Tell me a story

Malcolm Gladwell is as successful as any non-fiction writer could hope to be. The Tipping Point was the surprise #1 best-seller for months in 2000. Several stories therein have become part of our American vernacular.

Problem is, it all appears to be wrong. And no one seems to care.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Gladwell too. His books are entertaining and they make you think. Being a staff writer for the New Yorker places you in the most elite class of writer. And deservedly so — if you don’t believe me, read this or listen to this.  Brilliant.

But then there’s that little problem of him being wrong, a lot.

I first noticed the problem when I read Freakanomics. It’s another great book on sociology, written by a science-minded economist (Steven Levitt) and a science-minded journalist (Stephen Dubner) and therefore had nice stories and backed it up with convincing data.

On the cover of my copy of Freakanomics is this endorsement: “Prepare to be dazzled.” By guess who? Malcolm Gladwell! Terrific, except the main argument of Freakanomics specifically disproves the prime theory of the Tipping Point. Here’s how:

Gladwell defines the “Tipping Point” as the critical point where a system can go one way or another. It’s where a trend can either take off on a rampage or fizzle out before it gets off the ground. It’s where a few small changes can snowball into big effects.

As one example, Gladwell explains the Broken Windows theory that (he claimed) was responsible for fixing the rampant crime problem in New York City in the early 1990’s. The idea was to fix little, easy things and the big things will follow (because the Tipping Point will be crossed). So they cracked down on squeegee guys, they cleaned up Times Square, and they put pictures of real windows over broken windows in burnt-out crackhouses so they didn’t look dilapidated.

And the crime went down, quickly and decisively. Awesome, right?

Well, science-minded folks are quick to point out that correlations don’t imply causal relationships. Just because you did X and Y happened afterward doesn’t mean X necessarily caused Y.

This is just the point of Freakanomics. In its most lengthy and controversial chapter, Steven Levitt points out that crime went down everywhere in America, not just New York. And at the same time. And that various cities and states were trying various methods of crime reduction from more policemen to curfews to after-school programs to Broken Window strategies, but crime went down the same way, everywhere, regardless. This would seem to imply that none of these factors was the primary factor.

There’s only one factor that was common across the entire country: That in 1991 the population of people at highest risk for crime immediately diminished, and that’s because in 1973 Roe vs. Wade was passed. In 1973 it suddenly became inexpensive and safe to have abortions, and millions of babies that would otherwise be unwanted and often unsupportable were not born, and did not turn 18 in 1991.

(It’s even more compelling than this quick overview. For example, some states legalized abortion earlier than others, and each state saw the decrease in crime 18 years after that state legalized it.)

So back to the main point: That Freakanomics disproves the theory of the Tipping Point, and Gladwell still endorsed the book, and no one seems to care.

Well not no one. Duncan Watts has made a career in network theory, and specifically in debunking the entire “Tipping Point of trends” theory. From a great article in Fast Company:

“It sort of sounds cool,” Watts says, tucking into his salad. “But it’s wonderfully persuasive only for as long as you don’t think about it.”

I defer to that article for the fun details, but Watts takes each of the studies Gladwell told and points out how it was either misunderstood or misapplied.

When confronted with evidence like those from Levitt and Watts, Gladwell doesn’t even attempt to defend himself:

Duncan Watts is exceedingly clever, and I’ve learned a great deal from his research. In the end, though, I suppose that I feel the same ways about his insights as I do about Steve Levitt’s disagreements with me over the causes of the decline in violent crime in the 1990s. I think that all books like The Tipping Point or articles by academics can ever do is uncover a little piece of the bigger picture, and one day–when we put all those pieces together–maybe we’ll have a shot at the truth.

But if you’ve read Tipping Point, you get the feeling you’re being convinced of a theory, not getting a “piece of the bigger picture.” To me this is a cop-out, too embarrassing to just say, “Yeah, it’s wrong, but at least it had a lot of great stories.”

It’s this last point that I think saves Gladwell in the end. He is a master storyteller. After being beguiled with interesting, provocative stories, the reader is happy to receive Gladwell’s unproven, non-sequitur conclusions.

