on gladwell

Background: Malcolm Gladwell hosts a podcast, he did an episode on CTE today. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is the reason everyone is scared of football these days: Head trauma leads a bunch of bad stuff.

His thesis, basically, is: “At what point do you have enough proof to act?”

In a speech given at UPenn in 2013, Gladwell uses the example of coal miners in the 1940s. Coal was an integral part of the economy back then; many working class families were supported by the industry. There were drawbacks though. Namely, workers would cough up black coal dust and generally cough a lot.

For various reasons, people said the coughing was a sign of the respiratory system working correctly and did not consider negative health impacts.

Then a statistician came along and proved that inhaling coal dust all day was very bad for you and reduces your life expectancy.

Here, in his speech, Malcolm asks the audience “What do you think happened then?”

Nothing” he answers dramatically (it was a rhetorical question).

It wasn’t until 1975 that a general consensus was reached about the dangers of coal mining and action was taken.

Gladwell’s parallel is with football today.

He goes on to argue that the students at UPenn should boycott the school’s football game in protest of the University ignoring proof.

I have a problem with his argument though.

If an adult is aware of the risks of an activity and is not harming others in the process, what right do we have to stop them?

This question has little to do with football, yet is the core of Gladwell’s argument. Every sport has different degrees of good and bad depending on who you ask.

The key insight is that the people participating should be the ones to weigh the pros and cons, not us.

Society should do everything in its power to provide information to judge the sport with (like studies about CTE), but the decisions made based on that information are not in society’s control.

This idea of athletes taking this decision into their own hands was never addressed in the podcast. Instead, athletes were only mentioned when the consequences of their actions befell them.

Malcolm strays away from this moral question, or purposefully ignores it, because it is harder to answer than the one he asks in his podcast.

Reducing this issue down to right and wrong is reductive and demeans the judgment of football players/responsible adults.

this post is incomplete