Culture / 

16 Jan 2019

No Thanks and Bad Math, Mr. Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell has weighed in on, of all things, cannabis legalization. And people are not impressed.

Not that anyone should really be surprised that Gladwell is a shameless abuser of statistics; he basically said so himself to Michael Lewis back in 2017. But this one is especially egregious, and doesn’t even have an entertaining just-so story attached to it.

This Metafilter thread has some good jabs, with the knockout punch delivered by “Mayor West”, digging into the data to show that Gladwell seems to have cherrypicked his start and end years in order to make Washington State seem like it’s on the road to ruin since legalizing cannabis.

Congratulations, Mr. Gladwell, you’ve learned that favored trick of the desperate undergraduate: how to cherry-pick your data, by conveniently measuring change between a low statistical outlier on one end and a high outlier on the other end.

If you skipped reading Gladwell’s article, the most headline-grabbing part of his fearmongering is an implied relationship between cannabis legalization and an apparent increase in homicides in Washington state, between 2013 and 2017. I say ‘apparent’ increase, because 2013 was a low outlier, with 160 homicides statewide; 2017 was a high outlier, with 266. This makes it seem as if the homicide rate is on a terrible upward trajectory. But if he had looked at 2012 to 2016—the same window width, just shifted back one year—he would instead have seen a decrease, because 2012 had 217 deaths while 2016 had 216.

It could be an example straight out of How to Lie With Statistics, although that book at least has the honest goal of enlightening its readers, not decieving them.

But why would Gladwell bother to pull his trademark statistical shenanigans about cannabis legalization in particular? That’s where things get… weird.

As it turns out, Gladwell seems to have a bit of a history in this department: not anti-cannabis, but carrying water for industries of ill repute generally. Enough so the “SHAME Project” even has a profile of him. (Although the SHAME Project probably shouldn’t be regarded as a totally agenda-free source, it points to primary source materials which can be evaluated on their own merit.) Most of it focuses on Gladwell’s apparent friendliness with tobacco companies in the 90s and early 2000s, but he also seems to have a thing for defending price-gouging pharmaceutical companies and the Credit Crunch-era financial industry.

Cigarettes, overpriced drugs, mortgage-backed securities—it’s looking a bit like a pattern: he sure does love to be on the wrong side of history. Perhaps we should consider that Gladwell has a bit of a thing for defending the indefensible? That, far from being a statistical hitman available to the highest bidder, he’s actually something much more common and far less interesting? Specifically: that he’s just a troll? Nothing, really, but a faux-intellectual shit-stirrer willing to say ridiculous stuff for clicks, enamored with himself as devil’s advocate? Mistaking, in the way that trolls do, having everyone shouting at them for bravery and originality?

I’m not saying that he is, just—in the spirit of his latest work—asking questions.