THE FATUOUS, INFANTILE AND FAUX: Malcolm Gladwell gets the facts!


Long decades of fraudulent folly:
In the modern press environment, it seems to be amazingly hard to get us rubes, out here in Reader Land, to provide life-sustaining clicks.

At Slate, they've struggled to serve.

They've let us know what products we should buy to look like classics professors. Through their sex-advice columns, they've let us know what to do if we "don't trust humanity enough to have sex with it," or if our "boyfriend sounds like injured wildlife during sex."

Though their pet-advice columns, readers are told what they should do if their "hump-happy chihuahua embarrasses [them]," or if "[their] cat’s autoeroticism is making [them] uncomfortable."

Those were important moments. But we shouldn't ignore the service Slate provides through its re-engineered Dear Prudence advice column.

Rather plainly, the original Dear Prudence column wasn't dumb or kitschy enough. Slate made a change in the dumbness department, and the column now answers to alleged questions like these:
Help! My Husband Is Making His Prison Sentence Very Inconvenient for Me.
Read what Prudie had to say in Part 1 of this week’s live chat.

Help! My Friend Faked Her Own Death—Again.
Read what Prudie had to say in Part 2 of this week’s live chat.

Help! I Found Nudes on My Husband’s Computer. He Says He’s Using Them as Art.
Read what Prudie had to say in Part 1 of this week’s live chat.

Help! My Sweet Aunt Wrote a Play in Which I Am Killed by a Poisoned Dildo.
Read what Prudie had to say in Part 2 of this week’s live chat.
Finally, the column was dealing with life as it's actually lived by Slate readers! Slate is no longer in denial concerning poisoned-dildo attacks!

The column's kitsch level was ramped way up. Headline included, "Prudie's column for Aug. 1" started off like this:
DEAR PRUDENCE (8/1/19): My Family Keeps Bringing Up My Wedding Nip Slip

When my now-wife and I got engaged, the mother of a longtime friend enthusiastically offered to make my wedding outfit. She took my measurements a year out, I offered to pay several times, and I said thank you at every opportunity. She shipped the outfit the day before the wedding, so I never had a chance to try it on in advance. I put it on the day of my wedding and in the rush didn’t realize that it did not fit until after the ceremony. I had a very loose, deep neckline, and my nipples kept falling out. The seam at the seat also busted. My wife had to physically hold the outfit together for me during our first dance.

The outfit-maker attended the wedding and saw everything (along with my whole family)...
Brighter readers get to wonder whether "busted" was meant as clever word-play in this real-life communication from an actual reader.

Meanwhile, are you trying to decide "How Do I Tell My Boyfriend’s Parents I Can’t Stay at Their Dirty, Urine-Soaked House?" For advice on that familiar problem, we'll suggest that you consult "Prudie’s column for June 29."

Slate got its start, at the dawn of the web, as an intelligent, left of center, mainstream information and opinion site. Like many other sites on the web, it has been steadily driving itself toward Mister Springer's Neighborhood over the past several years.

This is apparently what it take to get us self-impressed liberal geniuses to rouse ourselves from our stupefaction long enough to supply the occasional click. Meanwhile, at the Sunday New York Times, we get drowned in a five-pack of ruminations about the enduring magic of Friends.

Message: The spectacular dumbness of upper-end culture is hard to overstate. We hate to be the kill-joy here, but you can't wallow for decades in dumbness this vast without looking up, one fine stupid day, and seeing a Trump in the White House.

We say that because the culture's dumbness isn't restricted to inane advice columns or to brawling syndicated shows. The spectacular dumbness of our political culture has saddled us, down through the years, with such unchallenged inanities as these:
Some of the things we've been told to believe:
If we lower the tax rate, we increase federal revenues!

Please support my flat tax plan, which isn't actually flat.

The Social Security trust fund is just a pile of worthless IOUs. (It's more likely I'll see a UFO than receive a Social Security payment.)

Women are paid 80 cents on the dollar for doing the exact same work as men.

Al Gore said he invented the Internet—but we now know that Gennifer Flowers was telling the truth all along!
Those groaners go back a very long time; our political culture has been deeply invested in dumbness. And as voters were told, again and again, that these statements were true, our upper-end professors and journalists happily, mindlessly slept.

It's very hard for people to see how dumb our political culture is. In large part, that's because the dumbness keeps being generated by our highest-ranking academics and journalists—and even by our cable news stars, the kind who buy their first TV sets by mistake because they get drunk with Susan!

