
    3. Most of the public is not equipped to understand the complexities, but it is of value to have people interested in science and wanting to learn more.
    4. The extremes – overly complex analyses that few will understand – and overly hyped simplistic (and potentially wrong) analyses – are both undesirable.

    If we accept these 4 premises, then the questions become what is good scientific practice? And where do we draw the lines between what is acceptable and what is not?

    I agree with the need for both (a) and (b). They would appear to be necessary. But are they sufficient? Perhaps nothing is sufficient if it does not improve the general ability of the public to understand how science works and to be intelligent consumers of scientific analysis. Does Gladwell promote these objectives? Sure, he gets people interested and entertained, and some may even go on to learn more – but I fear that many people are content to consumer his writings as entertainment and reinforcements of their prior beliefs. On the other end of the spectrum, do advanced analyses that employ cutting edge techniques promote these goals? I doubt that, as it seems that our over-specialized disciplinary training has done little to advance the general level of scientific understanding in the population (evidence sorely lacking, here).

    Perhaps what we seek is increasingly impossible. The past year has been demoralizing on so many fronts. Truth is increasingly elusive, and it appears that many people have given up on it – far easier to play the role of sports fan and just pick a team to root for. I see this in politics certainly, but reactions to COVID are similar. We have the camp that believes we over-reacted and the camp that believes we have failed to do enough. Then there are the more nuanced analyses which are certainly more correct. They amount to saying “it’s more complicated than that.” We need to intervene in the “right” ways, so we both over- and under- reacted. But to do that analysis is complex, time consuming, and confusing. So it is far easier to look for an entertaining overly simplistic “expert” who says what we want to hear.

    I almost deleted this comment, but I’ll post it anyway. I have no answers. I support the conversation – blogs like this are valuable in promoting essential discussion of how to do better analyses and how to police ourselves to improve our own practice. But I fear we are losing ground more quickly than advancing.

    • I think these four premises are right on. There’s much more discussion of cases where the errors are more obvious or numerous like Gladwell in pop science and ESP power pose etc in research, but it becomes hard to draw a sharp line because scientists are always writing for audiences that have limits to their processing power. If we write with the full shades of gray complex topics deserve, we probably lose readers. So we get used to making decisions of what to devote the available “bits” to, the problem is arises when we pretend we’re not doing this.

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        Jessica said,
        “If we write with the full shades of gray complex topics deserve, we probably lose readers.”

        I agree — and I think a big part of it is that many people have an aversion to shades of gray (and often an aversion to complexity in general). I don’t know how much this is nature and how much it is nurture. This would be a good topic for serious psychologists to study — but I suspect many of them have the aversion(s) themselves.

  2. jonathan says:

    To my meager memory, Auden believed the word ‘murder’ had an absolute sense, while Orwell saw it as label for a variety of actions, some good and some truly awful. I actually thought of the same point this weekend because CBS profiled an old peace teacher who doesnt believe in borders, never votes, etc. Both speak to a naive where ideals literalize. So, to me, you have a clash of models. What stands out to me about Spain, which I havent looked at in a long time, is the way it hinges and inverts a view of the past into a view of the present and future by imposing an attribute of unawareness to the past (which reduces to a form of ‘they know not what they do’, which speaks to the spiritual within Auden’s work), but which becomes a version of they know what they do. This is why Auden referred to the poem as too much like a pamphlet, I believe.

    I first read this poem as a kid late at night when no one was up and I’d hide in the little bathroom downstairs and would read my dad’s books until he would get up in the night and make me go to bed. It’s been interesting to see how my thinking about Auden has changed, given that he’s always been to me extremely old-fashioned in its aesthetics, which to me reeked of closeted gay male even before I knew what that was. (Yes, this connects to what I think my dad was inside himself.) There’s a way of phrasing things which contains that form of discomfort so it’s encapsulated and doesnt drip off the page announcing itself. An example of this, perhaps the best, is Brideshead because it’s about a gay man who chooses not to be gay, who converts to Catholicism as a form of eternal reminder and punishment for choosing an identity other than his own into a religion that insists this is what you must do. All of Charles’ actual identity is pushed off the page so it becomes the classic British statement of talking about anything and everything but what you really feel and who you really are. Auden embodies that. I’ve always seen Spain as an outgrowth of Yeats and Eliot in which he’s internalized the visceral slouching beast and time, gentleman, time into his aesthetic, which Orwell caught. That bit of remoteness from identity: you choose to say you are above it all by using murder as an absolute, because you cant reduce that to what it is composed of.

