Friday, October 4, 2013

Why Malcolm Gladwell Matters (And Why That's Unfortunate)

Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker writer and perennial bestselling author, has a new book out. It's called David and Goliath: Misfits, Underdogs, and the Art of Battling Giants. I reviewed it (PDF) in last weekend's edition of The Wall Street Journal. (Other reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Millions, to name a few.) Even though the WSJ editors kindly gave me about 2500 words to go into depth about the book, there were many things I did not have space to discuss or elaborate on. This post contains 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.

I noticed some interesting reactions to my review. Some people said I was 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. 
The Freakonomics blog reviewer said much the same thing:
... critics 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 the reason I take him seriously is 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 (2000), Gladwell wrote of sociological regularities and even coined 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.

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 hidden rule is a counterintuitive, causal mechanism behind 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).

I've gone on at length with these examples because I think they also run counter to another point I have seen made about Gladwell's writings recently: 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 fads 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 "influentials" and buy their influence, even though there was never good causal evidence that this would work. (See Duncan Watts's brilliant book Everything is Obvious, Once You Know the Answerreviewed here—to understand why.) If Gladwell is 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 engaging a hindsight bias, of triggering a pleasurable rush of counterintuition, of 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.
(I would only add that the world becomes not just less complicated but better, which leaves the reader a little bit happier about life.) In a recent interview with The Guardian, Gladwell as much as agreed: "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 enough to see what he is doing wrong, then you are not the reader he wants. At a stroke he has said that anyone equipped to properly 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.

Not backing down, Gladwell said on the Brian Lehrer show that he really doesn't care about logic, evidence, and truth—or that he thinks discussions of the concerns of "academic research" in the sciences, i.e., logic, evidence, and truth—are "inaccessible" to his lowly 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.
In this and another quote, from his interview in The Telegraph, about what readers "are indifferent to," the condescension and arrogance are in full view:
And as I’ve written more books I’ve realised 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 do not 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 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 admission, so benighted—as to need oversimplification and to be unmoved by little things like 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, spending so much time on reading his interviews, reviewing his book, and writing this blog post? 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." 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."

One final indicator of Malcolm Gladwell's influence—and I'll be upfront and say this is an utterly non-scientific 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, but because he has published a lot of bestselling books and widely-read essays and is considered a leading public intellectual, like Gladwell. Pinker is surely much 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 5300, showed 19200 = 24500 total
Pinker: proved 9, showed 625 = 634 total

So the total influence ratio as measured by this crude technique is 24500/634, or over 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% likely to think he "proved" something as opposed to the arguably more correct "showed" it. Gladwell's influencees are 5300/24500 or 21.6% 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 enough corrections will significantly redress a 38:1 difference.

When someone with this much influence on what people seem to really believe (as indexed by my dashed-off method) says that he is just a storyteller who just uses research to "augment" the stories—who places the stories first 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 Dan Simons and I noted in a New York Times essay, such books sprinkle in references and allusions to science as a rhetorical strategy. 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.

In his Telegraph interview, Gladwell again played down the seriousness of his own ideas: "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 of its 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 says absolutely nothing about the controversy over whether this effect is reliable. All he does is cite the original 2007 study of 40 subjects and rest his case. Even those who have been hooked by his 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 himself and let it inform his writing? When discussing the question of how to pick the right college, why not discuss the intriguing research that debates 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 is a gift to society, how about devoting the space to a serious consideration of 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 was so much more he could have done with these fascinating and important topics.

But at least the difficulty finding a simple experiment to serve as metaphor might have jarred Gladwell into realizing that the connection between the typeface effect, however robust it might turn out to be, and the effect of a neurological condition or loss of a parent, is in fact just metaphorical. There is no relevant nexus between reading faint type and losing a parent at an early age, and pretending there is just loosens the threads of logic to the point of breaking. But perhaps Gladwell already knows this. After all, in his Telegraph interview, he said readers don't care about stuff like 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 effect is the propagation of a lot of wrong beliefs among a vast audience of influential people. And that's unfortunate.


  1. Replies
    1. Your continued pettiness (sp?) and frustration at anyone who talks about the power of the human spirit speaks more about your own shortcomings then their own.
      People like Gladwell and the author of the secret are selling a rare commodity: hope in a world of naysayers they should be praised.
      Have you ever had anyone praise anything you have very written as helping them be a better person?

      Watch the critic Anton ego speech in ratatouille. You thumb your nose at the world's creators and create nothing of any lasting value yourself.

  2. He is certainly misleadinig, as you say, about the particular points at issue such as the typeface study. But his influence is not only pernicious because of these specific instances, but because he gets it by, in effect, slandering truth by misrepresenting it and by insisting that the fact of the misrepresentation is of no concern. A writer may drop below Einstein's "lower bound" of simplification--but then he ought to say that he has, so that the reader is not misled about what truth looks like. Gladwell's professed indifference to this is shockingly cynical. And he's not a good enough stylist to pass as a lyrical essayist exploring his own thoughts or experiences (not that truthfulness isn't the only justification for these exercises, either, but in the search for truth a more fictive use of language is often necessary). By some strange sort of coincidence, the themes that preoccupy him are exactly those themes most flattering (in their content and their reassuring lack of anything intellectually challenging) to people in the position to pay for those large speaking fees.

