Is Malcolm Gladwell a brilliant thinker and storyteller—or a pollyanna who blithely overhypes his subjects? To fans of the author and New Yorker staff writer, Gladwell is the perfect mix of entertainer and educator, always turning them on to some cool new scientific development. But to a handful of critics, he is a promoter of curious causes with a deceptively one-sided narrative style. One New York editor recently called Gladwell an “intellectual tap dancer”—that is, a writer whose elite audience is so hypnotized by his performance that they don’t notice the details he is leaving out.
Gladwell’s most dangerous endorsement so far came in 1997, when he wrote a New Yorker article telling women they had nothing to fear about hormone replacement therapy. No one questioned him until this past July, when the U.S. government announced that the commonly prescribed combination of estrogen and progestin carries a slight but unacceptable risk of breast cancer, among other things—and Gladwell admitted to Slate‘s Mickey Kaus that he had been “wrong.”
Soon after that admission, Gladwell returned to the spotlight with an article in the August 5 issue of The New Yorker (cover line: “You’re Lying!”). In it, he reported that the science of face-reading, along with other kinds of behavioral analysis, had become a popular tool for law enforcement post-9-11.
The article focused on psychology professor Paul Ekman, whose Facial Action Coding System, or FACS, catalogs muscle movements and correlates them to emotions. Gladwell noted that Ekman is now helping the FBI and CIA with “counter-terrorism training.” But it took The Wall Street Journal to report that the Defense Department recently gave Ekman a contract to analyze videotapes of 250 convicted criminals and their accomplices, including some involved in terrorism. The goal: to identify expressions of disdain. The feds’ FACS embrace could be seen as a major psychological advance—or a flimsy excuse for rounding up suspects.
Upon reading the piece, science historian Julian Bleecker fired off a letter to The New Yorker, in which he argued that face-reading could become the latest blip in the “pernicious and racist” history of attempts to classify people according to physical data. He likened it to three failed experiments in the past: phrenology, the identification and gassing of Jews in Nazi Germany, and racial profiling in the U.S. A heavily edited version of the letter appeared in the magazine’s September 2 issue.
Gladwell is a “remarkable writer,” said Bleecker last week. “After the article was published, everyone I talked to said, ‘It’s a great article. It’s really fascinating.’ ” But Bleecker was disturbed to learn that many of his friends bought Gladwell’s claim that facial expressions are genetically determined. Accepting that, Bleecker said, is “like saying every time you see a guy walking down the street with baggy pants and his cap on backwards, he’s guilty. It’s not starting down the slippery slope toward fascism and racism. It is the slippery slope.”
Who is this guy and what’s his motive? Bleecker, a candidate for a Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Cruz, is writing a dissertation on the culture of science and technology. A New Yorker subscriber, he admired a recent article by Michael Specter questioning the reliability of fingerprints. But he said, “I am acutely aware of the ways science and technology play the race card and how to detect that sort of thing.”
Gladwell’s article fails to address a key question: whether facial expressions are likely to be admitted in court. Bleecker shudders at the thought. But Julie Aimen, the former co-chair of the forensics evidence committee of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says not to worry, because a methodology like FACS must be generally accepted in the scientific community before it can be admissible. “They could use that in an interrogation,” Aimen said, “but would they be able to get on a witness stand and say the upper facial muscle is twitching and that means he’s lying? I think it’s really subjective.”
Gladwell began and ended his story with anecdotes implying that cops’ observations of physical behavior are highly reliable. In these anecdotes, officers made snap judgments about whether or not to shoot suspicious-looking men on the street, and in both cases, their decisions turned out to be “right.” But, as Bleecker points out, the piece is misleading because it offers no examples of a bad hunch, like the one that led to the shooting death of Amadou Diallo. Betty Layne DesPortes, a fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, says the courts and scientific community would look for statistical studies to establish the accuracy of such a method.
Teaching police to read faces is arguably the latest example of what Gladwell touted in his book The Tipping Point as a “Band-Aid solution,” that is, a cheap, quick approach to the problems of controlling mass populations. Writing in The New Yorker, Gladwell has popularized the quick fix, often portraying inventors as heroes and trumpeting statistics that validate the fix. Over the years, he has given his stamp of approval to Ritalin, to hormone replacement therapy, and, most curiously, to a crusader who loved DDT.
Gladwell’s writing suggests that if a product benefits the majority, any damage to individuals is insignificant. Thus, in 1997, Gladwell wrote that breast surgeon Dr. Susan Love “consistently overstates the risks and understates the benefits” of estrogen. In 1999, he called Ritalin “a remarkably safe” and “not addictive” drug, and wrote that “there is little or no reason to believe that breast implants cause disease of any kind.” In a 2001 profile of Fred Soper, who promoted widespread DDT spraying to fight malaria, Gladwell defended Soper’s absolutism, writing, “He was a fascist—a disease fascist—because he believed a malaria warrior had to be.”
So what role does Gladwell’s authority play in the age of terrorism? At a time when Americans want to detect terrorists “with a wave of the wand,” Bleecker says, Gladwell delivers “a comforting bedtime story.” Gladwell professes not to see any shortcomings to FACS, but Bleecker says, “His writing style is so smooth that it’s easy to be led toward the most dangerous aspects of law-and-order politics without being aware of it. Of course, it would be easier to put people in categories, round them up, and put them in Guantánamo Bay. That silky smoothness makes you want it and not want to know the price you’re going to pay for it.”
One sign of Gladwell’s validation power: a mini-profile of Ekman appeared in the September 8 New York Times.
Via e-mail, Gladwell wrote that Ekman is “strongly opposed to the use of FACS in actual court cases,” and that, indeed, FACS can never be used in court. “It doesn’t tell you someone is lying. It is only emotional information.” Rather than increasing “tragic” incidents like the Diallo shooting, he wrote, FACS should help police conduct more sensitive interrogations. Thus, “I’m not sure I agree . . . that Ekman’s work belongs to a fascist or racist tradition. It sounds like the opposite to me.”
Reached at press time, Ekman wrote that “the whole issue [of racial bias] is a bit bizarre, since no one in police work using my findings classifies people by facial expression.”