Why Are We Surprised By Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Sciencey-ness’? That’s What Big Tobacco Apologists Do

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?”

Because Gladwell first burst onto the pundit scene–after receiving training by the smoking lobby-backed National Journalism Center–with a Washington Post op-ed (more here):

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.

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3 Responses to Why Are We Surprised By Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Sciencey-ness’? That’s What Big Tobacco Apologists Do

  1. Robert L Bell says:

    Perhaps I have mentioned this in a recent comment, but I just finished reading Merchants of Doubt by Oreskes & Conway. I recommend it highly to anyone who cares about science and the environment and the future of our nation.

    It documents the sordid story of a cabal of disgruntled scientists who teamed up with the tobacco to lie about and distort the evidence to sow doubt and confusion about the smoking-cancer link. They succeeded to the extent of delaying regulation for three decades.

    The tactics of blatant denial of the facts, coupled with savage attacks on the institutions and practitioners of Science, turned out to be a potent and flexible weapon. These guys have been muddying the water on acid rain, stratospheric ozone, ground level ozone and asthma, DDT, and CFCs. They have been waging a decades long campaign to demonize the EPA, the beating heart of environmental regulation. Today they are of course at the core of the disinformation assault on global warming.

    My favorite anecdote has a delegation of climate scientists informing President Johnson in 1965 that CO2 was causing a rise in the global heat content, but that they probably had fifty years before it would become a problem. Johnson gave the politician’s response of “get back to me in forty nine years.” So now we are at year forty eight, only to find that the organized and well funded liars have duped the rubes into believing that the science is novel and uncertain and that the scientists are not to be trusted.

    Oreskes & Conway make a convincing case that the driving idea is the unregulated free market capitalism is not merely the best way to organize a society but that it is the ONLY to organize a society that does not lead, inevitably and in short order, to the destruction of freedom and liberty and all the values that we hold dear. Consequently, if Science and scientists present evidence that regulation might be a good idea – or even essential – then Science and scientists must be crushed without mercy.

    My extension of this idea is that the cabal is ideologically hostile to the Enlightenment and its ideals. They deliberately set out to make people stupid on a society wide basis, and despite their allegedly conservative beliefs they would be more than happy to see Democracy stamped out.

    So now you tell me that Gladwell is part of the scam. That’s a shame; I never read Tipping Point but Outliers was good clean fun. Now that I know, I will keep my eyes peeled.

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