This Wednesday, renowned author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell graced Columbia with “A Few (Un)scientific Thoughts on Backlash” as part of the Psychology Department Colloquium Series. Bwog’s autograph-seeking John H. and photo-seeking Artur R. teamed up to skip class and explore the realms of the “unscientific.”
For the less-well-read, Malcolm Gladwell currently writes for the New Yorker and speaks for TED. He has written four incredibly successful books, The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, and What the Dog Saw, whose central theme is to challenges common preconceptions via humorous anecdotes and surprising statistics.
It deserves mention that the event was moved last minute from Schermerhorn to Uris in anticipation of a larger crowd. We believe that this was, in fact, a ploy to weed out the overly-analytical psychology students. Regardless of the move, Uris 301 was still packed with more people than the bustling Package Center. The only reason that Public Safety did not bust the party (NSOP anyone?) was due to the presence of distinguished professors there.
“Never talk about something that the audience knows better than you do,” Gladwell started off. He offered the disclaimer that he is not an academic. In fact, he came to consult Columbia’s collective intelligence for answers to put in his forthcoming book, David and Goliath. Gladwell goes on to discuss the concept of the “inverted U-shaped curve.” (Also known as the straightened Bell Curve, or in math language, the Gaussian curve.)
He told the story of Kimber Reynolds, a 16-year-old in late-80s Fresno, California, who was brutally shot in the head after “mildly” resisting a purse snatching. Her father, Mike Reynolds, set out on a mission to make sure this never happened again. Sure enough, his arduous appeals led to the instatement of a Three Strikes law, with heavy punishments for the thrice-offenders and high hopes of lowering the rate of violent crimes in California. Ostensibly, it succeeded. Upon closer examination, the results revealed a glaring omission. The trend had started before Three Strikes was enacted and was happening everywhere in the country, including states without similar laws. In fact, there has been an increase in crime rates despite the increased penalties!
Gladwell paints a picture where the left side of this inverted U-shaped curve results in the increasing benefits of less crime when penalties are increased. After a certain extent, crime rates do not respond to penalty increase. When penalties are near severe, the unthinkable happens; the benefit of a lowered crime rate actually reverses itself! He explains that incarcerating someone affects his or her family and the surrounding community with a ripple effect. When a teenage father is sent to jail, his children will statistically have a much higher disposition towards psychological problems and other negative effects.
The same applies for children’s education in the United States. Ever since ever, parents, teachers, and educators have had one objective in mind for American schools: small classes. In their minds, smaller classes allow for more individual attention, which invariably means a better education. Right? Not quite: the experimental research is again a mass of incomprehensible data.
He theorizes that the benefits are apparent when class size reduces down to around 30 students. Each person receives more attention. The benefits are marginalized from 30 down to 20 students. However, anything less than 20 students provides the negative effect. There are simply not enough differing opinions in the classroom. Bwog realizes that this explains the awkward silence that befell LitHum classes when instructors ask for reactions to the Iliad on the first. Either that or Sparknotes did not provide an explicit reaction.
The bottom line, he concludes, is:
”Mothers know best. Moderation is best.”
College field trips via Wikimedia Commons