There's very little we won't believe from these authority figures. Consider Malcolm Gladwell's latest attempt to nail down the basic facts.

Gladwell has long been a major star of publishing and TED talks. In his review of Gladwell's latest new book, the Atlantic's Andrew Ferguson offers a jaundiced appraisal of the way Gladwell's endless best-sellers have actually worked.

Eventually, Ferguson offers a major keeper. He describes the way this publishing star goes about nailing down facts.

How does Gladwell establish a fact? The same way America's press corps does! He basically dreams facts up, in the way Ferguson outlines.

As we've been telling you for decades, our press corps deals in "novelized news." It's all about maintaining a pre-existing, preferred story line.

Facts are invented in service to the novel. Consider the way the genius Gladwell established one recent new fact:
FERGUSON (9/10/19): At times [Gladwell] approaches self-parody. Just follow the footnotes.

“Poets die young,” he writes
, in a section on Sylvia Plath. “And of every occupational category, [poets] have far and away the highest suicide rates—as much as five times higher than the general population.”

Interesting, sort of, if true! But how would such a calculation be made?
Poet is a strange “occupational category.” Hardly anybody makes a living as a professional poet.
Within our modern discourse, it's very rare to encounter an approach such as this, in which a writer encounters a claim in a sanctioned book and wonders if it could really be true.

Dearest darlings, it just isn't done! Within our modern political discourse, adherence to story is all.

In this instance, Ferguson goes on to note that few statistics exist concerning the occupation of "poet." So where the heck did Gladwell get his latest fact?

Amazingly, Ferguson actually "followed the footnotes" and found out! In what follows, Ferguson sketches the regular shape of our fake, faux, infantile journalistic culture:
FERGUSON: Gladwell’s footnote shows he has drawn this curious statistic from a paper titled “Suicide and Creativity,” by a college professor named Mark Runco, published in 1998 in the journal Death Studies. Runco in turn cites a book, Touched With Fire, by Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist.

To get her “five times” figure, Jamison explains in her book, she studied the lives of “all major British and Irish poets born between 1705 and 1805.” She determined their “major” status by consulting old poetry anthologies. She decided there were 36—not 35, not 37, but 36—major poets, ranging from the well-known and era-defining (William Wordsworth) to the obscure and improbably named (John Bampfylde).

Of the 36 poets, two committed suicide. (It’s not clear that these two can even be classified as poets, however: One was a physician by trade, and the other died at 17, probably too young to qualify for an occupational category.) Jamison reckoned that two out of 36, proportionally, is five times the suicide rate for the general population.

VoilĂ ! A statistic is born.
In such ridiculous ways, many statistics are born! For decades, the basic "facts" of our failing discourse have been hatched in just such ways. That includes the bogus statistics our own liberal tribe loves.

We're sorry to tell you, but no. A society can't proceed for decades in such ways without ending up with a Trump.

Donald J. Trump says crazy things, but Chris Matthews beat him to it. So did a large array of media stars, not excluding those who hand us crazy stories about the purchase of first TV sets.

We the people are clicking at Slate while people like Gladwell are dreaming up facts. At the Mew York Times, a Pulitzer winner still wonders about his (six) imaginary friends—and some editor seems to think that they've stumbled upon "a philosopher."

Our upper-end discourse is very dumb. The Times is the best place to see this.

Tomorrow: This isn't Taylor Swift's fault


  1. "seeing a Trump in the White House"

    Thank god for that. No new wars, at least one of the old wars ended, and a great economy. What are you complaining about - Trump Steaks?

    Anyhow, you, dear Bob, you read a lot of crap. Wayyy too much crap. Malcolm Gladwell? Puh-leeze...

    1. I'll be especially grateful to Trump, when David in Cal's grandchildren die from mercury poisoning, thanks to Trump's EPA.

      I won't even complain about Trump steaks when that happens.

    2. Somerby didn't read Gladwell. He read Feguson's review of Gladwell and decided to mold a column around it, since it revealed an urban myth that he thinks no one noticed at the type it was foisted on us by Jamison. Somerby apparently doesn't know that Jamison's entire theory about a link between depression and creativity created an uproar and is highly controversial (e.g., unsupported by anything but anecdotal evidence).

