Friday, March 06, 2020

Gladwell is right about Paterno

Statistician Andrew Gelman writes:
“We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly. ... The Tipping Point is the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” — Malcolm Gladwell, 2000.

Gladwell’s recent book got some negative reviews. No big deal. He’s the world’s leading science writer, the author of a series of best-sellers and promulgator of science-based slogans (“10,000 hours,” etc.), secure in his perch at the New Yorker, and I’d assume “review-proof” ...

I don’t know, though, if Gladwell’s reputation will fully withstand [saying "Joe Paterno essentially did nothing wrong."] ...

I’m wonder if Gladwell didn’t realize how bad it could look to make a high-profile defense of Paterno and Paterno’s bosses and not realize how. It’s not that this should make anyone think that Gladwell is evil, or that he’s soft on child molestation, or anything like that. It just shines a bright light on Gladwell’s poor judgment, his willingness to believe contrarian stories without looking into them. ...

The Paterno thing is so weird ... I haven’t been following the details. But it seems a bit much to not only excuse Paterno but the entire leadership of Penn State!
Gladwell deserves a lot of criticism for many things, but he is right about this. The Paterno story is the modern witch trial.

The whole story was wildly implausible. The central claim is that an ex-coach was criminally molesting and raping young boys at a public university, and this was generally known to many football and administration officials. No, this sort of thing does not happen in America.

And there was no solid evidence. There was never a contemporaneous complaint of a crime, or any physical evidence, or anything like that. There were about a dozen witnesses, but they all first testified that Sandusky was innocent of any crime. Years later, they found recovered memories after being offered 6-figure settlements to change their stories. The strongest witness, Mike McQueary, got $12M in awards.

What made this case big was that Penn State had deep pockets, and lawyers conspired to drain it of $100M or more.

I realize that I am in the minority on this issue, and that courts ruled against Sandusky and Penn State. To me, this is like saying the Salem witches were convicted. The story is preposterous, and the evidence was so obviously tainted by bad science and monetary bias that I don't see how any rational person could believe it.

I was going to link to a Wikipedia chart of how every witness changed his story, but editors have deleted it, and removed it from the archives. The reason given was that it put victims in a bad light.

Gelman likes to point out the moral failings of other scholars, but Gladwell has many faults to attack.

I hardly hear anyone defending Paterno et al. If Gelman is right, then any scholar would be risking his reputation to making such a defense. I guess that is why there is so little defense.

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