Skip to content

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. 

6 thoughts on “Genius, Not Genius; Right and Wrong”

  1. Great post, Mike. Thanks.

    I haven’t read these books, so take these comments with a grain of salt…

    The thing that concerns me most in this discussion is how we pick out the Picassos and the Cezannes of the world. Arguably, the difference between the “famous breakthroughs” of Picasso and Cezanne can be traced to the willingness of current society, and particular key people in the past, to promote these artists and establish their fame.

    In other words, Picasso and Cezanne are early and late geniuses not so much because of what they did respectively, but because we have now decided that this is the case.

    So yes, I agree that the dynamic of Gladwell’s interest in writing about Galenson is a useful counterpoint to what Galenson had to say in the first place (or Gladwell now has to say about Galenson).

    p.s. With regard to the applications in science, where laws of nature can be discovered and used for new inventions, the claim about discovery and genius becomes more interesting.

    But I wonder if STS people would see this as more or less rehashing Thomas Kuhn’s arguments. According to Kuhn, normal science is an inherently conservative (but required) affair, whereas paradigm shifts often go unrecognized at first due to their rejection of the dominant orthodoxy. But resistance to things that challenge normal science is inescapably a part and parcel of normal science itself.

  2. I just want to question the importance of innovation to any system of knowledge. Stephen Marglin has counted four “dimensions” of systems of knowledge–epistemology, transmission, innovation, and power (The Dismal Science, 129). So legal scholarship should have room for work in all those dimensions.

    I’d situate our classic debates about methodology in the “epistemology” category—including the neverending dispute over the proper balance between doctrinalism and interdisciplinary work.

    A similar tension exists in “transmission”–between a hierarchically organized focus on “top” journals and a conference circuit/blogosphere where individuals in given fields get to know one another’s work.

    Power is a tricky topic. While people want to be known as one or another type of innovator, they probably don’t want to be known as powerful vel non.

    So to come back to your Kuhnian point–the innovator is really only necessary when normal science is failing. Is it failing in legal scholarship presently?

  3. Frank — I find it kind of hard to apply Kuhn to legal scholarship, given the problem of verifying legal claims empirically. If I were to be cynical, I would say the situation is closer to what Mike is suggesting about the strategic use of certain “brands” of authority and discourse. Being a little less cynical, perhaps there’s a good fit between legal scholarship and practical lawyering, which emphasizes a similar kind of rhetorical work of applying and persuasively transforming existing precedent.

  4. I wrote about a close cousin of this problem in “The Idea of the Law Review” a couple of years ago: I think that there is a difference between what most legal scholarship is capable of achieving, and what science is capable of achieving. I’m not sure that Kuhn works for us.

    Still, I have to admit that I suffer (or benefit) from the continuing sense that I am figuring something out, that I’m working through that question in a series of papers and projects over time, and that what I’m gradually figuring out isn’t a pure social construct or a series of one-act rhetorical exercises, a la practical lawyering. Galenson-plus-Gladwell-equals-Kuhn up to a point, but I’m tempted by the proposition that Galenson is on to something in his own right, even in an area as complicated or mundane (take your pick) as legal scholarship.

  5. Mike — As I’ve told you before, I really like that article. And when I’m not being cynical — which is pretty often actually — I do like to think that legal scholarship is something more than an exercise in an elaborate form of social constructing truth claims. 🙂

    In any event, I know that personally, I do make intellectual progress over time. My doubts are mostly about whether the institution of legal scholarship is “pushing the ball forward” in some metaphysical way (a la science) or more about the business of adapting the institution of law to a constantly evolving social landscape.

    On scholarship styles, this discussion of Galenson and Kuhn recalls the fox/hedgehog discussion a bit, doesn’t it? Normal science + plodding seeking = hedgehog, paradigm shift + finding = fox, perhaps?

  6. Actually, I take it back — now I’m thinking the hedgehog makes the paradigm shift (finding), maybe, and the fox just seeks nonstop without finding (plodding). Or maybe not — foxes and hedgehogs may be orthogonally related to Picassos and Cezannes. Hmm.

Comments are closed.