    3. I hope that AnonymousSeptember 11, 2019 at 11:07 AM and her/his family live happy and prosperous lives, thanks to the wonderful Trump economy.

    4. “Somerby apparently doesn't know…”

      “Apparently” is the key word there, cubby. Keep it up, you’ll be a respected reporter someday!


    5. @Leroy:
      That commenter may come to be as respected as our blogger:

      “This is apparently what it take to get us self-impressed liberal geniuses to rouse ourselves from our stupefaction long enough to supply the occasional click.”

      “Apparently” is the key word there, cubby.

    6. @4:15

      Whilst Somerby’s jibe can be ascribed to his ongoing and forever penchant for describing media communication and malfeasance, 11:52 was mind-reading. It has no idea what Somerby knows on the topic of Jamison’s “theory.”

      See the difference?


    7. Leroy, Somerby says nothing that isn't contained in Ferguson's review of Gladwell's book. The whole issue of Jamison's bogus statistic is contained in that REVIEW. It is entirely possible to say what Somerby knows about Jamison because if he knew anything more than what Ferguson told him, he would have said something beyond the content of Ferguson's review. Somerby is a fraud if he tries to convince any of us, by his name-dropping and borrowed quotes, that he is familiar with Gladwell or Jamison.

      This is the same technique as the police use when they hold back some detail of a crime scene from the press so that they can differentiate the false confessions from the real perpetrator. The real criminal knows something the others do not. Here, Somerby shows none of the knowledge he would have if he had read Jamison or Gladwell's recent book (don't know about his previous ones). Not one little detail.

      But you think the word "apparently" which could as easily have been "obviously" or "based on his screed today" indicates mind-reading. You are a bigger idiot than Deadrat.

    8. David in Cal,
      11:07 here. I want to thank you for the kind thoughts.
      I,OTOH, want Conservatives to die off as soon as possible.
      Not only will it triple the nation's average IQ, but the leaps and bounds in progress this nation makes, without having the obstructionist pieces of shit holding progress back, will be immeasurable.

    9. As a white working class person, I can assure the David in Cals that the Trump economy is not good. It is bad. Very bad.

      All economic indicators have been on the same upward trend since 2010, the only economic impact Trump has had has been negative with the bungling of trade policy.

      In light of this it looks like even Texas is now in play for 2020 for the Dems.

    10. 9:38

      “Somerby is a fraud if he tries to convince any of us, by his name-dropping and borrowed quotes, that he is familiar with Gladwell or Jamison.”

      Me, I don’t think Bob was trying to convince anyone that he is familiar with those two names. Nothing in his post indicated for or against that idea. Hence the mind-reading by 11:52 (which I assume is you, one of those who come around to hate, like Mao).

      He didn’t “mold a column” around the idea of Ferguson’s review of Gladwell, the column was about his usual pet-peeves, and covered a lot more than the focus of your “review.”

      And you yourself acknowledge that Jamison’s research was highly controversial. To say the least! If you’re only going to study the population of Britain and Ireland to form a thesis, anecdotes are one of the least of the problems in the research.

      Lastly, I am definitely an idiot next to deadrat. Can’t touch that dude. He’s the next best thing to Somerby and Cmike on this site.


  2. Jamison was critiqued back when her book came out and is not considered an appropriate academic source. She wrote a popular book. The same is true of Malcolm Gladwell, who is not a researcher or academic but writes popular trade books. That distinction is important to those who work in academia but it is blurred in the popular press, which is what Somerby conflates regularly in his writing.

    It is unfortunate but psychology is particularly prone to pseudoscience. Everyone has a mind and a brain and feelings, so they all consider themselves experts. There have been advice givers and pop psychology since the beginning of time and the general public does not know the difference between scientific psychology and pop psych, especially when journalists borrow from the literature whenever it suits them and present such findings side-by-side with made up nonsense.

    If someone were to trace back a claim to its source, Somerby would be unable to evaluate whether that source is credible or not because he has pretty obviously never taken a psych class in his history at Harvard and he should understand the difference between popularizers and the real stuff, but apparently doesn't, despite his recognition that trade (popular) books on relativity and philosophy have flaws.

    Gladwell and Jamison are both goofs. Academic reviewers got there before Ferguson.

  3. "Women are paid 80 cents on the dollar for doing the exact same work as men."

    Somerby includes this sentence among a list of right-wing propaganda used to attack liberals and their candidates. The other false statements are campaign items. This one happens to be true but Somerby's inclusion of it with a bunch of false statements implies that it is untrue and further implies that it too comes from the right.

