A Conversation with Malcolm Gladwell: Revisiting Brown v. Board
Malcolm Gladwell is the best-selling author of books that explore the implications of behavioral science research on our lives and society. His books include Outliers, The Tipping Point, and What the Dog Saw. Last year, he launched a new podcast, Revisionist History, which recently began its second season. The podcast is dedicated to taking a closer look at the past, and Gladwell’s treatment of the events and people he examines is often informed by behavioral science. In the interview below, we discuss a recent episode which revisited the Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate the American school system. Gladwell contends that the ruling was flawed because the Supreme Court’s decision was based too much on the psychological harm that segregation caused and not enough on the structural inequality that continues to this day.
Dave Nussbaum: You’re well-known for psychology and behavioral science writing and story-telling. Your new podcast, Revisionist History, which is starting its second season, takes a bit of a different angle. Tell me about that.
Malcolm Gladwell: The point of Revisionist History is that it’s supposed to be eclectic. I think it works if it’s eclectic and doesn’t work if it’s not. So, as opposed to another very popular and very good podcast called Invisibilia—which is squarely about psychology and about relating ideas about psychology to things in our world; that’s their DNA—mine is deliberately intended to be the opposite. I want things to be sometimes serious, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes frivolous, sometimes unnecessarily provocative, sometimes deeply thoughtful.
DN: I certainly noticed that—whether it’s about why people won’t shoot a free throw in basketball underhanded or how people react incorrectly to a stuck accelerator pedal—your perspective on all sorts of stories is infused with behavioral science. Is there anything coming up that tackles behavioral science more directly?
MG: [Episode 3,] “Ms. Buchanan’s Period of Adjustment,” is very much about that. It’s a re-examination of the Brown decision, which is formally a legal document but famously relied on social science to reach its conclusions. [In the episode,] I’m really examining the social science at the core of it and saying that the social science argument that the court made was wrong—or at least was painfully and tragically incomplete. There’re are million really important questions that arise out of the general re-examination of Brown that’s gone on, and one of them is that social science arguments are incorporated into public policy often at social science’s peril.
It’s really easy for public policy people to get it wrong, or to misunderstand what the science is telling them, or to twist the findings of researchers. To me, the great appeal of social science has always been that research is not definitive. It’s always posing a proposition to be debated. That’s not the way the rest of the world is; the rest of the world wants very definitive answers. And Brown is a really good example of this. Let’s face it: The social science that the court used in the Brown case is pretty flimsy social science—it is not psychology at its best.
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Dave Nussbaum is the managing editor at the Behavioral Scientist and director of communications at the Behavioral Science & Policy Association. He is also an adjunct associate professor of behavioral science at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. He received his B.A. from Yale University and earned Ph.D. in social psychology from Stanford University.