Thursday, August 31, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell Should Know Better

Malcolm Gladwell, the author of best-sellers The Tipping Point and Blink, has an piece in the most recent New Yorker entitled No Mercy. The essay is an argument against "zero-tolerance" policies, and makes the point that Robert Oppenheimer, he of the Manhattan Project, was nearly kicked out of Cambridge University for trying to poison his tutor with a chemical-laced apple (note to my students: I don't eat apples). Gladwell notes that if Cambridge had had zero-tolerance policies, Oppenheimer might have been expelled rather than being placed on probation, and the entire course of human history may have been changed.

Maybe this argument is persuasive to you. It shouldn't be. It illustrates the need for theory and analysis behind policy debates, a theme which has been heavily discussed in some of my earlier posts.

Gladwell's problem here is making an argument based on an idiosyncratic, unique, personal example. OK, so it would have been horrible if Oppenheimer would have been expelled from Cambridge. But, surely it's possible to point to numerous examples of people given second chances who shouldn't have been. Criminals out on parole who steal or murder. People with one DUI conviction who get off with a slap on the wrist, drive and drive, and kill someone. And so on. Gladwell has chosen an extreme example...better to make his point. But it's still one example, which can be countered by other examples.

Arguments can only be sustained when supported by theory and analysis. Trying to make policy arguments based on anecdotes is doomed to fail, because the other side likely has just as many anecdotes that support their position. Malcolm Gladwell should know better.

1 comment:

omar said...

i think you generalized gladwell's article. his main point is:

"we forgot the value of discretion in disciplining the young"

and i think it is a valid point.