    I think about this in very old math terms: the way Orwell defines murder is not commensurate with Auden’s. Orwell’s definitions center at a 0 from which you can map positive and negative meanings, while Auden centers at a 0 which has no positive. But murder is an actuality, so Orwell’s definitions attach to actual examples which you can plot up or down. Auden’s definition starts at a 0 in which all the actual examples are hidden in the positive, meaning only the negative appears. In your terms, he takes a 2 tailed distribution and reduces it to a single tail by eliminating the positive implications by shifting the 0.

    To me, Auden creates a segment that runs from 0 to 1 so the concept of murder could be analyzed and ordered somehow, perhaps even induced as a series of logical ‘this is worst in this view’ as that extend through the negatives of murder. That imposes another 1 at the depth from which you can measure up to the concept that all murder is at the top of a negative pile. This rather obviously centers on Orwell’s 0 and makes a complex unit circle. Each step along the listing is a complex rotation of a version of that unit circle, either set out from the edges or from the middle of the segment. That this is true in the general sense is, I think, clear. That this then means each ‘listing’ positive or negative is also a complex rotation may be less clear.

    The general structure for this is actually an application of the zeta series. The ‘values’ of each form of murder are unique, which points at primes, which as I’ve otherwise noted, stack as squares with a line running through the summation point where the diagonals cross and which represents real ½. So here, you see the entirety of the complexity running from the Auden Endpoint to its implied inversion, where the quality of murder is either bare to 0 or immense to 1, as that centers on the Orwell origin which is always halfway (so it applies in each complex rotation within the Audens).

    Two points. First, the Audens hide the z complexity: it’s invisible unless you segment it over the Orwell to connect the Audens. When is something invisible? When it’s behind the visible plane, so z disappears behind x,y, and then we can invert that disappearance over the Orwell to its other disappearing edge. Each of these places is a hinge or a joining and coming apart of two halves, which is a 0, not an absolute 0 but a dynamic 0 which locates to a 1. That 1 takes on layers of values of which a prime is one fundamental form. (In the model which generates this, the basic value is that 64 is 1 but 0 is 36, which means a segment of 1 is now a segment that contains multiple layerings of binary derived patterns. So this is an example of 0’s that become stacks of primes, which is part of the meaning behind the so-called trivial 0’s when you see those 0’s as dynamic, not absolute. So that hidden 36 is a turn into z, which connects complexity in patterns behind the visible.

    I love translating ideas into math. That is what you do, right? That is what science is in the end, that you can translate ideas into some repeating notational form that has value. Notational form is inherently modulo. That enables me to sneak this in: I think that we can apply Auden’s Spain to the development of ideas generally. When Cantor did his thing, we moved into axiomatic thinking. That was a necessary step: the return to an Ancient Greek vision of fundamental extractable truths. The problem is: that’s a complex rotation which has extended over time, which means axioms are imposed Endpoints over a complex field, same as the Audens and the Orwell. That means there is a model which underlies the axiomatic method. The reason that must be true is that this is some modulo at a very big time scale.

    The other point is all questions like this to me emerge out of the muck around the Pythagoreans and the proof of non-rationality through commensurateness. In this case, you can see a modulo for arranging circles of hell, etc. And that these can radiate from the various endpoints so they connect. Are they commensurate? That is, if you take the module for one approach does it fully fit the other? That boils down to the difference between an equilateral and a right triangle because each of these is being measured as though an observer were in motion around on the edge of the complex rotations. This means there is a commensurate case in hexagons, which has a ton of meanings in the larger model. The overall model is, to be blunt, a complex rotation to Cantor: it’s the Cantor interpolative scheme enacted so it generates the axioms which were extracted from it. By enacted, I mean analyzed for the various fundamental ways it generates points, lines, and thus relationships. I like to think of it as Cantorial interpolation with Cantor removed so it lives on its own. Turns out the zeta series is how complexity relates to the real at any point, which gives a lot of meaning to the trivial 0’s. Ironically, the ½ is the simple part by comparison. When you see any point as complex, as existing as a complex rotation which includes and connects to other complex rotations, you can literally see that in the interpolative field in drawings.

