The Paterno Defence: Gladwell’s Tipping Point?

“We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly. . . . The Tipping Point is the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” — Malcolm Gladwell, 2000.

Gladwell’s recent book got some negative reviews. No big deal. He’s the world’s leading science writer, the author of a series of best-sellers and promulgator of science-based slogans (“10,000 hours,” etc.), secure in his perch at the New Yorker, and I’d assume “review-proof” in the same way as other brand names such as John Grisham, Stephen King, and George Lucas. Gladwell admits that he’s not into research, that he’s more into working with his first impressions. Again, that’s not new. Conditional on Gladwell already being a leading media figure despite issues of scientific accuracy dating back more than a decade, it’s reasonable to suppose that he can withstand the inevitable criticism that will come with any new work of his.

I don’t know, though, if Gladwell’s reputation will fully withstand this:

Gladwell: You know I have that chapter on Jerry Sandusky in my book, and it’s all about how I feel the leadership of Penn State was totally, outrageously attacked over this. I think they’re blameless.

Simmons: Yeah.

Gladwell: But with Joe Paterno… Joe Paterno essentially did nothing wrong. . . . He’s been thinking football 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for 60 years. He is not going to be alert to the darkness inside the heart of one of his former coaches. You can’t ask him to do that. . . .

I don’t think anyone was asking Paterno and the Penn State administration to be “alert to the darkness inside the heart of” Sandusky; I think the concern was how they acted after they learned about Sandusky’s actions.

I wasn’t there. I have no idea why the leadership of Penn State let that child molester hang out in their football program all those years. Speaking more generally, once someone’s “in” within an organization, they can stay around forever; it can just seem like more effort to work around them than try to kick them out. We can think of lots of prominent examples of abusers hanging around forever in all sorts of institutions.

To me, the interesting question right now is not, What happened at Penn State?, but rather, How could Gladwell have thought that it would be a good idea to mount a public defense of Joe Paterno and the leadership of Penn State? Not just a defense around the edges, but labeling the university’s leadership as “blameless.” Beyond any moral issues, this all just seems like an incredibly unstrategic move for Gladwell’s career. That’s fine, people do unstrategic things at all time for good reasons. Still, I’d like to know what those reasons are.

Maybe Gladwell’s just angry at what he perceives as an injustice to Graham Spanier, Joe Paterno, and other public servants. Or maybe it just seemed like harmless contrarianism, a fun bit of anti-intellectual, anti-media populism, kinda like when Tom Wolfe came out against evolution, or when Michael Moore wrote that he thought O. J. Simpson was innocent, or when the Freakonomics team wrote about “global cooling,” or when Scott Adams expressed his admiration of Charlie Sheen.

I’m wonder if Gladwell didn’t realize how bad it could look to make a high-profile defense of Paterno and Paterno’s bosses and not realize how. It’s not that this should make anyone think that Gladwell is evil, or that he’s soft on child molestation, or anything like that. It just shines a bright light on Gladwell’s poor judgment, his willingness to believe contrarian stories without looking into them. (You might say that this trait of Gladwell is fine, that it’s a refreshing corrective to the usual thing of people believing the conventional wisdom, and maybe you’re right. But the point is that Gladwell does have a track record of falling for junk science, so the Paterno defense fits into a pre-existing pattern.)

The Paterno thing is so weird . . . I haven’t been following the details. But it seems a bit much to not only excuse Paterno but the entire leadership of Penn State! Or maybe there’s something about the Paterno story that I’m missing. I remember Bill James defended Paterno too. I’m guessing that both Gladwell and James were so deep in the media bubble that they were more angry at the media being (possibly) unfair to Paterno, than they were about Paterno and Penn State for not handling Sandusky.

Or maybe Mark Palko is right when he proposed that Bill James and Malcolm Gladwell are coming from different directions, with James being idealistic and naively falling for Paterno’s gentleman-and-a-scholar shtick, and Gladwell being a sucker for con men like this guy. In some sense, it’s no surprise that Gladwell can get conned, as much of his career is based on taking outrageous claims (such as from this guy) at face value. Getting conned is central to Gladwell’s reporting strategy. No wonder he’s so impressed by journalists who actually do research. Reading things takes a lot more effort than just calling people up and believing whatever they tell you.

Is this Gladwell’s tipping point? I have no idea.