The only thing is, I’m not sure who’s David here and who is Goliath. From the standpoint of book sales, Gladwell is Goliath for sure. On the other hand, Gladwell’s credibility has been weakened over the years by fights with bigshots such as Steven Pinker. Maybe the best analogy is a boxing match where Gladwell […]
Nick Brown is bothered by this article, “An unscented Kalman filter approach to the estimation of nonlinear dynamical systems models,” by Sy-Miin Chow, Emilio Ferrer, and John Nesselroade. The introduction of the article cites a bunch of articles in serious psych/statistics journals. The question is, are such advanced statistical techniques really needed, or even legitimate, […]
More on those divorce prediction statistics, including a discussion of the innumeracy of (some) mathematicians
A few months ago, I blogged on John Gottman, a psychologist whose headline-grabbing research on marriages (he got himself featured in Blink with a claim that he could predict with 83 percent accuracy whether a couple would be divorced–after meeting with them for 15 minutes!) was recently debunked in a book by Laurie Abraham.
The question I raised was: how could someone who was evidently so intelligent and accomplished–Gottman, that is–get things so wrong? My brief conclusion was that once you have some success, I guess there’s not much of a motivation to change your ways. Also, I could well believe that, for all its flaws, Gottman’s work is better than much of the other research out there on marriages. There’s still the question of how this stuff gets published in scientific journals. I haven’t looked at Gottman’s articles in detail and so don’t really have thoughts on that one.
Anyway, I recently corresponded with a mathematician who had heard of Gottman’s research and wrote that he was surprised by what Abraham had found:
After hearing a few times about the divorce predictions of researchers John Gottman and James Murray (work that was featured in Blink with a claim that they could predict with 83 percent accuracy whether a couple would be divorced–after meeting with them for 15 minutes) and feeling some skepticism, I decided to do the Lord’s […]
A couple weeks ago I blogged on John Gottman, a psychologist whose headline-grabbing research on marriages (he got himself featured in Blink with a claim that he could predict with 83 percent accuracy whether a couple would be divorced–after meeting with them for 15 minutes!) was recently debunked in a book by Laurie Abraham. Discussion on the blog revealed that Laurie Abraham had tried to contact Gottman but he had not replied to the request for an interview.
After this, Seth wrote to me:
Shooting down B.S. claims about divorce predictions, part 2 (Somewhere, Karl Popper is smiling ruefully)
Last year, we heard about “maths expert” and Oxford University prof who could predict divorces “with 94 per cent accuracy. . . His calculations were based on 15-minute conversations between couples.”
At the time, I expressed some skepticism because, amid all the news reports, I couldn’t find any description of exactly what they did. Also, as a statistician, I have some sense of the limitations of so-called “mathematical models” (or, worse, “computer models”).
Then today I ran across this article from Laurie Abraham shooting down this research in more details, so I’d share it with you.
First, she reviews the hype:
He and his colleagues at the University of Washington had videotaped newlywed couples discussing a contentious topic for 15 minutes to measure precisely how they fought over it: Did they criticize? Were they defensive? Did either spouse curl his or her lip in contempt? Then, three to six years later, Gottman’s team checked on the same couples’ marital status and announced that based on the coding of the tapes, they could predict with 83 percent accuracy which ones were divorced. . . .
“He’s gotten so good at thin-slicing marriages,” Malcolm Gladwell enthused in Blink, “that he says he can be at a restaurant and eavesdrop on the couple one table over and get a pretty good sense of whether they need to start thinking about hiring lawyers and dividing up custody of the children.”
In a 2007 survey asking psychotherapists to elect the 10 most influential members of their profession over the last quarter-century, Gottman was only one of four who made the cut who wasn’t deceased.
Then the good news:
Carrie McLaren of Stay Free magazine had a self-described “rant” about Blink, the new book by science writer Malcolm Gladwell. I’ll give Carrie’s comments below, but my interest here isn’t so much in Gladwell’s book (which seems really cool) or Carrie’s specific comments (which are very thought-provoking, and she also points to this clarifying discussion by Gladwell and James Surowecki in Slate magazine).
Political ideology and attitudes toward technology
Right now, though, I’m more interested in what these exchanges reveal about the intersections of political ideology and attitudes toward technology. Historically, I think of technology as being on the side of liberals or leftists (as compared with conservatives who would want to stick with the old ways). Technology = “the Enlightenment” = leftism, desire for change, etc. Even into the 20th century, I’d see this connection, with big Soviet steel factories and New Deal dams. But then, in the 1960s and 1970s?, it seems to me there was a flip, in which technology is associated with atomic bombs, nuclear power, and other things that are more popular on the right than on the left. The environmentalist left has been more skepical about technological solutions. In another area of scientific debate, right-leaning scientists have embraced sociobiology and related ideas of bringing genetics into social policy.
But…perhaps recently things have switched back? In battles over the teaching of evolution, it is the liberals who are defending the scientific method and conservatives who are holding back, wanting to respect local culture rather than scientific universals. Similarly with carbon dioxide and climate change.
But, again, I’m not trying here to argue the merits of any of these issues but rather to ask whether it is almost a visceral thing, at any point in time, with one’s political allegiances being associated with a view of science.
Is Gladwell’s argument inherently anti-rational? Is anti-rationality conservative?
This is what I saw in Carrie’s posting on Gladwell. She was irritated by his use of scientific studies to support a sort of irrationalism–a favoring of quick judgments instead of more reasoned analyses. From this perspective, Gladwell’s apparent advocacy of unconscious decisions is a form of conservatism. (His position seems more nuanced to me, at least as evidenced in the Slate interview–where he suggests sending police out individually instead of in pairs so they won’t be emboldened to overreact–but perhaps Carrie’s take on it is correct in the sense that she is addressing the larger message of the book as it is perceived by the general public, rather than any specific attitudes of Gladwell.)
Rationality and ideology
As a larger issue, in the social sciences of recent decades, I think of belief in rationality and “rational choice modeling” as conservative, both in the sense that many of the researchers in this area are politically conservative and in the sense that rationality is somehow associated with “cold-hearted” or conservative attitudes on cost-benefit analyses. But at the same time, quantitative empirical work has been associated with left-leaning views–think of Brown v. Board of Education, or studies of income and health disparities. There’s a tension here, because in the social sciences, the people who can understand the technical details of empirical statistical work are the ones who can understand rational choice modeling (and vice versa). So I see all this stuff and keep getting bounced back and forth.
(I’m sure lots has been written about this–these ideas are related to a lot of stuff that Albert Hirschman has written on–and I’d appreciate relevant references, of course. Especially to empirical studies on the topic.)