Malcolm Gladwell the Empiricist Mansplainer

A good old friend and I hit a bit of a mudpit this weekend and I’ve been sitting soaking in it for a few days.  He sent me a link to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Is Marijuana as Safe as We Think?”and wanted to talk about it. The article had been circulating in the clinic at Pacific College, where his wife is studying acupuncture and my wife did her graduate work. The students and some of the faculty were incensed by Gladwell’s argument that marijuana might not be as medically useful as we make it out to be. My boy couldn’t quite figure out why that was so offensive. I mean, usually acupuncturists aren’t that into the idea of medical, so their distaste for the too-cool Gladwell was a bit surprising. Something else was happening.

Then I realized that when I looked at Gladwell’s article, all I saw was a guy saying Nobody knows anything until empiricism tells them what they can know. And that made me think that the annoying thing about the piece (and a growing mass of public research writing) is that it wasn’t really about weed at all. The argument Gladwell is making seems to be that we should all hold off on our own observations and conclusions until authorized scientific knowledge-makers weigh in.

He tips his hand early on, when he reviews the 2017 National Academies of Health and Medicine report on the current state of research knowledge about cannabinoids. In a series of terse dismissals, he corrects the “widely supposed” benefits of pot. He insists that we just don’t know if it helps with nausea, ALS, Parkinsons, or epilepsy. Those who think it has been helping with their glaucoma for 10 years are probably wrong, Gladwell explains.

So I guess it doesn’t really matter that people have been feeling relief from these disorders. That doesn’t count as data for Gladwell unless these effects are measured by outside observers as part of randomized trials and then communicated in simple sound bites to the public. So my father-in-law’s church friend whose Parkinson’s was visibly affected by marijuana was just fooling herself. The legion of old folks who got glaucoma relief aren’t authorities on their own bodies enough to know if it was pot or their own misguided love of a placebo effect.

And that’s probably why public scholarship – and maybe a lot of sci comm more broadly – rubs folks the wrong way. Clear-cut experiences are shoved off as insufficient ways to know about something. This is probably especially irritating for folks when the study-backed methods of Gladwell-approved medicine had failed so many of them so miserably for so long before weed came along as an alternative option.

I suspect that this is the real reason that the acupuncture med students were so annoyed with Gladwell’s piece. The same kind of argument is made about the treatments practiced in a rapidly-growing number of acupuncture and herbal medicine clinics across America. You can do an easy one-to-one substitution.

Acupuncture is providing relief from chemo side effects? No way. There’s no placebo trial. So it isn’t happening.

But, doc, I feel a lot better than I did before the acupuncture.

That doesn’t mean a thing. 

It probably does to the chemo patient though. Or the addict. Or the person with fibromyalgia who trusted in Gladwell-approved medical institutions for years, but finally got fed up, looked elsewhere, and got the relief they needed.

When writers like Gladwell get to humping empiricism like this, it’s limiting the range of how we can know things. Maybe he believes that’s the only knowledge can be trusted. That’s cool. But there’re a lot of people out there with contradictory evidence. And just telling them that that evidence doesn’t count – that we just need to listen to the smart guys – is a crude way of thinking about knowledge.

2 thoughts on “Malcolm Gladwell the Empiricist Mansplainer”

  1. We teach students to value quantitative over quantitative. It’s a legit skill that we enforce in institutions across education. I like to teach it that way and I benefit in the most myopic way from doing so. Numbers confirm that I have all the benefits from my position of being an educated professional while also enjoying white cis privledge. What’s not to love about numbers if they reinforce your world view? So Gladwell is in a similar position. If you had to rely on qualitative data, it would just be the constant feeling that we are fucking it all up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gladwell’s a social science guy though – he’d see a lot of qualitative research as empirical too, just as long as it’s institutionally-authorized qualitative research. That’s my real beef, right? He doesn’t call for pure test tube science to prove things. I’m sure he’d be open to a range of study types. It just has to be legitimate knowledge producers who make the observations and claims.


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