FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

How Corrupt is Malcolm Gladwell?

Malcolm Gladwell is an influential New Yorker writer, the author of two best-sellers, “The Tipping Point” and “Blink.” In January the NYer published a Gladwell piece called “Open Secrets,” a convoluted defense of Enron’s management. Joe Nocera of the New York Times expressed surprise that the renowned Gladwell could write something so inaccurate and slanted.

“Already ‘Open Secrets’ has been embraced by those who argue that the Enron prosecutions were an effort to ‘criminalize’ what amounted to flawed business decisions,” wrote Nocera. “The efforts to weaken Sarbanes-Oxley are also rooted in the idea that the country overreacted to Enron and the other corporate scandals. In effect, the central defense argument -that Enron didn’t really do anything illegal- has been given new life by Mr. Gladwell. And it isn’t remotely true.”

It should come as no surprise that Malcolm Gladwell is a corporate shill. In 1997 the New Yorker published his paean to hormone replacement therapy, “The Estrogen Question: How Wrong is Dr. Susan Love?,” in which Gladwell derided Love’s warning that HRT could cause breast cancer. (Love, a distinguished clinician and UCLA professor, had been publicizing The Nurse’s Health Study finding that women taking Wyeth’s Prempro had a higher rate of breast cancer.) Gladwell’s piece culminated in a plug for Eli Lilly’s new drug Raloxifene, which was about to be marketed as Evista. “Before very long,” wrote Gladwell, “women worried about raising their breast-cancer risk will have the option of taking a different kind of hormone that doesn’t affect their breasts at all -or that may even protect against breast cancer.”

Raloxifene, Gladwell explained, represented “the next generation of HRT, the compounds known as serms (for ‘selective estrogen receptor modulators’).” To those tracking the marketing of Prozac it was obvious that Lilly, having made billions off its “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor” anti-depressant, was reapplying the patter to its HRT drug. Gladwell scolded Love for not applauding the advent of serms. “You might think that it would be of enormous significance to Love, answering, as it does, her great worry about the potential side effects of HRT” Gladwell’s tone was coolly condescending throughout. “What Love has done is recalculate the risk-benefit equation for estrogen,” he asserted, “which is fine, except that she consistently overstates the risks and understates the benefits.”

Gladwell’s defense of HRT is a textbook example of corporate damage control. Step #1 when a study reveals the harmful effects of your product is to cite other studies drawing different conclusions. “I just reviewed the hormone/breast-cancer research from the last five years,” Gladwell quotes an epidemiologist named Trudy Bush; “I found four reports -two very large and well done- showing no effect, and I found another study showing that estrogen gave women significant protection against breast cancer. They’re all over the place.” Claiming that existing studies are inconclusive and that more research is needed sounds reasonable and usually gives the drug company 10 extra marketing years. In the case of Prempro, Wyeth only got five because the leaders of the Women’s Health Initiative had seen enough by 2002.

Step #2 is to attack the methodology of the revealing study. Gladwell faults the Nurses Health Study for “selection-bias problems The estrogen users, for example, had fewer pregnancies, got their periods earlier, and have other differences with the control group which would lead you believe that they might have had a higher risk of breast cancer anyway. There is another possible complication: estrogen does such a good job of fighting heart disease that most women who are on HRT live substantially longer than women who aren’t.” (That’s Step #3, the Bold Inversion. Gladwell’s sounds like it came from the same Lilly flack who reasoned that Prozac leads to suicide because it enables severely depressed people to overcome their lethargy.)

Step #4 is simply smearing the messenger. If a researcher’s professional credentials are unassailable, there’s always guilt by association. Just as Lilly (falsely) linked their foremost critic, Peter Breggin, MD, to the Scientologists, Gladwell puts Love in a vaguely disreputable “media-celebrity” category. “Her objection,” he writes, “is to the idea that postmenopausal women should rely on any sort of drug at all. This is where, sooner or later, you end up when you start down the path of people like Andrew Weil and Deepak Chopra and Susan Love.”

In a 2001 article by Gladwell extolling the anti-malarial effects of DDT, the woman who had gotten her science wrong was Rachel Carson. DDT, according to the man Gladwell touted as the great authority, “ought to be used as selectively as possible, to quell major outbreaks,” i.e., the present ban should be rescinded.

The massive, worldwide application of DDT had been promoted in the 1940s and ’50s by a Rockefeller Foundation functionary named Fred Soper who, according to Gladwell, “ranks as one of the unsung heroes of the twentieth century.” As it became clear that worldwide eradication was impractical ­DDT-resistant mosquito strains developed- Soper discounted all evidence of failure. Gladwell describes Soper losing his temper at one meeting in response to “talk that was impeding eradication -the doubting, the equivocation, the incompetence, the elevation of songbirds over human life”

In 2002, as data from the Women’s Health Initiative confirmed that women taking HRT are more likely to get breast cancer, blogger Mickey Kaus quoted some of Gladwell’s putdowns of Love and asked if he stood by his NYer piece. Gladwell emailed: “i was waiting for someone to write that! okay, here’s my answer: kausfiles is quite right. i was wrong, and susan love ought to feel vindicated. this is the perilous–and, of course, fun– part of writing about medicine. every now and again, scientists discover something new that turns everything we all thought we understood upside down.”

