Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Book Review: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

In my blog post of May 12, Are Scientists More Objective and Rational than the Rest of Us?, I related the stories of some scientists who somehow were able to “think outside the box,” to use the annoyingly well-worn cliché. They broke through the conventional wisdom, academic politics, and scientist groupthink and made radical changes to accepted scientific concepts and explanations for various phenomenon. 

I discussed Clare Patterson, who successfully took on a respected scientist who had became an oil industry lackey and who had pushed the idea that lead in gasoline was not dangerously polluting the environment. 
Then there was Elizabeth Gould, who took on neuroscience guru Pasko Rakic, who had set the field of neurobiology back a full decade by refusing to believe a lot of data coming out that disproved the prevailing notion that sophisticated animals are born with essentially every brain cell they would ever have, and that no new neurons develop during adulthood.
Another good example was German meteorologist Alfred Wegener, who first proposed – way back in 1915 - that South America and Africa had one time been joined. He was almost laughed out of academia. He even had fossil evidence for his proposition, but the geologists of his day not only mocked him but counter-proposed that there are (now sunken) land bridges to account for the fossils - without any evidence that this was in fact the case. Now all geologists accept the theory of plate tectonics.
So what makes some people able to do this? This is actually two questions, not one: First, why can some people think in novel ways while others seem stuck with the groupthink no matter how preposterous it starts to become? Second, why do some of these people succeed in creating – again pardon the second annoyingly well worn cliché – a paradigm shift in the scientific community, while others fail?
I was discussing these questions with a friend, and in response he gave me an interesting book called David and Goliath, Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell.

Malcolm Gladwell

It’s mostly about the individual and group factors that lead some people to think apart from prevailing wisdom, rather than about which of these people succeed in making a mark and which do not, but I thought it was a very interesting read.
Now of course Mr. Gladwell is a journalist and not a neuroscientist or psychologist, and his work has garnered a lot of public criticism from professionals in those fields, particularly Steven Pinker and Chris Chabris. Gladwell is above all a storyteller, but he goes on to make some interesting hypotheses about the psychology – and to a lesser extent the sociology – of the people at the center of his stories. He then speculates further about what these hypotheses could mean more generally.
Chabris accused him of “telling just-so stories and cherry-picking science to back them up,” and “presenting as proven laws what are just intriguing possibilities and musings about human behaviour.”
Fair enough, although I'm not sure I would agree that Gladwell is saying his ideas are proven. On the other hand, the belief of some psychologists in the sanctity of statistics and so-called empirical studies in the social sciences is also grossly overestimated. There are some inherent limitations in our current ability to explain and predict things, particularly in psychology. In the words of the neurobiologist Steve Rose, "It is in the nature of living things to be radically indeterminate."
I discussed the issue of “anecdotal” evidence versus inductive conclusions in a prior post. But an even bigger problem is the obvious difficulty in precisely mapping out the interactions between genes and environment, when there are literally thousands of environmental variables and a trillion constantly changing synaptic connections between brain cells, all of which interact at constantly changing frequencies over decades. No one can even come close to controlling for all of these variables in a lab experiment. This is the definition of chaos.
Sometimes the best way to eventually understand a psychological question of this sort – and one can only talk about increased or decreased probabilities of certain results given certain pre-conditions, never about anything approaching absolute certainty – is by looking at all the details in the stories of a variety of individuals. With all of the variables at work, only individual stories can provide some of these necessary details. With psychology, details matter. 
And sometimes it is the exceptions to the conventional wisdom that prove or disprove a perceived “rule.”
So with this in mind, reading Gladwell’s stories does bring up some intriguing possibilities. His major premise is that the experience of certain types of adversities can make someone stronger and far more resolute than he or she might be otherwise. Gladwell brings up, for example, the strength of the population of London during the rocket and bombing attacks by the Germans in World War II. The fact that so many people experienced what he calls a “near miss” – surviving a bombing in which your neighbors did not - can strengthen people's resolve to carry on.
He also discusses how some people with dyslexia had to ingeniously develop alternate ways of accomplishing certain tasks in order to overcome their limitations, which later helped them to be wildly successful. Again, I do not think the author is arguing that dyslexia is a good thing, or that for most people it does not impair or even destroy their attempts at success. So other variables are obviously involved.  

But that doesn’t necessarily negate the premise that sometimes weaknesses can be turned into strengths – as David did in the story of David and Goliath. Goliath was only prepared to fight someone who fought just like him, which left him vulnerable to a projectile from a slingshot.
Then there was the story of Emil “Jay” Freireich, a doctor who was a major player in the vast improvement in the treatment of childhood leukemia. The good doctor lost his father when he was quite young to a probable suicide after the stock market crash of 1929. The family was left destitute, and the mother was frequently absent in order to work, leaving him to fend for himself.
To oversimplify just a bit, Freireich realized that children were dying because individual drugs, which were causing horrific side effects, did not work fast enough. The leukemia killed the children before the drugs really had time to work. The drugs were just not killing enough cancer cells quickly enough. He knew that this meant that the children needed more aggressive treatment, and that drug “cocktails” were probably called for. But this meant that the children would suffer even more horrible side effects as the cocktails were given to them, and the medical establishment recoiled in horror at such a thought.
But Freireich had learned to persist in the face of adversity, and would not be deterred. Of course, the places in which he worked could have easily fired him for his activities, so a lot of luck was also involved. He had to be surrounded by at least some people who recognized the possibility that he might just be right. Fortunately, that was the case. Today’s cure rate for the type of cancer he fought stands at about 90%.
As Gladwell points out, “Does this mean that Freireich should be glad he had the kind of childhood he had? The answer is plainly no. What he went through as a child was something no child should have to endure…the right question is whether we as a society need people who have emerged from some kind of trauma – and the answer is that we plainly do.”

As an aside, Gladwell also brings up sort of in passing something that I wanted to mention because it puts an additional, very interesting new spin on the problem of some African Americans internalizing the racist, negative attitudes of Whites toward Blacks, so that they end up treating each other just like Whites used to treat them. I discussed this in my post of 8/14/2010 called The N-word

In some cases, apparently African slaves actually pretended to act out White stereotypes - in order to passive-aggressively harm their slaveholders! Gladwell quotes historian Lawrence Lavine about the phenomenon of the "trickster hero": 

"...a significant number of slaves lied, cheated, stole, feigned illness, loafed, pretended to misunderstand the orders they were given, put rocks in the bottom of their cotton baskets in order to meet their quota, broke their tools, burned their master's property, mutilated themselves in order to escape work, took indifferent care of the crops they were cultivating, and mistreated the livestock placed in their care to the extent that masters often felt it necessary to use the less efficient mules rather than horses since the former could better withstand the brutal treatment of the slaves."

So, when African Americans makes themselves look like a parody of a White stereotype, are they doing this on purpose to be a trickster, or subconsciously out of fears - originally concerning retribution - passed down unknowingly from one generation to the next? Actually, any given case could be either one - or even both. That the behavior can be this ambiguous shows the power of what I call the actor's paradox.

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