Dan Gardner is the Ottawa-based author of Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear and Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail – and Why We Believe Them Anyway.
In my opinion, Jian Ghomeshi is the most talented broadcaster in Canada.
That sentence would have been too boring to write a week ago. After Mr. Ghomeshi's firing by the CBC, and revelations that several women have accused Mr. Ghomeshi of inflicting unwanted sexual violence, it's too incendiary.
Judy Rebick found that out the hard way. When Ms. Rebick re-posted an old item praising Mr. Ghomeshi's talent to her website, the lifelong feminist and former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women was immediately accused of siding with Mr. Ghomeshi. She removed the post. "I am not in any way defending Jian Ghomeshi," Ms. Rebick tweeted.
Those words should be unnecessary. How talented Jian Ghomeshi is tells us precisely nothing about what he did or did not do. He may be a supremely gifted broadcaster and a loathsome man who likes to hurt unconsenting women. Or he may be an overrated prima donna and the victim of an appalling smear campaign. But there is no reason to think his talent and his behaviour are correlated.
And yet many people treat them as if they are, and they judge accordingly – whether it is those lining up against Mr. Ghomeshi, who treat references to his talent as a tacit assertion of his innocence, or the many fans of Mr. Ghomeshi who immediately and emphatically sided with him after the story broke even though there was almost no information available aside from Mr. Ghomeshi's own account.
We've seen this many times before. Woody Allen. Roman Polanski. In the abstract, it's easy to separate the art and the artist, and, if need be, to praise one and condemn the other. But confronted by a painfully real case, our judgements tend to correlate. Chances are, how you feel about Woody Allen's movies hints at how you feel about Woody Allen.
Artists and critics have wrestled with this dilemma at least since the Third Reich cast a shadow over Richard Wagner – sublime composer, appalling anti-Semite – but a revealing perspective is offered by psychology.
Early in the 20th century, a psychologist named Edward Thorndike discovered that when employers and military officers rated others across a range of dimensions – intelligence, industry, technical skill, reliability, leadership, and so on – their judgments tended to correlate, which suggested they weren't considering each quality separately, as they were instructed to, and as they believed they were doing. Instead, there was "a marked tendency to think of the person in general as rather good or rather inferior and colour the judgements of the qualities by this general feeling."
Mr. Thorndike called it the "halo effect," because a person who was seen to be exceptionally good in some way – especially attractive, intelligent or creative – seemed to wear a halo. How honest is this exceptionally attractive person? How diligent? How hard-working? How much of a leader? In every case, very. He must be. Those are good qualities and this is a good man. Just look at his halo.
A century of research has established that Mr. Thorndike's discovery is pervasive, subtly influential, and even culturally adaptable. In the United States, where individualism is prized, researchers have found that attractive people are judged to be more dominant and assertive; in collectivist Korea, the beautiful are thought to be more generous, sensitive and empathetic.
The halo effect also works in reverse, when it's sometimes called the "devil effect." Good luck trying to judge Hitler's skill at watercolours without being influenced by something other than what you see on the canvas.
The "devil effect" helps explain how we talk about terrorists. Whatever else one can say about people who deliberately fly planes into buildings or attack innocents knowing they will soon be shot dead by police – "evil" fits – they cannot be accused of cowardice. Such attacks plainly take courage, but "courageous and evil" generates an unsettling dissonance. So terrorists are routinely denounced as "cowards," which is absurd but psychologically satisfying.
There's little harm done when we unfairly insult dead terrorists, but that may not be true if we make the same mistake when judging Jian Ghomeshi. I believe he is the most talented broadcaster in Canada – and that is completely irrelevant.