    This was fun.

    • Jonathan says:

      I meant to say that hexagons aren’t commensurate with squares as applied modulo. Hexagons in the model, when idealized to equilateral in particular, are the interpolation of 2 points to the 4 points of a square. These can be seen as paired, so the complex rotation is over that pair. Or you can take the complexity and allocate it around the vertices until it reaches that ideal. This means there is an apparent commensurateness by which you can sort the range but that actually requires a transformation, so the level that reaches is not and cannot be absolute. The reason in ideas is fairly obvious: you have cast a light in one direction, so you have the extra steps of interpolating, which invokes a different tool for measuring, one that idealizes to an allocation of complexity in hexagons versus squares.

  3. Michael Nelson says:

    Gladwell’s worst sin, in my view, isn’t that he promotes bad science or oversimplifies good science. It’s that he invariably writes about science in service of advancing an unscientific thesis. A Gladwell book catches our attention by contradicting conventional wisdom and keeps it by reinforcing our self-serving biases. Strangers really are dangerous! Complex phenomena can be reduced to a single tipping point! Extraordinarily successful people are just really lucky! And so on. He’d probably argue it’s necessary to organize science writing like this, or else people wouldn’t read it. But he could select his theses based on the science instead of what makes a good blurb, and then write it really, really well. That would probably work, too. “Regular people don’t enjoy accurate science writing” != “I don’t know how to write about science in a way that’s both accurate and enjoyable.”

    • Andrew says:

      Michael:

      Gladwell’s a compelling and popular science writer, but some of the blame for his success has to go with the scholars who have vouched for him. Not just John Gottman etc. but also the American Sociological Association who gave him that award.

  4. Michael Nelson says:

    Also, when was this age when ignorant people just accepted the scientific consensus and moved on with their lives? Before popular science communicators, there were (and still are) popular “science” communicators: theologians, politicians, intellectuals, storytellers, hucksters, and cranks. Even when popular scientific literature fails to adequately convey the science, it’s taking up space in people’s minds that would otherwise be filled by even more questionable authorities.

    • Kien says:

      I’m currently going through Richard Freyman’s wonderful lectures on physics, where as far as I can tell, he manages to write for an audience without specialist knowledge in physics, yet explains everything from first principles. And he always conveys a sense of wonder about nature.

      There is an interesting section where, after explaining general relativity, Freyman discusses the way some philosophers misunderstand general relativity. I cannot fully express how grateful I feel for Freyman’s lectures.

  5. John Williams says:

    How, in the middle of a pandemic and the early stages of a climate crisis, can anyone question the value of explaining scientific understanding to the public?

    • Michael Nelson says:

      I’d explain how, but it involves very subtle concepts from psychology and sociology that you couldn’t possibly comprehend.

    • Mendel says:

      The problem that the “science deniers” have is that they understand science as a political system of authority; and that the “right” science is determined by the authority you chose to follow. This narrative is supported every time wrong or misleading science is produced through ignorance or moneyed interests; and it is pushed in every school where science teachers despair of fostering understanding and agency in the dumber kids and ask them to just learn enough by rote to pass the test and satisfy the authority of the school. (This may be much worse in a home schooling situation!) It’s supported by the philosophical work on how paradigm shifts in science happen.

      The way you can combat this misconception is to let people experience that scientific ideas have to be exposed to other people, other observations, other experiences, and existing knowledge: and only if they pass these tests are they considered “truth” of sorts. Where does “science writing” fall on this balance?

      If you’re using “scientific authority” to explain scientific ideas, you may be making this matter worse!

      • jim says:

        “If you’re using “scientific authority” to explain scientific ideas, you may be making this matter worse!”

        So true, but the temptation to default to authority runs deep in humans. I’ll never forget one experience studying for an exam with other students. The others had an incorrect answer to one of the study questions. I explained to them why their answer was incorrect. Their response? (paraphrasing) “Dr X said it was so”. After some back and forth it was clear that no form of reasoning could overrule what they mistakenly believed Dr X had said. No rational argument could be upheld in the face of his authority. He had spoken, and thus it was, reasoning be damned. They all got the answer wrong on the test, but persisted in believing he had misinformed them, when the answer they ascribed to him simply didn’t make any sense.

