Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

Gladwell’s game


Christopher Chabris in Slate Magazine expands on his criticism of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book and his frustrations with Gladwell’s popularity. It’s an interesting article, and anyone interested in any of Gladwell’s writing should find Chabris interesting, too.

However, one phrase in the Chabris article for Slate caught the eye, or the ear,

This brings me back to the question of why Gladwell matters so much. Why am I, an academic who is supposed to be keeping his head down and toiling away on inaccessible stuff for others to bring to light for the masses, spending so much time on reading Gladwell’s interviews, reviewing his book, and writing about him? I think that what Malcom Gladwell says matters because, whether academics like it or not, he is incredibly influential.

As Gladwell himself might put it: “We tend to think that people who write popular books don’t have much influence. But we are wrong; their influence may be perverse and often baffling, but it is influence nonetheless.”

Perverse and often baffling? Some phrases just stick out in memory like, “Now is the winter of our discontent” or “Wake me up before you go-go.”

Where did I hear “perverse and often baffling” in connection to Gladwell?

And then it hit me. A few years ago, Ira Glass and This American Life were criticized for airing a bit Gladwell did at The Moth, a stage for telling stories, some of which were embellished. Gladwell’s tale about his days as a writer for the Washington Post was no exception, and Glass was criticized for not putting a proper disclaimer on the show segment.

Gladwell’s tale was interesting, however, and a personal favorite of mine regarding newspapers. From the transcript:

Now, I don’t remember whose idea the contest was, whether it was me or Billy, but we were just so inseparable in those days, it was probably a combination. But what we decided was to introduce the phrase “raises new and troubling questions” to American journalism. And the contest was that we were going to give ourselves a month, and the person who got that phrase into the newspaper the most times over the course of the month would win.

And so I struck first. It was a story on Medicare spending. Medicare had gone up 12% the previous year, which I said raises new and troubling questions about the status of the American health care establishment. Billy comes back the next day, he’d got a piece from one of the physics journals about this sub-atomic particle called the Higgs boson, which was very big in the ’90s. And he said that this recent work on Higgs boson raises new and troubling questions about our understanding of dark matter. And so we’re tied.

The contest continued for a month until Billy Booth scored twice, a “twofer,” and Gladwell lost by a single point. However, Gladwell did not let the game end there.

And I go to Billy and I say, we’re not done. We need to have a championship round. And by the way, raises new and troubling questions was too easy, because everything raises new and troubling questions. So we need to have a much tougher standard this time. I said, what are you thinking? He said, I think we should use the word perverse. And I said, no way. I think we should use the phrase often baffling. So we argue back and forth, and finally we compromise, and we go with perverse and often baffling.

Now, I don’t need to tell you how hard it is to get the phrase perverse and often baffling into a newspaper. You’ve got to find something that is– perverse isn’t good enough. Baffling isn’t good enough. Perverse and baffling isn’t good enough. It must be perverse and often baffling. It must oscillate between the state of bafflement and transparency, while simultaneously remaining perverse.

We killed ourselves on that one. Literally, it was an obsession. We would come in and we would just sweat it out, and we would try and try. Billy did a piece on mollusks once, in which he tried to claim that mollusks represented a perverse and often baffling something. And the copy desk took out often, arguing, I think correctly, that mollusks were either baffling or they weren’t. Mollusks did not oscillate.

I came back with a piece on the anthropology of women’s breasts. I claimed that they represented a perverse and often baffling development in anthropology, and my editor took out perverse and said, this is a family newspaper. You can’t call women’s breasts perverse. And I went to the mat on that one. Finally, the story was killed. It was ugly. Anyway, we’re really broken up about this. We can’t get this damn phrase in the paper, and we’re going out drinking at night. And a lot of my old doubts about journalism are starting to come back. And I’m saying, do I really want to be part of a profession that has no room for the perverse and the often baffling?

And then one day, I’m having this conversation with a gastroentrologist. And he tells me that, did I know that there were more gastroentrologists per capita in Washington DC than any other city in the country? And I said, I did not know that. But then I said, I thought that doctor’s fees were higher in Washington DC than anywhere else in the country? And he goes, yeah. Light bulb goes on above my head, because the law of supply and demand says, the greater the supply, the lower the price should be. But here we have a case where we’ve got a very large supply of gastroentrologists, but the price of gastroentrologists is going up. That is a perverse phenomenon, and until I explain it to you, it’s baffling.

I raced back to the office, whipping into my desk, make a couple of phone calls, and I bang it out. And you can look it up, right on the front page, September 21, 1992, “Washington DC has more gastroentrologists per capita than any other city in the country. But in a reflection of the perverse and often baffling economics of the health care profession, it simultaneously has the highest doctor’s fees in the country.”


Billy is devastated. I am triumphant. All those doubts about journalism melt away, and I say, this thing called newspaper writing, I can do it. One week passes, I get a letter in the mail. Dear sir, with respect to your story on the gastroentrologists of the Washington DC region, the economics of the health care profession are neither perverse nor baffling.

So there you have it. Apparently the game is still on. Gladwell was not only able to sneak “perverse and often baffling” into an interview, it was repeated in the article by Chabris. Despite Chabris’ criticism, Gladwell had to be pleased with the “two-fer” mention, leaving poor Billy devastated once again in Gladwell’s perverse but often baffling game.

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