Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell, Memes and Intellectual Honesty

I recently read Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” As with Gladwell’s previous books, I found the book to be full of interesting tidbits, but lacking a coherent thesis. The book was sufficiently mediocre that I decided against reviewing the book. This is not a review. This is a discussion of Malcolm Gladwell’s lack of intellectual rigor.

Gladwell’s primary thesis is that ideas or behavior can, under the right circumstances, spread like an epidemic. What precisely this means is not clear. However, there is another, serious problem with this book, a glaring omission. People sometimes talk about something being “blindingly obvious.” In this case, the omission is so obvious that it is more akin to staring at the sun at high noon. This omission can be summarized by a single word that appears nowhere in the text: Meme.

In his 1976 book, “The Selfish Gene,” Richard Dawkins, coined the term “meme” to mean, in essence, a unit of cultural transmission that reproduces and is selected for, akin to how genes are selected for by natural selection. Since 1976, “meme” has been used more loosely to mean an idea or behavior that spreads in a viral fashion. The idea of a meme is similar, if not identical, to what Gladwell discusses. Despite that, the word “meme” never appears once in Gladwell’s book. Nor is Dawkins mentioned or referenced once in the text.

Gladwell’s book was first published in 2000, many years after Dawkins’s coinage. This is not a case of two minds independently and simultaneously arriving at the same idea, like Leibniz and Newton. This is one mind, presenting an idea and then another mind publishing a similar idea while failing to acknowledge prior work. By academic standards, this is completely unacceptable.

One might think that, possibly, Gladwell’s research was sloppy, and so he never learned about Dawkins’s term “meme.” However, I read Gladwell’s book on Kindle, which includes many updates since the original book was published. It is implausible that, in the last nine years, Gladwell has never heard the term “meme.” And yet, he felt no need to add even a footnote or a sentence about Dawkins’s important prior work.
Most damningly: Gladwell does mention the word “meme” in passing on his website in the FAQ about the book:
5. Are you talking about the idea of memes, that has become so popular in academic circles recently?
It's very similar. A meme is a idea that behaves like a virus--that moves through a population, taking hold in each person it infects. I must say, though, that I don't much like that term. The thing that bothers me about the discussion of memes is that no one ever tries to define exactly what they are, and what makes a meme so contagious. I mean, you can put a virus under a microscope and point to all the genes on its surface that are responsible for making it so dangerous. So what happens when you look at an infectious idea under a microscope? I have a chapter where I try to do that. I use the example of children's television shows like Sesame Street and the new Nickelodeon program called Blues Clues. Both those are examples of shows that started learning epidemics in preschoolers, that turned kids onto reading and "infected" them with literacy. We sometimes think of Sesame Street as purely the result of the creative genius of people like Jim Henson and Frank Oz. But the truth is that it is carefully and painstaking engineered, down to the smallest details.

So an idea “very similar” to his doesn’t deserve a single mention in the entire book. Furthermore, the claim that the idea of a meme isn’t well-defined is simply false, as one can see from actually reading “The Selfish Gene.” Gladwell’s claim that individual memes have not been examined in detail is also false. Indeed, there was a Journal of Memetics for almost a decade that examined memes in detail. And if one accepts Dawkins notion that religion is inherently memetic, then all of religious studies is essentially an examination of memes. Some modern scholars have specifically examined religion in that context. In fact, Gladwell himself examines the rise of Methodism in the United States as an example.

Gladwell comes across as a child trying to explain why his hand was in the cookie jar. He advances a series of unconvincing, somewhat contradictory explanations, hoping that we will ignore the larger problem. So far as I can tell from Google searching, this strategy has worked; people have noted that Gladwell is talking about memes but no one has called him out for his failure to acknowledge this prior work. This isn’t acceptable. Gladwell’s behavior is intellectually dishonest. His failure to credit Dawkins or others who have thought about these ideas before him does a disservice to those individuals and to honest intellectual discourse. I don’t think Gladwell’s behavior constitutes plagiarism, but it certainly would be punished if it occurred in an academic setting. Failure to cite prior work results in a paper being rejected from any legitimate journal. If a student hands in an assignment that fails to cite prior work, the student receives a bad grade, if not outright failure. Gladwell owes his readers and Richard Dawkins an apology for his failure to acknowledge that Gladwell’s idea recycles Dawkins’s earlier work.


codeandculture said...

believe it or not, there is a social science literature on how ideas spread that is older, more sophisticated, and more extensive than the overrated dilettantism of biologists. gladwell owes no apology to dawkins, just a debt to granovetter, but he candidly acknowledges this.

to put it another way, do you think dawkins himself owes an apology to frank bass or everett rogers?

Joshua said...

Code, that's a set of related but not identical ideas. The analogy of ideas spreading specifically like biological entities (really selected units) is due to Dawkins.

Granovetter, Rogers and others have done quite a bit of work on the spread of ideas but it isn't the same approach at all. The fact is that there has been about thirty years of work at this point focusing on the memetic approach to such ideas.

Note also that of the work you are crediting, much of it occurred about the same time as Dawkins work. For example, Granovetter's paper "Threshold Models of Collective Behavior" is published in 1978, two years after Dawkins's book. They aren't talking about the same thing, but even if they were, they worked at about the same time.

Bass and Rogers work occurred slightly earlier in the late 60s but the sort of models they are using while relevant to the general notion of The Tipping Point, simply aren't strongly connected to the concept of ideas spreading in an epidemic fashion. Their work, while interesting, isn't that related to the notion of a meme.

Exactly which work to emphasize is possibly complicated by the fact that Gladwell's precise thesis is so nebulous. However, we have Gladwell's own descriptor in the FAQ that the idea of a meme is "very similar" to the idea he is discussing.