The stories are so good, they’re worth reading anyway. I know I do — I read Blink cover to cover, the whole while shouting at its illogical conclusions and meandering, self-inconsistent theories, but loving every page and not wanting it to end.

So it’s just another way to reinforce Seth’s admonishment that marketing should be defined as telling a good story. Sometimes everything else is a second-order effect.

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  • http://kevinholesh.com Kevin Holesh

    I agree that both Freakanomics and the Tipping Point (and Blink for that matter) were entertaining books. However, as I recently learned, Freakanomics is not always completely accurate either.

    Take your example about the legalization of abortion decreasing the crime rate. That theory completely makes sense from a common sense perspective, but what the authors of Freakanomics failed to do was look at the empirical evidence. The legalization of abortion actually increased the rate of unprotected premarital sex because, without the concern of having a child, the social pressure on woman to have premarital sex increased. This actually lead to an increase in out-of-wedlock births (From 5% in 1965 to over 16% in 1985). According to Levitt and Dubner’s theory, this would have increased the crime rate because more children were being born into unstable homes.

    The decrease in crime was actually mostly attributed to other factors such as the death penalty. This is proven by the example of Canada. The Canadian government didn’t legalize abortion until 1988, yet experienced much the same decline in crime starting in 1991 that the United States did.

    All of those examples were from the book Freedonnomics. I definitely recommend reading it because it will make you think twice about all the information presented in Freakanomics. Despite these inaccuracies, both of them are still on my list of favorite books.

    Also, I just discovered your site today and immediately subscribed after reading this article. I’m looking forward to seeing more great insightful articles from you.

  • Jason

    @Kevin

    You make excellent points; thanks for posting them for others to consider. I think you’ll find the comments here are just as (if not more) interesting than my posts — a fact that you’ve just proved yourself. :-)

    Thanks for contributing, and welcome to this community! I look forward to more input from you on other posts.

  • eastbayj

    The two books are not contradictory. The abortion law was passed in 1973… but when was the tipping point where crime fell off? They’re more complementary than anything.

  • Niels

    Kevin,

    I won’t argue that "out-of-wedlock births" increased between 65 and 85 but I can agree with neither of your implied conclusions. Namely that (a) this increase was due to Roe v Wade and (b) it means an increase in children born into unstable homes.

    Roe v Wade happened in 73, almost smack in the middle of the 20 years period you quoted. Try to think back at that time. The 60s, the 70s, the 80s. How much changed in all those years other than Roe v Wade?

    Unless you could present specific data pointing out a direct correlation between RvW and out-of-wedlock births, I would rather conclude that simply less people married. In fact I say that instead of more couples feeling pressured into having sex before marriage due to the possibility of getting an abortion, less couples felt pressured to marry.

    Arguably, many couples marry upon deciding to have a child or shortly after they find out they will have one. So the less stigmatic it becomes to have a child and yet remain unmarried, the less likely it is for such a couple to marry.

    Secondly, I strongly disagree with your apparent assumption that "out-of-wedlock births" are equal to "children [...] being born into unstable homes". I won’t even say any more about this because I find it to quite obviously be just plain wrong.

    Maybe you have relevant data to disprove me though?

    Best,
    Niels

  • http://kevinholesh.com Kevin

    Niels,

    You make good points and I agree with you that RvW was not the only thing changing between 1965 and 1985. I can’t attest for that personally because I was born in 1989, but I can imagine how that would be true. It’s amazing how much has changed in the twenty years I’ve been around.

    John Lott, the author of Freedomnomics, found that RvW does have a direct correlation with an increase in out-of-wedlock births.

    I was incorrect in stating that out-of-wedlock births are equal to children being born in unstable homes. I made an baseless assumption. In the same article, Lott found that legalizing abortion does increase murder rates by 7%.

    Overall, I believe that in both books, the author is basing too much of their conclusions on one theory and one set of dependent data. As you said, there were probably hundreds, if not thousands, of variables in that time period, all of which could have had an impact on the out-of-wedlock births and decrease in crime.

    I’m glad we can have a civil discussion about this,
    ~Kevin

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