Whenever I link to a post about Malcolm Gladwell, I often remark that he “is a horrible person.” But there’s a reason why–we’ll get to that in a bit.
With Gladwell releasing a new book (it really is a product), there has been a lot of criticism of Gladwell’s interesting relationship with data. Suffice it to say, that relationship is a wee bit strained. Worse, Gladwell really doesn’t seem to care. KSJ asked, “Should we stop believing Malcolm Gladwell?”
My question is, “Why did you ever start?”
In 1990, a Gladwell article in the Washington Post warned that laws banning cigarettes could “put a serious strain on the nation’s Social Security and Medicare programs.” For evidence, Gladwell cited an old “study” churned out by a thinktank with known connections to Big Tobacco.
Then in The Tipping Point, he again defended Big Tobacco:
In his book The Tipping Point, Gladwell blamed children for getting themselves addicted to tobacco and absolved tobacco industry advertising campaigns of guilt. However, confidential Philip Morris documents bragged, “Marlboro’s phenomenal growth rate in the past has been attributable in large part to our high market penetration among young smokers . . . 15 to 19 years old.”
That’s right, he blamed children for addiction (more here). It’s worth noting that the average age in the 1990s at which kids began to smoke was twelve. That’s pretty low. Seems to pay rather well though.
And Phillip Morris, the tobacco company, loves him:
A confidential Philip Morris document from the mid-1990s named Malcolm Gladwell as one of the tobacco industry’s top covert media assets. This roster of “Third Party Advocates” was a who’s who list of known corporate shills, including Bush press secretary/Fox News anchor Tony Snow, Grover Norquist, Milton Friedman and Ed Feulner, head of the Heritage Foundation. In journalism terms, a “Third Party Advocate” means “fraud.”
Gladwell is a shill for the lung cancer industry. They trained him, they have paid him through the speaking bureau circuit. It is how he first burst onto the pundit scene.
So why should anyone be the least bit surprised when he ignores studies that contradict the story he wants to tell? It’s what he does. It’s how he made his way in the world.
There are a lot of good, ethical science reporters. Of them I ask: stop treating him as one of your own. You’re far better than he is.
An aside: I don’t think a tobacco apologist fits the bill as ‘science communicator’:
Our Great Communicator should have higher ethical standards. He should not blame twelve year-olds for their drug addiction, especially when those kids have been subject to a massive marketing campaign.