- Tech Support
- Season 1
- Episode 127
Malcolm Gladwell Answers Research Questions From Twitter
Released on 09/16/2022
I don't care how many tabs you have open,
I care what the tabs are.
If they're 42 porn tabs, you have a problem.
If they're 42 really interesting tabs, go for it.
Go to 50.
I'm Malcolm Gladwell.
As an author and journalist, I do a lot of research,
so today I'm here to answer your questions from Twitter.
This is Research Support.
All right, question number one.
How reliable is Wikipedia really?
Well, it's not bad.
I mean, it's really interesting to compare Wikipedia entries
to their counterpart in an encyclopedia.
So Encyclopedia Britannica, for example,
they would go and find an expert in a field
and have that expert write the entry.
With Wikipedia, you get a mixture of people
who are real experts and people who just wanna participate.
So when I look on my Wikipedia page, for example,
there's a lot of weird stuff on that page
that isn't terribly true.
On the other hand, if you wanna very quickly figure out
what I've written and the things I'm interested in,
my Wikipedia page is pretty good.
Wikipedia is really good if you lower your expectations.
It is a gateway to research,
so use Wikipedia to start your search
and use it for clues about where to go next.
@ARUNGRAYPT asks, How are libraries still going?
Who's going to a library in 2022?
Yours truly goes to libraries.
That's 'cause lots of things are only in a library.
The amount of stuff that you can get on the internet
is a tiny fraction of the sum total
of knowledge in the world.
Tons of books aren't online.
The person who asked this question,
I don't mean to diss them, but I'm about to diss them.
They're clearly uninterested
in anything that happened before, I don't know,
the year 2000 or 2010, which, by the way,
if you're trying to be a smart person in the world,
is a crazy way to live your life.
What the internet is really good at is directed search.
Libraries are great for serendipitous search.
When I'm reading a book that's next to it on the shelf
or 10 books down on the shelf, it catches my eye,
I pick it out, I flip through the index,
I see something that's really useful.
That's library search.
Serendipitous search is how you come up with new ideas.
The other great thing about libraries is librarians.
A library has an actual set of experts
who are there to help you out.
Whereas, you know, who's helping you
when you're messing around on Google at 2:00 AM?
@Nellie_101 asks, Is it me?
Or did McDonald's fries taste better as kids?
Nellie, it's not you.
They absolutely did.
We did a podcast episode on this in Revisionist History
all about how McDonald's changed the formula,
the recipe for their fries in the 1980s
in response to this totally bogus bit of research
that suggested that the cooking oil they were using
was somehow bad for your heart.
As it turns out, it's not bad for your heart,
but they moved away from,
they used to use a kind of a beef tallow, it was beef fat,
and they moved to vegetable oil.
And actually, the research suggests
that vegetable oil is worse for you.
Not only do fries taste worse cooked in vegetable oil
than the old way, but the fry itself
is now probably worse for your heart than the old fry was.
@johnallpress52 says, Is the 10,000 hour rule
real or make believe?
Well, now he's referring to an idea
I wrote about in my book Outliers.
In looking at research in cognitively complex fields,
what we find overwhelmingly
is that people need about 10,000 hours to practice
before they become experts.
10,000 hours is, you know, it's roughly 10 years.
So it takes 10 years to be good at something
is basically what the rule says, if the thing is hard.
Chess players, it's very, very hard to find someone
who can reach the level of a grand master
who hasn't been playing chess for 10 years.
Very hard to find someone who could be an elite point guard
in the NBA who hasn't been playing point guard for 10 years.
I mean, this is famously a problem
in the NBA in evaluating rookies.
You draft someone to play point guard
and you say, Oh, they're a disappointment.
And the reason is it's too early,
'cause that's the most demanding position
on the court in basketball.
It's not make believe, this is a real rule.
And the research suggests that a good average
for how long you need to spend on that
is about 10,000 hours.
@akidnamedsig asks, The word research
has become so watered down.
Like, do you really think a five second Google search
of the topic or point you're trying to make
and clicking the first three results
that pop up is research?
Couldn't agree with you more.
When you're looking for a definitive, factual answer,
Google's really good.
But when you get into more complicated questions,
you need to do a little more research.
I think it's useful to be a little bit skeptical
about the information you get on the internet.
And I think the reason we don't do that all the time
is that being skeptical is exhausting.
Checking is also slightly problematic
because the question is, well, how do you check it?
The thing you're using to check the original fact
is itself a trustworthy source.
writingtoriches asks, What is the biggest predictor
If you only choose one factor,
social skills, IQ, et cetera.
