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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I've gone on at length with these examples because I think they also run counter to another claim that is sometimes made about Gladwell's writings: That he does nothing more than restate the obvious or banal. I couldn't disagree more here. Indeed, to his credit, what he writes about is the opposite of trivial. If Gladwell is right in his claims, we have all been acting unethically by watching professional football, and the sport will go the way of dogfighting, or at best boxing. If he is right about basketball, thousands of teams have been employing bad strategies for no good reason. If he is right about dyslexia, the world would literally be a worse place if everyone were able to learn how to read with ease, because we would lose the geniuses that dyslexia (and other "desirable difficulties") create. If he was right about how beliefs and desires spread through social networks in The Tipping Point, consumer marketing would have changed greatly in the years since. Actually, it did: Firms spent great effort trying to find “connectors” and “mavens” and to buy the influence of the biggest influencers, even though there was never causal evidence that this would work. (Read Duncan Watts's brilliant book Everything Is Obvious, Once You Know the Answerreviewed by me here—to understand why.) If Gladwell was right, also in The Tipping Point, about how much news anchors can influence our votes by deploying their smiles for and against their preferred candidates, then democracy as we know it is a charade (and not for the reasons usually given, but for the completely unsupported reason that subliminal persuaders can create any electoral results they want). And so on. These ideas are far from obvious, self-evident, or trivial. They do have the property of triggering a pleasurable rush of counterintuition, engaging a hindsight bias, and seeming correct once you have learned about them. But an idea that people feel like they already knew is much different from an idea people really did know all along.

Janet Maslin's New York Times review of David and Goliath begins by succinctly stating the value proposition that Gladwell's work offers to his readers:

The world becomes less complicated with a Malcolm Gladwell book in hand. Mr. Gladwell raises questions — should David have won his fight with Goliath? — that are reassuringly clear even before they are answered. His answers are just tricky enough to suggest that the reader has learned something, regardless of whether that’s true.
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(I would only add that the world becomes not just less complicated but therefore also better, which leaves the reader a little bit happier about life.) In a recent interview with the Guardian, Gladwell said, "If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn't read them: You're not the audience!"

I don't think the main flaw is oversimplification (though that is a problem: Einstein was right when he—supposedly—advised that things be made as simple as possible, but no simpler). As I wrote in my own review, the main flaw is a lack of logic and proper evidence in the argumentation. But consider what Gladwell's quote means. He is saying that if you understand his topics well enough to see what is erroneous or missing, then you are not the reader he wants. At a stroke he has said that anyone equipped to critically review his work should not be reading it. How convenient! Those who are left are only those who do not think the material is oversimplified.

Who are those people? They are the readers who will take Gladwell's laws, rules, and causal theories seriously; they will tweet them to the world, preach them to their underlings and colleagues, write them up in their own books and articles (David Brooks relied on Gladwell's claims more than once in his last book), and let them infiltrate their own decision-making processes. These are the people who will learn to trust their guts (Blink), search out and lavish attention and money on fictitious "influencers" (The Tipping Point), celebrate neurological problems rather than treat them (David and Goliath), and fail to pay attention to talent and potential because they think personal triumph results just from luck and hard work (Outliers). It doesn't matter if these are misreadings or imprecise readings of what Gladwell is saying in these books—they are common readings, and I think they are more common among exactly those readers Gladwell says are his audience. These readers are not unintelligent or uncritical; like everyone they are simply people who are not experts in every topic and trust writers to teach them about subjects they don’t know.

Sometimes Gladwell characterizes his work as something other than explaining science. In a recent interview on the Brian Lehrer show, Gladwell said that he puts the story first and the science second, and that he thinks discussions of the concerns of "academic research" in the sciences—i.e., logic, evidence, and truth—are "inaccessible" to his readers:

“I am a story-teller, and I look to academic research … for ways of augmenting story-telling. The reason I don’t do things their way is because their way has a cost: it makes their writing inaccessible. If you are someone who has as their goal ... to reach a lay audience ... you can't do it their way.”

This quote and another, from his interview in The Telegraph, about what readers "are indifferent to," suggest that Gladwell sees a conflict between logical argument and what readers want:

“And as I’ve written more books I’ve realized there are certain things that writers and critics prize, and readers don’t. So we’re obsessed with things like coherence, consistency, neatness of argument. Readers are indifferent to those things.”

Note, incidentally, that he mentions coherence, consistency, and neatness. But not correctness, or proper evidence. Perhaps he thinks that these are highfalutin cares for writers and critics, or perhaps he is some kind of postmodernist for whom they don't even exist in any cognizable form. In any case, I cannot agree with Gladwell's implication that accuracy and logic are incompatible with entertainment. If anyone could make accurate and logical discussion of science entertaining, it is Malcolm Gladwell.

Perhaps ... perhaps I am the one who is naive, but I was honestly very surprised by these recent quotes. 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? I think a higher ethic of communication should apply here, not a lower standard.

This brings me back to the question of why Gladwell matters so much. Why am I, an academic who is supposed to be keeping his head down and toiling away on inaccessible stuff for others to bring to light for the masses, spending so much time on reading Gladwell’s interviews, reviewing his book, and writing about him? I think that what Malcom Gladwell says matters because, whether academics like it or not, he is incredibly influential.

As Gladwell himself might put it: "We tend to think that people who write popular books don't have much influence. But we are wrong; their influence may be perverse and often baffling, but it is influence nonetheless." Sure, Gladwell has huge sales figures and is said to command big speaking fees, and his TED talks are among the most watched. But James Patterson has huge sales too, and he isn't driving public opinion or belief. I know Gladwell has influence for multiple reasons. One is that even highly-educated people in leadership positions in academia—a field where I have experience—are sometimes more familiar with and more likely to cite Gladwell's writings than those of the top scholars in their own fields, even when those top scholars have put their ideas into trade-book form like Gladwell does.

Another data point: David and Goliath has only been out for a few days, but already there's an article online about its "business lessons." A sample assertion:

Gladwell proves that not only do many successful people have dyslexia, but that they have become successful in large part because of having to deal with their difficulty. Those diagnosed with dyslexia are forced to explore other activities and learn new skills that they may have otherwise pursued.

Of course this is nonsense—there is no "proof" of anything in this book, much less a proof that dyslexia causes success. I wonder if the author of this article even has an idea what proper evidence in support of these assertions would be, or if he knows that these kinds of assertions cannot be "proved." In any case, we can expect David and Goliath to be cited as evidence—sometimes definitive evidence—many more times. People take Gladwell seriously.

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