Why Malcolm Gladwell Matters, and Why That’s Unfortunate

The state of the universe.
Oct. 8 2013 11:39 PM

The Trouble With Malcolm Gladwell

I thought he was sincerely misunderstanding the science, but he knows exactly what he is doing.

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David with the head of Goliath, by Claude Vignon, 1620-23, Blanton Museum of Art, Austin.

Photo illustration by Slate, photo by Zereshk via Wikimedia Commons, painting by Claude Vignon

Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker writer and perennial best-selling author, has a new book out. It's called David and Goliath: Misfits, Underdogs, and the Art of Battling Giants. I reviewed it on Sept. 28 in The Wall Street Journal. (Other reviews have appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Millions, and Slate, to name a few; the Guardian has even “digested” the book into a 600-word satire.) The WSJ editors kindly gave me about 2,500 words to go into depth about the book, but there were many things I could not discuss or elaborate on. So here are some additional thoughts about Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath, the general modus operandi of his writing, and how he and others conceive of what he is doing.

There were some interesting reactions to my review. Some people tagged me as a jealous hater. One even implied that as a cognitive scientist (rather than a neuroscientist) I somehow lacked the capacity or credibility to criticize anyone's logic or adherence to evidence. A more serious response, of which I saw several instances, came from people who said in essence "Why do you take Gladwell so seriously—it's obvious he is just an entertainer." For example, here's Jason Kottke:

I enjoy Gladwell's writing and am able to take it with the proper portion of salt ... I read (and write about) most pop science as science fiction: good for thinking about things in novel ways but not so great for basing your cancer treatment on.
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The Freakonomics blog reviewer said much the same thing:

[C]ritics have primarily focused on whether the argument they think Gladwell is making is valid. I am going to argue that this approach misses the fact that the stories Gladwell tells are simply well worth reading.

I say good for you to everyone who doesn't take Gladwell seriously. But here's why I take him seriously: because I take him and his publisher at their word. On their face, many of the assertions and conclusions in Gladwell's books are clearly meant to describe lawful regularities about the way human mental life and the human social world work. And this has always been the case with his writing.

In The Tipping Point, Gladwell wrote of sociological regularities and even coined entirely new ones, like "The Law of the Few." Calling patterns of behavior "laws" is a basic way of signaling that they are robust empirical regularities. Laws of human behavior aren't as mathematically precise as laws of physics, but asserting one is about the strongest claim that can be made in social science. To say something is a law is to say that it applies with (near) universality and can be used to predict, in advance, with a fair degree of certainty, what will happen in a situation. It says this is truth you can believe in, and act on to your benefit. “The three rules of the Tipping Point—the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, the Power of Context … provide us with direction for how to go about reaching a Tipping Point,” Gladwell writes (emphasis mine).

A blurb from the publisher of David and Goliath avers: "The author of Outliers explores the hidden rules governing relationships between the mighty and the weak, upending prevailing wisdom as he goes." A rule is a causal or at least regularly occurring pattern in the workings of the world. If you say you are exploring hidden rules that govern relationships, you are promising to explicate social science. But we don't have to take the publisher's word for it. Here's the author himself, in the book, stating one of his theses:

“The fact of being an underdog changes people in ways that we often fail to appreciate. It opens doors, and creates opportunities and educates and permits things that might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.”

The emphasis on changes is in the original (at least in the version of the quote I saw on Gladwell's Facebook page). In an excerpt published in the Guardian, he wrote, "If you take away the gift of reading, you create the gift of listening." I added the emphasis on “create” to highlight the fact that Gladwell is here claiming a causal rule about the mind and brain, namely that having dyslexia causes one to become a better listener (something he says made superlawyer David Boies so successful).

Perhaps I am misunderstanding what Gladwell means when he talks of laws, rules, and so on. Maybe he uses these words figuratively, rather than literally, and I am being too tough on him to assume otherwise. Reasonable people may differ, but based on my reading of all of his books, I don’t think this is right. Gladwell has often said that he regards social science as an important and wonderful enterprise; just this weekend in his New York Times Book Review interview he said, “The most influential thinker, in my life, has been the psychologist Richard Nisbett. He basically gave me my view of the world.” He added that a famous academic book by Nisbett and Lee Ross, The Person and the Situation, is “the template for the genre of books that The Tipping Point and Blink and Outliers belong to.” And he told this month’s Costco member magazine:

There is this tremendous body of knowledge in the world of academia where extraordinary numbers of incredibly thoughtful people have taken the time to examine on a really profound level the way we live our lives and who we are and where we've been. That brilliant learning sometimes gets trapped in academia and never sees the light of day. I'm trying to give people access to all of that brilliant thinking. It's a way of going back to college long after you've graduated.

To me, all this suggests that Gladwell thinks he is conveying scientific knowledge to the masses, and wants to be judged on whether he has succeeded. He has certainly reached the masses—he was on the cover of the Costco Connection!—and I don’t begrudge him this at all. 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.

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