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The Gladwell Effect

05/25/2011 11:45 am ET

John Tierney is once more plunging into the murky waters of genetic differences between men and women. Last week he wrote about why women don't like to compete as much as men do; now he's back, arguing that...well, that women still don't like to compete as much as men do.

His column today is about the world of Scrabble, where organized competition includes many more women than men, and yet men apparently win championships more than women do—because, Tierney says, men will do anything to win and women won't.

The problem, it seems to me, is that even if all this data is correct, it doesn't prove the existence of a genetic reason to explain the disparity. There are plenty of sociological explanations to consider before jumping to the conclusion that the result is the logic of evolution.

Tierney has succumbed to a phenomen I'm going to call the Gladwell Effect, after New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell.

Malcolm (who, full disclosure, I know a bit) is of course the very smart and very popular author of The Tipping Point and Blink. He has a gift for popularizing sociology and sociobiology, and writing about their implications in provocative ways.

The Gladwell Effect is my term for writers who try to imitate Gladwell's techniques in hope of attaining something near his popularity, regardless of their expertise in the relevant fields.

John Tierney must be worried about the fact that, as the Times moves to monetarize its columnists, he appears to be the paper's least-read op-ed columnist....

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