        All of these students were science majors in upper level courses at a science and engineering school.

        • jim says:

          In fact the temptation to default to authority is so powerful humans had to invent and entire enterprise to overcome it: Science.

        • gec says:

          One issue that I see is that students want very clear criteria for how they expect to be evaluated, and the easiest way to achieve that is by having the prof provide the answer to the student and having the student parrot it back. The desire for immediately quantifiable success criteria seems strongest among the most high-achieving students, since they view “winning their grade” as an important part of their identity.

          More broadly, it is hard to get students to realize that the important outcomes are not on a transcript, but in how they use their skills/knowledge outside of class. It makes sense that it would be hard, though, since most students now enter college straight out of high school and so don’t have a frame of reference for much outside of academia. My best undergraduate students have been veterans or other adults who had life experience outside of school. Another part of it is that, like most graduate students, adults are going to school for a purpose and understand how the course material advances that purpose, whereas many undergrads go to college because it is expected or required of them to get “some kind” of degree.

          • jim says:

            “most students now enter college straight out of high school”

            Interesting that one important quality that helps young people do well in the modern world is simply submitting to authority – doing homework and pursuing good grades.

            Americans used to be much more practical.

          • jim says:

            “students want very clear criteria for how they expect to be evaluated”

            Yes, they do. The question is: should students dictate the terms of their education?

            My fear is that students dictating to leadership is increasingly becoming the norm and the quality of education is declining as a result. When people who don’t know anything dictate to people who do…well that’s just not going to work very well.

      • There may be no real alternative to arguments of authority for most people all of the time and for all people some of the time.

        That was CS Peirce’s view in his Illustrations of the Logic of Science and pretty the same argument here https://statmodeling.stat.columbia.edu/2018/01/23/better-enable-others-avoid-misled-trying-learn-observations-promise-not-transparent-open-sincere-honest/

        Ideal scientific writing should cause to understand but maybe can never do more than cause to believe.

  6. V.W says:

    Dear Prof.

    Your statistic blog is the best I know. I wonder if you have done any analysis about this election. People argued one candidate’s vote counts violated Benford Law. What is your opinion?

    Thanks

  7. Graham says:

    Singling out Gladwell is unfair to popular science writers, imo. For example, Philip Ball writes exceptionally well on social science (and natural science) issues; he actually has a PhD in chemistry.

  8. Adede says:

    If I google “Scientific Writing and ‘Science Writing,’”, it takes me back to this very page. Can you directly link Basbøll’s blog post?

  9. Gerardo Okhuysen says:

    Recently reading popcorn science fiction, “The Expanse,” I came across this wonderful Tolstoy quote from War and Peace:

    “As with astronomy the difficulty of recognizing the motion of the earth lay in abandoning the immediate sensation of the earth’s fixity and of the motion of the planets, so in history the difficulty of recognizing the subjection of personality to the laws of space, time, and cause lies in renouncing the direct feeling of the independence of one’s own personality. But as in astronomy the new view said: ‘It is true that we do not feel the movement of the earth, but by admitting its immobility we arrive at absurdity, while by admitting its motion (which we do not feel) we arrive at laws,’ so also in history the new view says: ‘It is true that we are not conscious of our dependence, but by admitting our free will we arrive at absurdity, while by admitting our dependence on the external world, on time, and on cause, we arrive at laws.’ “

    Understanding the social world in a way that relies on social science may well require a vast change in assumptions by laypeople. By moving to a place where, by “admitting its motion,” broad society sees the world in a manner more consistent with social science’s view. Perhaps the value of Gladwell is not in explaining the world in the full complexity that social scientists would like. Instead, maybe the value comes from challenging people’s lay assumptions, moving everyone to a place of “admitting” the absence of “fixity” and opening up the world to an alternative perspective, one that can then be more easily filled with scientific content.

    After all, I doubt we all understand the full scientific implications of abandoning the subjective and “immediate sensation of the earth’s fixity and of the motion of the planets” as true. At the same time, my guess is that few of us continue believing that the earth is the fixed center of the universe and instead easily accept many implications of the new view.

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