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The Malcolm Gladwell problem

Malcolm Gladwell has made a good career out of taking a few research findings, buttressing them with a few stories from here and there, and creating sweeping, plausible, and appealingly counter-intuitive theories about human behavior, while ignoring anything that disagrees with his thesis. As someone once said, the facts agree with Gladwell’s theories except when they don’t but you’ll have to find those on your own.

After being initially taken in by Gladwell’s admittedly persuasive writing, I later realized that not only were his conclusions unreliable, he was basically a corporate shill and stopped reading him. (See this article that make this case.) I simply don’t take his work seriously anymore and have stopped reading him altogether. But that does not mean he can be ignored.

He apparently now has yet another book that takes his predictable counter-intuitive shtick, this time using the David and Goliath story to argue that what seems like a disadvantage can be an advantage. Chris Chabris, a cognitive scientist who has actually studied the kinds of things that Gladwell glibly writes about, does a careful analysis of his work. He says that the evidence simply do not support Gladwell’s theories and that those who dismiss him as an entertainer whose work should not be taken seriously are right but the problem is that many people who should know better do take seriously his assertions about the laws, rules, and causal theories that drive human behavior because he and his promoters explicitly push that view.

The question then is whether he is accurately conveying the science. Not whether he is making little mistakes or leaving out details that would bore the nonspecialist, but whether he is getting the big ideas right.

Chabris says the answer is usually ‘no’. He adds:

I had thought Gladwell was inadvertently misunderstanding the science he was writing about and making sincere mistakes in the service of coming up with ever more “Gladwellian” insights to serve his audience. But according to his own account, he knows exactly what he is doing, and not only that, he thinks it is the right thing to do. Is there no sense of ethics that requires more fidelity to truth, especially when your audience is so vast—and, by your own suggestion, so benighted—as to require oversimplification and to be unmoved by consistency and coherence?

John Crace has read and digested Gladwell’s latest book and condensed it to just 600 words so that you don’t have to bother reading it. He completely captures Gladwell’s breezy storytelling style of writing and argumentation,

Richard is dyslexic. Most people would consider it to be a disadvantage. But Richard worked very hard, got a bit lucky and founded his Virgin empire. Richard could not have done this had he not been dyslexic. Having dyslexia is actually a blessing and anyone who has the condition and has not become a billionaire should be ashamed.

In 1963, Martin Luther King went to Birmingham, Alabama. Martin Luther King was black. Birmingham, Alabama, was known to be the most racist city in the USA. Therefore, Birmingham, Alabama, was not a safe place for Martin Luther King. But Martin Luther King went anyway. If Martin Luther King had been white, no one would have noticed his presence in Birmingham, Alabama. But because Martin Luther King had the courage to be black and he did go to Birmingham, Alabama, the civil rights movement made significant progress.

Less is sometimes more. And more is sometimes less. It’s all a question of perception.

You should read Crace’s whole article. It’s a hoot.

There is a need for popularizers of research since most people do not have access to the primary literature or the time and expertise to wade through it. But it is precisely because of those limitations that the populatrizer needs to have a high standard of fidelity to the truth. Research is messy and the results rarely clear cut and you are doing no one any favors by pretending that it is not.

We have to have faith in people’s ability to live with some level of ambiguity, and make them aware that most conclusions are based on incomplete knowledge and despite some contradictory evidence, and that today’s ‘truths’ are subject to revision tomorrow in the light of new evidence.

Comments

  1. Mano Singham says

    Yes, I linked to it in my previous piece on Gladwell. Maybe I should add it again, just for completeness.

  2. scottbelyea says

    I agree with much of what you say, and I accept that Gladwell is superficial, incomplete, and often misleading. But it’s interesting to note that those who actually know about such things seem to be reduced to short columns criticizing Gladwell, which can easily have a flavour of sour grapes.

    It’s really the same problem with “debating” some glib creationists. Superficial, incomplete, and misleading statements can be made in two sentences that take two pages to knock down. It’s a serious problem in many areas, but I don’t claim to have anything approaching an answer. Perhaps it’s become even more of an issue in a short-attention-span tweeting society.

    Actually, though, Damon Runyon did a pretty fair job on Gladwell’s latest thesis some 75 years ago -

    “The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”

  3. says

    Weird the-Internet-is-a-small-world thing. I just read another piece of writing by John Crace, as he’s one of the two bloggers at ESPN’s Soccernet on our mutual favourite club, Tottenham Hotspur (football, world-style). I had to take a peek at his pic to see that yes, it’s the same fellow.

  4. 2up2down2furious says

    Balko’s writings on things like asset forfeiture and the militarization of police are decent (although he’s far from the first person to make most of his arguments), but generally Balko is the worst. For this reason, when discussing the drug war and police with friends, I’ll tend to recommend books by people like Michelle Alexander and Kristian Williams over his.

  5. 2up2down2furious says

    I can’t help but think that Gladwell himself is proof of his thesis in David and Goliath– his dimwittedness in the realm of fact has caused him to focus on his salesmanship, making him an excellent mountebank.

  6. DsylexicHippo says

    “Richard is dyslexic. Most people would consider it to be a disadvantage. But Richard worked very hard, got a bit lucky and founded his Virgin empire. Richard could not have done this had he not been dyslexic. Having dyslexia is actually a blessing and anyone who has the condition and has not become a billionaire should be ashamed.”

    I hang my head in shame.

  7. bmiller says

    Wow. Like 2up I have to admit that I have always enjoyed Balko’s take on police militarization, but what a nasty history.

  8. atheist says

    No problem Raging Bee. Actually, they profile a whole bunch of bullshit artists. They have Jeffrey Goldberg, Megan McArdle, Charles Murray, etc. I think its a great idea.

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