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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Here’s one final indicator of Malcolm Gladwell's influence—and I'll be upfront and say that it comes from an utterly nonscientific and imprecise methodology—that suggests why he matters. I Googled the phrases "Malcolm Gladwell proved" and "Malcolm Gladwell showed" and compared the results to the similar "Steven Pinker proved" and "Steven Pinker showed" (adding in the results of redoing the Pinker search with the incorrect "Stephen"). I chose Steven Pinker not because he is an academic, nor because he’s a co-author of mine, but because he has published a lot of best-selling books and widely read essays and is considered a leading public intellectual, like Gladwell. Pinker is surely more influential than most other academics. It just so happens that he published a critical review of Gladwell's previous book—but this also is an indicator of the fact that Pinker chooses to engage the public rather than just his professional colleagues. The results, in total number of hits:

Gladwell: proved 5,300, showed 19,200 = 24,500 total

Pinker: proved 9, showed 625 = 634 total


So the total influence ratio as measured by this crude technique is 24,500/634, or more than 38-to-1 in favor of Gladwell. I wasn't expecting it to be nearly this high myself. (Interestingly, those "influenced" by Pinker are only 9/634, or 1.4 percent likely to think he "proved" something as opposed to the arguably more correct "showed" it. Gladwell's influencees are 5,300/24,500 or 21.6 percent likely to think their influencer "proved" something.) Refining the searches, adding "according to Gladwell" versus "according to Pinker," and so on will change the numbers, but I doubt those corrections would significantly redress a 38-to-1 difference. And if you are worried that I have rigged the results by trying a lot of comparisons until I found this one, I give you my word that Steven Pinker was the first and only one I tried. And I fully understand that properly tracing and comparing influence would require much more work than this. As I said, it is just one suggestive data point—a story, if you will. (“Did you know that Malcolm Gladwell is 38 times more influential than Steven Pinker? I read it on Slate!”) And I am foregrounding this story’s evidentiary limitations, rather than ignoring them.

When someone with the reach and persuasive power of Malcolm Gladwell says that he is a storyteller who just uses research to "augment" the stories—who places the stories in the lead and the science in a supporting role, rather than the other way around—he's essentially placing his work in the category of inspirational books like The Secret. As Daniel Simons and I noted in a New York Times essay, such books tend to sprinkle in references and allusions to science as a rhetorical strategy. The titular “secret” of The Secret is in fact a purported scientific law—the “Law of Attraction.” Accessorizing your otherwise inconsistent or incoherent story-based argument with pieces of science is a profitable rhetorical strategy because references to science are crucial touchpoints that help readers maintain their default instinct to believe what they are being told. They help because when readers see "science" they can suppress any skepticism that might be bubbling up in response to the inconsistencies and contradictions. I believe that most of Gladwell’s readers think he is telling stories to bring alive what science has discovered, rather than using science to attach a false authority to the ideas he has distilled from the stories he chooses to tell.

In his Telegraph interview, Gladwell again played down the seriousness of his work: "The mistake is to think these books are ends in themselves. My books are gateway drugs—they lead you to the hard stuff." And David and Goliath does cite scholarly works, books and journal articles, and journalism, in its footnotes and endnotes. But I wonder how many readers will follow those links, as compared to the number who will take its categorical claims at face value. And of those that do follow the links, how many will realize that many of the most important links are missing?


This leads to my last topic, the psychology experiment Gladwell deploys in David and Goliath to explain what he means by "desirable difficulties." The difficulties he talks about are serious challenges, like dyslexia or the death of a parent during one's childhood. But the experiment is a 40-person study on Princeton students who solved three mathematical reasoning problems presented in either a normal typeface or a difficult-to-read typeface. Counterintuitively, the group that read in a difficult typeface scored higher on the reasoning problems than the group that read in a normal typeface.

In my review, I criticized Gladwell for describing this experiment at length without also mentioning that a replication attempt with a much larger and more representative sample of subjects did not find an advantage for difficult typefaces. One of the original study's authors wrote to me to argue that his effect is robust when the test questions are at an appropriate level of difficulty for the participants in the experiment, and that his effect has in fact been replicated “conceptually” by other researchers. However, I cannot find any successful direct replications—repetitions of the experiment that use the same methods and get the same results—and direct replication is the evidence that I believe is most relevant.

This may be an interesting controversy for cognitive psychologists, but it's not the point here. The point is that Gladwell makes absolutely no mention of any uncertainty over whether this effect is reliable. All he does is cite the original 2007 study of 40 subjects and rest his case. As I mentioned in my review, in 2013 this is virtual malpractice for a sophisticated writer whose beat includes social science, where the validity of even highly cited results has come into question. Readers who have been hooked by Gladwell’s prose and look to the endnotes of this chapter for a new fix will find no sources for the "hard stuff"—e.g., the true state of the science of "desirable difficulty"—that he claims to be promoting.

And if the hard stuff has value, why does Gladwell not wade into it more deeply and let it inform his writing? He doesn’t need to make his whole book about the troubles with replication and false positive results in social science (though I’m sure he could write a more interesting book on this topic than almost anyone else could). But why not, when addressing the question of how to pick the right college, discuss the intriguing research that considers whether going to an elite school really adds economic value (over going to a lesser-ranked school) for those people who get admitted to both? Or, when discussing dyslexia, instead of claiming it might be a gift to those who have it and is certainly a gift to society, how about considering seriously the hypothesis that this kind of early life difficulty jars the course of development, adding uncertainty (increasing the chances of both success and failure, though probably not in equal proportions) rather than directionality. There is so much more that Gladwell could have done with the fascinating and important topics in David and Goliath and his other books.

At least the difficulty finding a simple experiment to serve as illustration might have jarred Gladwell into realizing that there is no relevant nexus between the typeface effect, however fragile or robust it might turn out to be, and the effect of a neurological condition or the death of a parent. Pretending the connection is any more than metaphorical just loosens the threads of logic to the point of unraveling completely. But perhaps Gladwell already knows this. After all, in his Telegraph interview, he said readers don't care about consistency and coherence, only critics and writers do.

I can certainly think of one gifted writer with a huge audience who doesn't seem to care that much. I think the result is the propagation of a lot of wrong beliefs among a vast audience of influential people. And that's unfortunate.

A previous version of this article appeared in Christopher Chabris’ blog under the title “Why Malcolm Gladwell Matters (and Why That’s Unfortunate).”

Read Dan Engber's review of David and Goliath, “Gladwell is Goliath.”

Christopher Chabris is a psychology professor at Union College and co-author of The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us. Follow him on Twitter.