When I started writing books for the general public (“trade books”, as they call them), I was surprised to find out that I alone was responsible for the accuracy of their content. While publishers do have their legal departments vet books that may violate laws against libel, or cause other legal troubles, publishers have neither the time nor the money to have books thoroughly fact-checked. This is one reason why authors put references for many factual statements at the end of the book, as I did with my two.
Even so, errors slip in, and sometimes those errors are numerous. A new piece in the New York Times cites some serious or numerous mistakes in popular books. Here are four that are highlighted:
Accusations of sloppiness and journalistic malpractice now quickly explode on social media. Ms. [Jill] Abramson was pilloried on Twitter by sources and other journalists this year for mistakes in her book “Merchants of Truth” and for failing to cite source material from other writers. She made corrections and credited sources in the digital version and future print editions.
. . . scrutiny of such books is growing. After [Michael] Wolff in June published “Siege,” his account of volatility inside the Trump administration, journalists highlighted numerous inaccuracies in the book.
. . . In May, The New York Times Book Review published a blistering review of [Jared] Diamond’s book “Upheaval.” The reviewer, the author Anand Giridharadas, cited mangled facts and what he described as misleading generalizations, and argued that the flaws were emblematic of a systemic lack of fact-checking in publishing.
. . . When publishers do conduct a factual review, it’s often in response to a crisis. In June, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt postponed the release of [Naomi] Wolf’s “Outrages,” which explores how 19th-century British courts criminalized same-sex relationships, and commissioned independent evaluations from several scholars after questions were raised about the accuracy of her research. The publisher took the unusual and costly step of recalling copies from retailers and pulping them. Ms. Wolf has said that she disagrees with the delay, and that only a small number of errors must be corrected.
To be fair, some of the authors contest these accusations, while others are correcting the errors. But if you’re writing nonfiction, rigorous scrutiny should be given to all assertions of fact.
When we write scientific papers, all factual statements are followed by a citation like (Schlemiel, 2015), with the reference given at the end of the paper. For you know that captious reviewers are going to scrutinize your paper before a decision is made on whether it should be published. If trade publishers or authors could follow such a practice (my habit was to send bits of the book to experts in the field for their reactions), it would dramatically improve the accuracy of books.
Which brings us to Malcolm Gladwell.
I haven’t read any of Gladwell’s trade books, but of course they’re immensely popular and have made him a multimillionaire. Some of my friends who are savvy and have read them dismiss them as pop sociology, lessons in how to market the obvious by pretending it’s profound. I can neither agree nor disagree, as I plead ignorance.
But the verdict of “superficial” is rendered by Andrew Ferguson in this new Atlantic article (click on screenshot), which claims that with his newest book, Talking to Strangers, Gladwell has finally exhausted his formula—to the point where a central thesis is barely discernible. If you’ve read this book, or Gladwell’s other ones, you can be the judge.
But though I haven’t read the book, I was pretty offended by one of Gladwell’s assertions (also mentioned in the NYT article), a falsehood that bespeaks poor scholarship, and would make me wonder how sound the rest of his assertions are. Here’s the fact in dispute (Ferguson’s prose):
I don’t know whether default to truth [Gladwell’s catch phrase for the obvious fact that we tend to believe things other people tell us] will enter the Gladwell lexicon with tipping point and stickiness. But his appropriation of the phrase does show that his attitude to social science remains unquestioning. When he encounters a study published in a journal with a complicated name, he defaults to swallowing it whole. At times he approaches self-parody. Just follow the footnotes.
“Poets die young,” he writes, in a section on Sylvia Plath. “And of every occupational category, [poets] have far and away the highest suicide rates—as much as five times higher than the general population.”
Interesting, sort of, if true! But how would such a calculation be made? Poet is a strange “occupational category.” Hardly anybody makes a living as a professional poet. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in its Standard Occupational Classification System, lists 867 occupations. The closest it gets to “poet” is “Writers and Authors,” a category so baggy it includes bloggers and advertising copywriters. What kind of poet wants to be confused with Mad Men? Wallace Stevens wrote sublime poetry, but I think the BLS would still prefer to classify him as a vice president of an insurance company.
Gladwell’s footnote shows he has drawn this curious statistic from a paper titled “Suicide and Creativity,” by a college professor named Mark Runco, published in 1998 in the journal Death Studies. Runco in turn cites a book, Touched With Fire, by Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist.
To get her “five times” figure, Jamison explains in her book, she studied the lives of “all major British and Irish poets born between 1705 and 1805.” She determined their “major” status by consulting old poetry anthologies. She decided there were 36—not 35, not 37, but 36—major poets, ranging from the well-known and era-defining (William Wordsworth) to the obscure and improbably named (John Bampfylde). Of the 36 poets, two committed suicide. (It’s not clear that these two can even be classified as poets, however: One was a physician by trade, and the other died at 17, probably too young to qualify for an occupational category.) Jamison reckoned that two out of 36, proportionally, is five times the suicide rate for the general population.
Voilà! A statistic is born.
This is thin soup. One wonders whether Gladwell bothered to trace the statistic back to its source. Jamison’s sample is clearly too small and peculiar to yield a reliable understanding of the suicide rate among poets, even 18th-century poets in the British Isles. Many people who spend a lot of time writing poetry are eccentric; the elevated suicide rate feels true, intuitively. But for Gladwell, as for so many consumers of social science, the intuition becomes real only if it’s quantified, even when any kind of useful quantification is implausible on its face.
I read Jamison’s book years ago, but don’t even remember that assertion. But what Gladwell did with it is pretty bad—turning a sketchy hypothesis based on scanty data into a general claim about suicide and professions. This is not simply a misreading, but a distortion bespeaking, at the least, sloppy research.
You may say that this is trivial, but as a scientist it bothers me. A claim like that, were it to appear in a scientific paper, would be pounced on by reviewers demanding that it be fixed or clarified. We should expect no less from factual assertions in popular books.
At any rate, if you don’t like Gladwell, you’ll enjoy a good bout of Schadenfreude with Ferguson’s article. To wit: its ending:
Rather than offering made-up rules and biases and effects, Gladwell has chosen to issue a plea, asking that we recognize how difficult it is for us to understand one another.
Of course, if Malcolm Gladwell had practiced epistemological humility for the past 20 years, he would have sold millions fewer books. But let’s pass over the irony. When you’re talking to millions of strangers, as Gladwell does, saying nothing in particular is better than telling them things that aren’t so. He may have embarked on an exciting new career.