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Reading List: Journalism’s Most Fabulous Fabricators

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Nate Silver, Malcolm Gladwell and the Future of Journalism

Originally published on The Huffington Post 

 

I didn’t realize that Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise was one of the best books I read last year until about three weeks after I finished it. Why am I still thinking about this book? I would think, riding the bus, going over one of his examples in my head for the twelfth time.

It’s not that I’m so into baseball, or politics, or stock prices, or that I want to get better at predicting them. It’s that Silver’s book is an argument, and a challenge, for how I read stories in the future — and how I write them.

Silver’s core point is this:

Our predictions may be more prone to failure in the era of Big Data. As there is an exponential amount of available information, there is likewise an exponential increase in the number of hypotheses to investigate. For instance, the U.S. government now publishes data on about 45,000 economic statistics. If you want to test for a relationship between all combinations of two pairs of these statistics — is there a causal relationship between the bank prime loan rate and the unemployment rate in Alabama? — that gives you literally one billion hypotheses to test.

But the number of meaningful relationships in the data — those that speak to causality rather than correlation and testify to how the world really works — is orders of magnitude smaller. Nor is it likely to be increasing at nearly so fast a rate as the information itself; there isn’t any more truth in the world that there was before the Internet or the printing press. Most of the data is just noise, as most of the universe is filled with empty space.

This is not just a problem for Big Data. We’re not just surrounded by more quantitative information, more numbers, than ever before. We’re also surrounded by qualitative data too. From Longreads to UpWorthy, we’re have access to more stories, more characters, more anecdotes, more illustrations and examples than ever before. But just as more numbers don’t inherently produce more truth, more stories don’t inherently provide more lessons necessitating them.

Silver’s book reminded me of one of the worst books I read last year, Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.

In his most talked-about chapter, Gladwell profiles superlawyer David Boies, the dude who represented Gore against Bush at the Supreme Court, gay marriage against the Mormons in California.

Boies is dyslexic. It takes him hours to read a legal brief, and he foundered in odd jobs until his mid-20s, when he went to NYU Law School, then worked his way up through government and law firms to become a legal goliath.

Boies’s dyslexia, as Gladwell tells it, is a ‘desirable difficulty’. Being bad at reading volumes of case law made Boies focus on being good at listening and arguing, skills other lawyers neglected. Hollywood producer Brian Grazer, also at the top of his field, also dyslexic, became a great negotiator to compensate for his difficulty reading. Goldman Sachs CEO Gary Cohn grew up dyslexic and found that it made him an outsider, gave him the skill of presenting a persona. He used that skill to blag his way into his first job in finance.

“You wouldn’t wish dyslexia on your child,” Gladwell ominously concludes, “Or would you?” You can almost hear the music cue: Bum bum BUMMMM.

If all this sounds a bit too easy, that’s because it is. When Gladwell’s book came out, critics (most prominently Christopher F. Chablis in the Wall Street Journal) pointed out that dyslexia is, rather obviously, not a magic formula for success, decidedly not something you would give to your child if you had the choice.

Gladwell says “an extraordinarily high percentage of entrepreneurs are dyslexic.” A dyslexia researcher points out that this claim is based on a survey of 102 entrepreneurs and 37 corporate managers (out of 2,000 people contacted) and that it wasn’t even designed to detect dyslexia, only dyslexia-like traits such as difficulty with spelling.

Gladwell admits that dyslexics are over-represented in the prison population; Chablis, like a high school English teacher, says ‘develop this further’: It’s kinda sorta a major counterpoint to your argument. Gladwell points to a study where people did better on an intelligence test when it was in hard-to-read font (Lesson: difficulty makes you concentrate harder). Chablis says this test was on just 40 people, all Princeton students, and hasn’t been replicated on a larger scale.

The perennial critique of Gladwell is that his conclusions do not offer any new insights, only reformulations of what we already know. This seems unfair. As Silver says, there is only so much truth in the world, only so many insights to be pointed out and illustrated. Most people go their whole lives without coming up with a profound insight into anything. Gladwell can hardly be faulted for pointing out and reformulating the insights we already know.