Biggest predictor of success
is probably having a rich parent.
I tried to answer this question in my book Outliers
and my answer is it's impossible to boil it down
to one thing.
What we do know is that your IQ is probably a smaller,
plays a smaller role than you think.
And your own efforts play a smaller role than you think.
It's probably more to do with luck and good fortune
and having people around you help you.
Those are probably the things
that make the biggest difference.
@rosshowalter asks, How do nonfiction writers
know when to stop working on a piece?
You never really know.
You know when to stop when they take it away from you.
I actually think that's the wrong question.
The right question is most people, I think,
work too little on their pieces.
All the serious writers I know
do way, way, way, way, way more drafts
and work much longer on their writing than other people.
If you think you should stop working on it,
you probably need to do another draft.
@johnpicciuto asks, Why do smart people do dumb things?
My podcast came up with a hypothesis,
at least in the case of Wilt Chamberlain
and many of his friends.
He didn't shoot free throws underhanded.
He did for one season, and in that one season,
he was suddenly a fantastic free-throw shooter.
And then he went back to shooting free throws the old way,
reverted to being a terrible free-throw shooter,
and by the way, it was the only flaw
in Wilt Chamberlain's game.
Had he been able to shoot free throws well,
he would've been hands down the greatest basketball player
of all time.
And Wilt said he didn't wanna look like an idiot.
People would rather not look like an idiot
than become the greatest basketball player of all time.
Why do smart people do dumb things?
'Cause they don't wanna look like an idiot.
@AlxceTeachesEng asks, What is bad science exactly?
Oh man, there's many different definitions of bad science,
but science committed by people
who think they know the answer before they start.
There's a guy named John Lott
who writes about guns and crime
and he's the only person who claims
that the more guns you have, the less crime you have.
But then you realize that John Lott
is like ideologically committed
to the Second Amendment, to gun rights,
and you really have to ask yourself,
Is his research honest?
The gold standard for figuring out
whether something's good or bad is can it be replicated.
So if I do a study that says the experience
of New York City over the last 25 years
and I draw the conclusion that more guns equals less crime,
can someone else take a look at that same database
and reach the same conclusion?
@HonestlyAtheist, How do you attempt
to overcome confirmation bias?
Confirmation bias is,
it's one of the biggest mistakes that people make
when it comes to interpreting data.
A good example would be you've decided
that getting a COVID vaccine
will cause all kinds of illness.
Well, every time you hear a story
about somebody who had a bad side effect
from getting their COVID shot, you say, See?
I told you.
This thing's crazy, it's killing us.
Now what you're neglecting is that 99.9999999%
of people who get a COVID shot
are not only totally fine and healthy,
but actually prevent themselves
from getting all kinds of diseases.
That's confirmation bias.
You selectively find information in the world
to support your erroneous conclusion.
How prevalent is that example?
How many times does it occur?
You can't just rely
on your own personal anecdotal experience.
Ana Pineda asks, How do you get yourself excited
about writing your research paper
when you've lost interest?
If you dislike something or are getting bored
with something, you probably haven't done enough work on it.
In other words, boredom is a intermediate stage.
It's the kind of plateau you get on
after you've scraped the surface.
But you've gotta go beyond that.
And everything, virtually everything,
is interesting if you dig deep and hard enough.
So my advice would be to keep going in that situation.
@izzzabitch asks, Why is country music so sad?
Iza, funny should ask.
I did a podcast episode on this very question.
It was called The King of Tears.
In that episode, King of Tears,
a reference to a really brilliant bit of research
that was about the specificity of song lyrics.
So it looked at all kinds of popular song lyrics,
from, you know, rock music, folk music, country music.
And the question is how complex were the lyrics?
Make a specificity scale.
Rock music's on the far end of the non-specific end
of the scale and country music's on the far specific
end of the scale.
The argument in King of Tears
was that what moves us emotionally
is specificity and complexity.
OliviaTalbott27 asks, How did writers research
before the internet?
Then all kinds of emojis of people weeping.
Before the internet, we went to libraries
and we called people up on the phone who knew things
and asked them questions.
Both strategies I would wholeheartedly endorse
for anyone who is interested in learning about the world
in a profound way.
@_antithesis_1 asks, What is an intelligence failure,
which is often cited as the cause of unwanted events?
Well, the classic intelligence failure would be 9/11.
There was a famous study conducted by the Senate
in the aftermath of 9/11, which said,
Look, all the clues were there.
Why didn't we pick up on them and prevent 9/11?
This is intelligence failure.
Let's say we could find 10 pieces of intelligence
that pointed directly to what Al Qaeda was planning on 9/11.