As to whether "there is a social science literature on how ideas spread that is older, more sophisticated, and more extensive than the overrated dilettantism of biologists" I agree that there is a social science literature that is older. However, the rest of your claim requires much stronger evidence than simple assertion. Broader, more extensively investigated is not at all the same idea as more sophisticated. Indeed, given that many non-biologists (even social scientists) have worked with and discussed the idea of memes, your claim seems not compelling.

Of course it is true that there are other ideas out there that predate Dawkins about how ideas and behavior spread. And it is likely true that a purely memetic approach to such matters is insufficient. Moreover, you can even argue that Gladwell's work synthesizes the various approaches (including the memetic approach) into a whole. However, that becomes all the more reason to see Gladwell needing to credit the notion of a meme.

codeandculture said...


i'm not sure that nobody ever used biological metaphors (eg "epidemic") before Dawkins, but fair enough as to most of what you're saying and i agree that meme theory is similar but not identical to social science diffusion. however i think Gladwell is closer to the social science literature.

as you implied, meme theory tends to focus on the thing that is spreading whereas the social science literature gives more emphasis to the population of agents amongst whom it is spreading. the social science literature does have the notion that some ideas are more prone to spread than others, for reasons having to do with issues like network externalities or intrinsic utility. Gladwell has this with his concept of "stickiness," i.e., some things are better suited for diffusion than others.

however the really distinctive contribution of Dawkins is to say that some innovations act on their hosts in ways that compel the host to actively diffuse the innovation, with the classic example being things like contrasting Mormons and Shakers. for better or worse, this concept is largely missing from both the social science literature and Gladwell. hence the fact that Gladwell doesn't use the most distinctive aspect of Dawkins' conception is more evidence that he's not ripping him off. (i also don't understand why Gladwell would be willing to cite Granovetter but refuse to cite Dawkins if the latter really were an influence).

btw, i think part of the reason that the social science literature emphasizes differences among adopters (hosts) rather than innovations (memes) is methodological, in that limited data sets and event history is better suited for the former. one of my own projects is to build up meta-analysis models that allow us to change the focus to the innovation and ask innovation-level questions like those suggested by Dawkins.

Joshua said...

I think we may be running strongly into the lack of well-definedness in Gladwell's work.

You are right to point out that Gladwell doesn't emphasize ideas influencing their hosts although he does touch on it briefly a few times (both in the section on Sesame Street and the section on Methodism).

I have two hypotheses as to why Gladwell doesn't mention Dawkins or memes explicitly that I didn't include in the blog entry because they were highly speculative. First, since Dawkins is a highly controversial individual, Gladwell may not wanted to have had his work connected to Dawkins (especially since Gladwell talks about the spread of religions the potential for such a connection to come across negatively would really be quite high). Second, since Dawkins initial work where he discusses memes, The Selfish Gene, was a popularization and their have been multiple popularizations about memes since Dawkins, it would make The Tipping Point appear a bit redundant to acknowledge that the fundamental analogy not only had been constructed before but even in had been discussed in a popularization.

I wouldn't have been as likely to assume that something bad happened here were it not for the fact that Gladwell doesn't seem to do a very good job acknowledging other work in other parts of his book. His section on Methodism for example has only a handful of sources whereas there's really quite a bit of literature discussing why Methodism was successful and comparing its growth to other religions. Most glaringly Gladwell doesn't cite any of Rodney Stark's work such as his book with Roger Finke "The Churching of America." Nor does he cite almost any of the many papers that discuss this subject. However this isn't a subject I really know that much about, so I felt less comfortable including any remark about it. My knowledge of sociology of religion is very much as a layperson.

However, taken together this does appear to paint what may be part of a larger pattern of failure to cite prior work whether out of general sloppiness or a desire to appear original or some other problem.

I think you are correct about the difference in social adoptions about hosts and innovations. I would tentatively suggest another reason is that questions and hypotheses about adopters are much easier to define whereas ideas that focus on innovations or memes are much harder to pin down in a precise fashion.

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TG said...

Mr. Gladwell is actually very intellectually consistent. In a previous article, he argued that plagiarism isn't that bad...


For those not inclined to read the whole article, Mr. Gladwell defends plagiarism by arguing that using someone else's work is actually a compliment to them, not a detraction. Of course, he completely misses the point: it's perfectly okay to use someone else's work, as long as you cite it. Mr. Gladwell's sin is not that he relies on other people's work; it's that he finds ideas in books and scholarly journals, then pretends to have taken them, fully formed, out of thin air.

Jonah Dempcy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonah Dempcy said...

Consider whether intellectual property is appropriate in this academic discussion and whether or not an author is in fact required to respect intellectual property to be taken seriously. You would answer yes. I would answer no. Thus our true difference is in whether we respect intellectual property as a concept. To me, the concept holds no weight. It is a poorly-analyzed composite, a confusion of ideas that leads to false problems such as "how can we protect our intellectual property" and so on.

Here are a couple of relevant quotes:

"The autodidact, of course, owes nothing to anyone-- not because he owes everything to himself, but because he owes everything to everyone. How, then, accuse him of plagiarism since he annuls at its root the whole idea of intellectual private property?"

Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen

"You believe you are stealing other people's ideas, but it's because you imagine that the other possesses a knowledge he does not have. Understand instead that ideas belong to no one, and no one can ever think by himself: it thinks, without you."

Jacques Lacan

Joshua said...


Attributing ideas is a distinct issue from intellectual property. Saying "this idea came from X" is very different than notions of intellectual property where something cannot be used or copied by others. Asking for attribution is thus different than copyright or similar notions.

And Gladwell does in other cases correctly attribute ideas- but it seems that in this case he doesn't attribute what is in many ways the largest ideas in question.