The more generous critique of David and Goliath is, why didn’t Gladwell tell us all this himself? Why is his chapter, his book, written with this false certitude, these capitalized lessons? Boies’s story would be no less interesting, no less well-told, if it was juxtaposed with the story of one of those dyslexic prisoners. I might have actually enjoyed that chapter more if it was fortified with the contradictions and arguments in the academic literature, with bright orange caveats highlighting the places where Boies’s story is not typical, not indicative of something larger. Lay it on me, Gladwell, I can handle it.

Gladwell is a talented writer, a diligent researcher and interviewer, a monster intellect. If anyone could present the contradictions and paradoxes of the idea of ‘desirable difficulty,’ it’s him. Gladwell is too smart, too curious, too skeptical, to genuinely believe that parents should be giving their kids dyslexia because it is a surefire way to end up a Hollywood produces or a finance CEO.

Hedging against the challenge of ‘more information, same amount of truth,’ says Silver, requires giving predictions and conclusions with confidence intervals. We’re not certain that this hurricane will make landfall in Tampa, but there’s a 60 percent chance. Obama is not a surefire bet to beat Romney, but he has more plausible paths to victory. These statements don’t remove certainty, but they reduce it.

Gladwell’s cardinal sin, to me, is not crediting his readers with enough intelligence to disclose his confidence intervals. Does he really think that the ‘desirable difficulty’ of dyslexia explains 100 percent of Boies’s success? Probably not. If Gladwell is making the argument that dyslexia explains 5 percent of his success, or 20 percent, why not just tell us? It’s as if Gladwell is trying to avoid the unfair criticism of his work — these insights are profound, I swear! — and in doing so steps right into the more compelling criticism. There’s nothing highbrow hates more than middlebrow, and nothing says middlebrow like massaging complicated phenomena into chicken soups for the soul.

In 2012, when Jonah Lehrer was caught fabricating quotes and misrepresenting scientific findings in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Ta-Nehisi Coates, (one of the best working practitioners of journalistic uncertainty — I mean that in a good way) wrote:

Great long-form journalism comes from the author’s irrepressible need to answer a question. Fictional long-form journalism comes from the writer’s irrepressible need to be hailed as an oracle. In the former fabulism isn’t just wrong because it cheats the reader, it’s wrong because it cheats the writer. Manufactured evidence tends not to satiate an aching curiosity. But it does wonders for those most interested in oraculism.

I’m not implying that Gladwell fabricated anything. His sense of curiosity is palpable in everything he writes, and a major component of what makes his best work so interesting.

But Silver’s book is a justified, albeit indirect, criticism of Gladwell’s approach. Silver is arguing for more curiosity and less certitude, not just for people who predict events, but for those who explain them afterwards.

Ultimately, the fault may be ours. Gladwell is under pressure from publishers, from readers, to write books of big ideas, to deliver conclusions, to expand stories into insights that make us feel like we are reaching them ourselves. Book buyers and magazine readers may not tolerate an investigation into adversity, or creativity, or decision-making that finds them too complicated for capitalized lessons, one that concludes there is nothing to conclude.

But maybe that is changing. In the same way Silver has changed what we expect from political forecasts, maybe next generation’s Malcolm Gladwell will be someone who dips into subjects, guides us through contradictory evidence and leaves us with no certitude, with more questions than when we arrived. I’m ready to read that kind of journalism. I hope someone out there is ready to write it.

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Book Publishers Can Prevent the Next Jonah Lehrer

From New York Magazine’s writeup of Jonah Lehrer’s rise (blogger, writer, TED talker) and fall (fabulist, fraud, quote-maker-upper), and what it means for journalism:

Then it got so much worse. Four excruciating months later, Jonah Lehrer is known as a fabricator, a plagiarist, a reckless recycler. He’s cut-and-pasted not just his own stories but at least one from another journalist; he’s invented or conflated quotes; and he’s reproduced big errors even after sources pointed them out. His publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, will soon conclude a fact-check of his three books, the last of which, Imagine, was recalled from bookstores—a great expense for a company that, like all publishing houses, can’t afford to fact-check most books in the first place. In the meantime, he’s been completely ostracized. It’s unclear if he’ll ever write for a living again.