They're buried in a mountain
of a million different data points.
It's not an easy matter to find the 10 that matter
out of a mountain of a million.
I would say be suspicious of people
who use the term intelligence failure after the fact.
@anotherpanacea asks, Has any psychologist
been worse for the world than Philip Zimbardo?
Faked the Stanford prison experiment
and helped create the justifications
for broken windows policing?
Well, @anotherpanacea, could not disagree with you more.
Zimbardo didn't fake the Stanford prison experiment.
This is the famous experiment
where Zimbardo gathered together a bunch of volunteers
and said to one group of them, You're prison guards,
to another group said, You're prisoners.
And he ran a simulation
over the course of, I think, several days.
What he discovers is that the prison guards
take it very seriously and ended up doing things
that they would never ordinarily do.
And he was trying to understand why ordinary Germans
would've been capable of committing such terrible offenses
during the Second World War.
The Stanford prison experiment is controversial
because it's complicated.
Did Zimbardo overstate his case?
Did he draw conclusions he shouldn't have?
It's not faked, it's just difficult.
Second part of your question, broken windows policing,
which was an idea that was first put forward
by a very brilliant researcher called George Kelling.
That idea says that if you tolerate small acts of disorder,
large acts of disorder will follow.
So it's why in the subway in New York,
they realize the first step in cleaning up the subway
was in cracking down on people who jump the turnstiles.
You cracked in on the small act,
and what that does is sends a signal to everybody else.
Now you can take it to extremes.
And there's departments that did take it to extremes.
But the idea itself is something that has been,
I think, verified on many occasions in research.
@doomedhippo asks, I have a research question.
Looking into paranormal stuff and having a hard time.
I'm mostly seeing blogs parroting
the same 'people/legends say'
and not getting firsthand reports of hauntings.
How do I get to the actual primary sources
of these stories?
So my aunt would always say
that the living room in her house in Jamaica was haunted.
Can I verify it?
Did I take a picture?
Did I write it up in a scientific journal?
No, it's just a story we tell in our family.
I suspect that's where stories about ghosts are found.
They're stories told from one person to another.
They're not written up in the literature
and searchable on Google.
The problem you have, @doomedhippo,
is that you're in a pretty kinda squishy area.
It's not like there are a ton of scientists
at reputable universities
who are doing case-controlled studies
on paranormal sightings.
So the minute you start moving away from the mainstream,
you are gonna be reliant, overwhelmingly, on anecdotes.
Doing firsthand research yourself
is probably the best approach.
Finding people who have seen ghosts
and bringing a tape recorder and putting it in front of them
and asking them about their experience.
Shoot me an email.
I'll tell you my ghost story.
The question is from @NatalieisBlue and she asks,
Why do most wealthy people play golf?
This is a reference to a Revisionist History episode
which was called A Good Walk Spoiled,
in the course of which
I talk about a really fascinating study.
It's called a natural experiment,
when you can find data that's just out in the world.
Serious golfers register their rounds of golf
on the US whatever the US Golf Association service is.
And so this guy, and he's a young, brilliant economist,
he had a database that allowed him to predict
exactly how much golf CEOs of companies played.
There was a correlation
between how well your company was doing
and how much golf you played.
The more golf you played,
the worse your company was doing.
To answer your question, Natalie,
Why do most wealthy people play golf?
Well, probably because it takes a lot of money
to play golf.
Probably because they have a lot of time on their hands.
But also because they are more concerned
about their leisure time
than running the companies that they're supposed to run.
@everyone_cares asks, Trying to figure out if it's normal
that I have 42 tabs open at once on my laptop
because I'm totally going to read research,
look into this soon.
So how many tabs do you have open usually?
I don't know, 10 to 15?
I actually aggressively close and open
just 'cause it stresses me out.
I know someone who thinks that a great interview question
for somebody is have the subject of the,
the interviewee, take out their laptop
and show you how many tabs they have open on their browser.
And by looking at the things they're interested in,
you can get a really good sense of what they're like.
So I guess I would say if they're 42 really interesting tabs
about stuff that pops into your head, go for it.
Go to 50.
@Sprucey_1969 asks, Is there a word that describes
the action of digging out yet more sources to research
rather than actually writing, other than procrastination?
What you've described is getting lost in tangents,
which I don't know if that's a bad thing.
If you're enjoying yourself, why not?
So those are all the questions for today.
I thought there were some great questions.
A lot of you clearly have been reading some of my books
and listening to some of Revisionist History podcasts.
Those of you who haven't have your work cut out for you.
Thanks for watching Research Support.
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