    The so-called debunking of the pay gap between men and women, singling out that particular statement as if it stood proxy for the entire gap, is itself a right-wing attack on women's demands for pay equity.

    If pay equity did already exist, there would be no harm in passing legislation to ensure it. Why then will Republicans not pass such legislation and the president not sign it? It is because corporations and small businesses do not want to change the disparities that exist between women and men in today's job market. Instead, they argue that women are being too demanding, asking for something they already have, asking for special treatment or more than they are worth, and so on.

    Somerby earns his rubles today by advancing this right-wing trope. He is subtle because instead of stating outright that it is false, he puts in among other patently false things, statements we all recognize and know to be false, as if the falseness of those other statements will rub off on this one. That is a propaganda technique and Somerby, who supposedly strives to reveal truth and accuracy in the media, is the person attempting to manipulate liberals reading his specious faux-liberal blog.

    My current theory is that Somerby died a few years back and his blog has been taken over by Republicans in the service of the devil.

    1. If pay equity did already exist, there would be no harm in passing legislation to ensure it.

      @11:42 such legislation has long since passed into law.
      "The Equal Pay Act of 1963 is a United States labor law amending the Fair Labor Standards Act, aimed at abolishing wage disparity based on sex (see Gender pay gap). It was signed into law on June 10, 1963, by John F. Kennedy as part of his New Frontier Program."

    2. Maybe that's why Putin had him killed.


      This passed the House but is waiting for the senate to act on it. Wonder what's holding it up?

  4. "Brighter readers get to wonder whether "busted" was meant as clever word-play in this real-life communication from an actual reader."

    The word busted used by the letter-writer refers to a split in the seat of the dress, not to any problem with the top part of it. There is no "clever" word play at all, unless Somerby doesn't know that the bust refers to the breasts while seat refers to the bumm.

    Clever readers prefer their word play a bit more apt and a whole lot less juvenile.

    Maybe Somerby's analysts giggle at this, but it kind of suggests that Somerby has never seen a dress, or a woman for that matter. No one above age four confuses the bust with the seat. Somerby apparently doesn't know what a nip-slip is, and thus this advice column may be exactly what he needs, poor man.

    1. The word busted used by the letter-writer refers to a split in the seat of the dress, not to any problem with the top part of it.

      Er, no.

      A busted seam “… gets its name from the way the two pieces of fabric are sewn together and then pressed open. The raw edges are finished with an overlock stitch, and the extra material allows room for tailoring.” (Per Sarah Kasbeer at

      The technique provides extra support to help prevent separation.

      So the possible ironic word-play is between the millinery term of art and the colloquial meaning of busted to mean broken. Nothing to do with the bust line of the dress.

      Somerby apparently doesn't know what a nip-slip is….

      Hard to believe, as TDH quotes the letter writer saying, “my nipples kept falling out” and he makes no further mention of the wedding-day mishap.

    2. It may be important to note that over the last thirty years, adjusted for inflation, the median household income has risen 14%. That sounds bad, but over the same time period, adjusted for inflation, both housing and public college tuition have risen around 300% and healthcare has risen 50%.


  5. "Some of the things we've been told to believe:
    If we lower the tax rate, we increase federal revenues!"

    Why, don't you think this is true under certain circumstances, dear Bob?

    If not, start from a simple thought experiment with 100% tax rate, and go from there.

  6. Reading today's blog, I am reminded of Jim Gaffigan's bit about McDonalds.

    "I’m tired of people acting like they are better than McDonald’s. It’s like, you may have never set a foot in McDonald’s, but you have your own McDonald’s, maybe instead of buying a Big Mac, you read Us Weekly. Hey, that’s still McDonald’s. It’s just served up a little different. Maybe your McDonald’s is telling yourself that Starbucks Frappuccino is not a milk shake or maybe watch Glee."

    "Really it’s all McDonald’s out there. Right? How can we all name three people that have dated Jennifer Aniston. It’s McDonald’s and we gobble it up just like those McDonald’s fries, it’s like who is she dating now. I know I shouldn’t, but it’s so salty. Is she pregnant, yet? That’s not even my business. Scarlett Johansson got a hair cut, why do I give a shit. Because it’s McDonald’s and that feels good, going down. By the way if you care who Prince William married, that’s Burger King."

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