Lehrer was the poster boy of the recent rise of ‘academia lite’ publishing, where journalists aggregate and retell a body of scientific knowledge for a popular audience. For better (Daniel Kahneman) or worse (David Brooks), readers need narratives, publishers need content, academics need publicity, these aren’t going anywhere.

The process of fact-checking these books has come under scrutiny lately, and Lehrer is just the most recent case of a journalist misinterpreting (deliberately, accidentally, who cares) the results of academic studies to fit their own manufactured narrative.

My understanding of the publishing industry is that publishers lose money on basically 99 percent of the books they publish every year, and get into the black on just a few blockbusters. Publishers say they can’t fact-check all the books they print. I’m not all that sympathetic to this (‘it would be super hard’ is rarely a convincing defense for a multinational corporation), but more books rather than fewer is a good thing, and the reality is that publishers aren’t gonna put a New Yorker-style confirmation apparatus in place overnight.

I feel like a first step toward more accuracy in publishing is for authors to be much more accountable to their sources. Lehrer is basically accused of coming up with a conclusion first, then arranging his quotes and sources to confirm it. From what I know from my (brief) experience as an actual journalist, this is pretty standard practice. You hear about a story, you read a bit, you write it up, and you leave spaces with tags like quote from Yankees fan goes here or need Census data for this paragraph to fill in later. Good journalists will, obviously, change the story if their facts contradict their conclusions, but the actual methodology is fairly widespread.

The problem with this approach is that it conceives of sources as Mad Libs generators. You need a quote from someone, you call them up, you get them to talk til they say something that will fill the hole, you hang up. In journalism school you’re told a million times that sources aren’t allowed to see the final story before it’s published, and don’t get to amend their quotes.

This maybe makes sense for political journalism, where sources have an incentive to make themselves look good. If you’re interviewing them about some aspect of their job performance as a public official, they might try to spin you in a particular way if they know what you’re writing. Fine.

But science journalism is different. In the kinds of books and articles Lehrer was writing, his sources’ incentives were aligned with his own. Scientists want their work to reach a mass audience, and for articles to portray their results accurately.

I mean, check this out:

If Lehrer was misusing science, why didn’t more scientists speak up? When I reached out to them, a couple did complain to me, but many responded with shrugs. They didn’t expect anything better. Mark Beeman, who questioned that “needle in the haystack” quote, was fairly typical: Lehrer’s simplifications were “nothing that hasn’t happened to me in many other newspaper stories.”

Maybe book publishers can’t independently verify every single fact in every single book. But they can certainly call five or ten of their authors’ main sources, show them some chapters, and ask them if their work is being fairly represented. If Lehrer knew that his work would be shown to people he interviewed and the authors of studies he cited, he would have  been much less likely to distort their findings.

Yes, this approach has problems. Maybe the sources are dicks, and they don’t want a journalist broadcasting their results. Maybe they’re crazy-academic, and they don’t want their work published unless it’s drowning in jargon and caveats.

But maybe they’re not. Maybe they want to help make sure their work is fairly represented. Maybe they want to contribute additional information that could clarify it.

Either way, I fail to see how contacting an author’s sources—and being transparent with readers about it—would be worse than the current model, in which sources are interviewed and then discarded, and play no instrumental role in how their words and their work is represented. Sources shouldn’t necessarily have the right to approve everything that’s written about their work, but they should at least be consulted.

Authors and journalists that see true stories and correct information, rather than dazzling writing, as their primary constituents, should be arguing for this themselves.

Ultimately, I think Lehrer’s real sin was not believing in his own skill as a writer. If his work had focused on how there isn’t a simple explanation for complex phenomena, how much we don’t know about intuition, how evidence doesn’t clarify the world around us, he might still have ended up famous. And maybe, he could even have ended up right.

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