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Genius, Not Genius; Right and Wrong

Some things that seem to relate to one another, though I haven’t figured out exactly how:

Malcolm Gladwell popularizes Daniel Galenson’s research on creativity, “Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity.”  Gladwell on Galenson:

Prodigies like Picasso, Galenson argues, rarely engage in that kind of open-ended exploration. They tend to be “conceptual,” Galenson says, in the sense that they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it. “I can hardly understand the importance given to the word ‘research,’ ” Picasso once said in an interview with the artist Marius de Zayas. “In my opinion, to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing.” He continued, “The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution or as steps toward an unknown ideal of painting. . . . I have never made trials or experiments.”

But late bloomers, Galenson says, tend to work the other way around. Their approach is experimental. “Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental.

Daniel Pink covered this research in Wired a couple of years ago.  The New Yorker only recently changed its mind about whether the work was worth writing about. 

Why?  Galenson’s research isn’t likely to be any more “right” or “wrong” than before. Perhaps Gladwell himself is a bigger brand than he used to be.  Is that a credible hypothesis?  Consider:

John Ioannidis and his colleagues have another paper in PloS Medicine on the wrong-ness of much published scientific research.  The explanation appears to be a combination of Merton’s “Matthew Effect” and James English’s “Economy of Prestige.”  In a world of scarce resources (i.e., research results), “brands” (i.e., the currencies of success that researchers traffic in) are everything.  Ioannidis et al. published earlier papers on the wrong-ness itself.

As writers and scholars, we all hope to impact the world in different ways:  large scale or small scale or both, now or later or both.  We usually assume that our methods have something to do with the outcome.  Are we right?  Or are we investing in the wrong strategies?  Ioannidis’s work may suggest that the difference between Galenson’s “experimental innovation” and “conceptual innovation” lies less in the way that we think and more in the way that institutions deal with our work. 

The blogosphere is not far behind the theme.  Marginal Revolution picked up Ioannidis’s work the first time around.  Gordon Smith at Conglomerate, Orin Kerr at Volokh, and Chad Oldfather at Prawfsblawg have taken stabs recently at situating their scholarship in Galenson’s paradigm, implicitly and indirectly in the case of the first two, explicitly in the case of the third.  In Galenson’s framework, I’m more of a “experimental innovator” than a “conceptual innovator.”  But as the law reviews sometimes tell me, and as Ioannidis’s work might predict, it’s not clear (yet?) that I’m an innovator of any sort.