This is a bizarre response -as if what was at stake were Susan Love’s feelings, not the well-being of the women who started hormone replacement therapy or chose to stay on it thanks to his misleading New Yorker piece. Malcolm Gladwell, author of best-sellers, may know jack about science but he knows plenty about promoting ideas and products. If he regretted having advised women to take cancer-causing drugs, he should have seen to it that a retraction was widely disseminated instead of burying a comment on kausfiles, where it didn’t even warrant an item unto itself. And how about his “waiting” to be called out? Translation: “i was hoping no one would remember.”

Gladwell, a lightweight, is not entirely to blame for the damage his HRT article has done. The New Yorker should not have run it in 1997 and had an obligation in 2002 to notify readers that their reporting on “the estrogen question” had been wrong. The decision to take HRT drugs was and is a matter of health or cancer, life or death.

Gladwell’s musings about Enron were authorized by editor David Remnick and accompanied by a full-page colored cartoon by S. Chwast in which an executive seated at a desk is looking at a computer screen showing a graph trending downward while investigators in black suits and sunglasses examine files and wastebaskets, take notes and photos, and peer from behind potted palms -without looking at the screen. The caption reads, “Was the trouble with Enron that its management didn’t tell us enough -or that analysts failed to make sense of the data it supplied?” The NYer has stooped to shilling for Skilling.

FRED GARDNER edits O’Shaughnessy’s, the Journal of Cannabis in Clinical Practice (soon to have a presence on the web). He can be reached at fred@plebesite.com

 

More articles by:

Fred Gardner is the managing editor of O’Shaughnessy’s. He can be reached at fred@plebesite.com

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
March 27, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Bailouts for the Rich, the Virus for the Rest of Us
Louis Proyect
Life and Death in the Epicenter
Paul Street
“I Will Not Kill My Mother for Your Stock Portfolio”
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The Scum Also Rises
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Stimulus Bill Allows Federal Reserve to Conduct Meetings in Secret; Gives Fed $454 Billion Slush Fund for Wall Street Bailouts
Jefferson Morley
Could the Death of the National Security State be a Silver Lining of COVID-19?
Kathleen Wallace
The End of the Parasite Paradigm
Ruth Hopkins
A Message For America from Brazil’s First Indigenous Congresswoman
Anthony DiMaggio
Misinformation and the Coronavirus: On the Dangers of Depoliticization and Social Media
Andrew Levine
Neither Biden Nor Trump: Imagine Cuomo
David Rosen
God’s Vengeance: the Christian Right and the Coronavirus
David Schultz
The Covid-19 Bailout: Another Failed Opportunity at Structural Change
Evaggelos Vallianatos
In the Grip of Disease
Edward Leer
Somebody Else’s World: An Interview with Kelly Reichardt
Robert Fisk
What Trump is Doing in the Middle East While You are Distracted by COVID-19
Daniel Warner
COVID-19: Health or Wealth?
Thomas Klikauer – Norman Simms
Corona in Germany: Hording and Authoritarianism
Ramzy Baroud
BJP and Israel: Hindu Nationalism is Ravaging India’s Democracy
Richard Moser
Russia-gate: the Dead But Undead
Ron Jacobs
Politics, Pandemics and Trumpism
Chris Gilbert
Letter From Catalonia: Alarming Measures
Richard Eskow
Seven Rules for the Boeing Bailout
Jonathan Carp
Coronavirus and the Collapse of Our Imaginations
Andrew Bacevich
The Coronavirus and the Real Threats to American Safety and Freedom
Peter Cohen
COVID-19, the Exponential Function and Human the Survival
César Chelala - Alberto Luis Zuppi
The Pope is Wrong on Argentina
James Preston Allen
Alexander Cockburn Meets Charles Bukowski at a Sushi Bar in San Pedro
Jérôme Duval
The Only Oxygen Cylinder Factory in Europe is Shut down and Macron Refuses to Nationalize It
Neve Gordon
Gaza Has Been Under Siege for Years. Covid-19 Could Be Catastrophic
Alvaro Huerta
To Survive the Coronavirus, Americans Should Learn From Mexicans
Prabir Purkayastha
Why the Coronavirus Pandemic Poses Fundamental Challenges to All Societies
Raouf Halaby
Fireside Chatterer Andrew Cuomo for President
Thomas Drake
The Sobering Realities of the American Dystopia
Negin Owliaei
Wash Your Hands…If You Have Water
Felice Pace
A New Threat to California’s Rivers:  Will the Rush to Develop Our Newest Water Source Destroy More Streams?
Ray Brescia
What 9/11 Can Teach Us About Responding to COVID-19
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
The Covid-19 Opportunity
John Kendall Hawkins
An Age of Intoxication: Pick Your Poison
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The Propaganda Virus: Is Anyone Immune?
Nicky Reid
Fear and Loathing in Coronaville Volume 1: Dispatches From a Terrified Heartland
Nolan Higdon – Mickey Huff
Don’t Just Blame Trump for the COVID-19 Crisis: the U.S. Has Been Becoming a Failed State for Some Time
Susan Block
Coronavirus Spring
David Yearsley
Lutz Alone
CounterPunch News Service
Letter from Truthdig’s Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer to the Publisher Zuade Kaufman
CounterPunch News Service
Statement From Striking Truthdig Workers
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail