September 1, 2006KR BlogEthicsReading

Too Bad The New Yorker Doesn’t Have a Zero-Tolerance Policy for Sloppy Logic

In this New Yorker tidbit, Malcolm Gladwell makes a number of mistakes–since he’s talking about education, let me recommend to him a rudimentary logic class. Once he’s taken it, he can rethink what he’s written. Even if we mistakenly assume (as Gladwell does) that two anecdotes an argument make, the article is still at best, poorly-thought-out, and at worst, simply manipulative.

In 1925, a young American physicist was doing graduate work at Cambridge University, in England. He was depressed. He was fighting with his mother and had just broken up with his girlfriend. His strength was in theoretical physics, but he was being forced to sit in a laboratory making thin films of beryllium. In the fall of that year, he dosed an apple with noxious chemicals from the lab and put it on the desk of his tutor, Patrick Blackett. Blackett, luckily, didn’t eat the apple. But school officials found out what happened, and arrived at a punishment: the student was to be put on probation and ordered to go to London for regular sessions with a psychiatrist.

The punchine of this story is that the physicist in question was Robert Oppenheimer. And while I’d like to congratulate Gladwell on having read the recent biography, I am pretty sure he didn’t read it closely enough. First of all, the apple in question may very well have been a figment of Oppenheimer’s imagination–there is no evidence that he actually tried to poison anyone (though he may have thought about it), and in fact, a close friend believes that the incident never happened. Second–and this is pretty important–Oppenheimer’s very wealthy parents begged school officials to be lenient with their son. “Wealthy” is the operative word, because all this article points out, once you know about Oppenheimer’s affluent background, is that the rich often get treated better than the poor, not that zero tolerance doesn’t work.

What, then, of a student who gives his teacher a poisoned apple? Surely he ought to be expelled from school and sent before a judge.

And he very nearly was. Only successful lobbying by his parents kept Oppenheimer out of court.

The other case contasted with Oppenheimer’s is Rhett Bomar’s:

This past summer, Rhett Bomar, the starting quarterback for the University of Oklahoma Sooners, was cut from the team when he was found to have been overpaid” (receiving wages for more hours than he worked, with the apparent complicity of his boss) at his job at a car dealership.

Think about the kind of student who would be likely to take money for hours he didn’t work. Is this an affluent student? No. Obviously not–a wealthy student wouldn’t have needed a side job in the first place, except, possibly, a prestige job to use as a resume builder. So his parents probably couldn’t hire someone to lobby on his behalf. Of course he didn’t get off lightly.

Bomar’s actions are, incidentally, a violation of NCAA rules, not collegiate rules. Which brings me to my second point. I hate to have to remind people of this, but athletics are not vital to college, which is (as I understand it) centered at least in theory around the pursuit of knowledge, not the pursuit of a pigskin. Bomar was cut from the team, not ejected from the college. He broke the rules of an extracurricular activity and was asked not to pursue it any further–a far cry from breaking the rules of the college but continuing to pursue one’s education. Interestingly, Bomar’s ability as a student is never mentioned in the blurb. Gladwell is apparently only interested in his ability as a football player. Hmm.

The thing that probably irks me the most is that I, too, think zero tolerance rules are not the best idea, but when it comes to an actual college infraction, and not some stupid game, most cases are heard on an individual basis. This is because college is more important than college football, and because even with academic infractions like plagiarism, the severity of the case varies–in one case I saw, the recommended punishment was the lightest we could give, simply because (as in Oppenheimer’s case) the student in question was simply not well. In important situations, zero tolerance rules are not in effect–not that Gladwell bothers to mention this. He simply equates college football and graduate level physics.

I’m not shocked to see such sloppy argumentation coming from Gladwell, but I must say, I am shocked that The New Yorker deigned to publish it.