  3. I feel like I've been sucker punched. I've read Malcolm Gladwell's books (except D&G) because he's a compelling story teller about interesting stuff. I never doubted the veracity of his assertions. I have even quoted him to buttress arguments in my software development blog. Thank you for revealing how soft the "science" is and for reminding me that Gladwell's modus operandi leans more to entertainment than illumination. It seems Gladwell has taken a page from George Lakoff by deftly using language & selective science to frame assertions within the context of enjoyable stories to manipulate & beguile the reader.

    1. This comment is validation for our work, as public intellectuals, whether we are academics, bloggers, journalists, or software developers. Not only do we have a duty to share our perspectives, but your reaction shows that our work can have the desired effect: provoking reflexive thought.

  4. Great analysis.Gladwell's writings have bothered me for years.

    Then someone recommended I read Gladdwell's "What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures" - a book which starts with Ron Popeil. It was astonishing. Gladwell is in love with Popeil - and lionized him while ignoring entirely the incredible downside of Popeil's empire (including the RonCo bankruptcy).

    But then it struck me: Gladwell is a literary version of the Jersey boardwalk huckster. Yes, he's dressed up pretty in New York Times' reviews. But fundamentally he's a master at pitching ideas & getting people to buy the ideas regardless of their actual value. He writes compelling stories even though his ideas don't deliver the amazing results that the huckster claims.

    Sadly, the pop-marketing world is fertile ground on which the seeds of this dressed up hucksterism fall... After all, no one falls for a great sales pitch faster than a salesman.

    1. "After all, no one falls for a great sales pitch faster than a salesman."

      Can you cite the Gladwell reference for this assertion, please

  5. Thank you for writing this.

    I find his oversimplifications, and Shame Project Profile, very disturbing.

    He also made these troubling statements (given his new book's topic) on a RadioLab episode:

    MALCOLM GLADWELL: Oh, I never ever cheer for the underdog.

    INTERVIEWER: You don't?



    MALCOLM GLADWELL: "I'm distressed by the injustice of the person who should win not winning."

    --- He continues on with his twisted arguments in that episode titled "On the Winning Side"

    P.S: I am not a RadioLab listener.

  6. Great post, and very good points. It put into very solid words what I've somewhat vaguely felt whenever reading Gladwell, specifically that his answers or theses are too simplistic to account for the scenarios he discusses.

    Some of his ideas are useful, regardless of their scientific basis, for instance the 10,000 hour rule from Outliers. While his apparent assertion that spending 10,000 hours practicing anything will put you on the professional level at that skill, is obviously untrue, certainly spending 10,000 hours practicing something will not make you worse at it.

    The funny thing about it, of course, is that that whole "rule" could be boiled down to, "Give it time and keep trying."

    Combine 10,000 hours with some intelligent exploration of a skillset and some natural aptitude, and you'll probably get somewhere.

    The annoying thing about Gladwell is that he's essentially targeting himself at the "self-help" crowd, in other words people who feel they are down in life and need a reason to feel good about their existence, while using pseudo-science (or at least selective science) to elevate himself ever-so-slightly above the likes of Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, and Anthony Robbins.

    His books let you feel like you've learned something real, and feel good about yourself in the same way that self-help books do, without feeling like you've bought into some kooky shit. In other words, he's a clever bastard, and a good writer, but far more cynical than his books make him out to be.

    Anyway, that was a lot of words to say great post and I agree with you. Thanks!

    1. Your argument doesn't follow. He doesn't have to be cynical for his books to appeal to the self-help crowd. I think its more likely that he is a bit of a self-consumer--he is enamored of the same arguments that his readers are, that's why he is good at selling them.

    2. I agree. Could he not just be a self-deluded dilettante?

    3. >>>While his apparent assertion that spending 10,000 hours practicing anything

      See, it's not his assertion. It's from another book called Talent is Overrated. See an excerpt/summary here:

    4. My guess is that Gladwell took it from Dan Levitin (citing This Is Your Brain on Music, in Outliers), who in turn took it from K. Anders Ericsson (giving adequate credit). Ericsson followed in diverse people’s footsteps, since the 1940s, but it sounds like he was the first one to assign a specific time value.
      That “rule of thumb” had become quite mainstream in cognitive science long before Gladwell started using it, and it's less trivial than it sounds. It's based on memory, as one would guess, but it can be achieved through different ways (e.g., rehearsing chess games in your head might work) and doesn't really lead to transferable skills.

  7. Awesome article. We already are too quick to infer causation when none exists; when popular authors make claims without supporting evidence, they only exacerbate this problem. Gladwell definitely presents the arguments in his book as truth, as you point out, and that presentation is dishonest. Nobody's asking him to write a standard academic research paper; the critique is that the claims he makes should accurately express what we know and what we don't.

  8. This was a very helpful review. Thank you.

  9. Thank you for your amazing review.

    Your criticisms of Gladwell's approach are why I generally do not read pop science books written by non-academics (i.e., journalists.) There are plenty of academics who write material that is accessible to laypeople (e.g., Sam Gosling, Jonathan Haidt). Sorry, Malcom, truth trumps twisting the evidence to make things interesting.

  10. Thanks to all of you for reading my (long) post and for leaving your comments!

    1. After reading the review I found it like most reviews of non-scientific writers by scientists; too much about what is not perfect. Gladwell’s books gets his readers interested in reading a good tale. I have not read the David and Goliath book but will now. His prose keeps you on your toes and makes you think above all else. In Outliers he presents a very believable scenario about how special people become special. It would be easy to say that by testing all of these genius examples in history we could prove without question their higher IQ points to their lifelong accomplishments. What the book is really saying is if you work hard at something for a long time you could be world class. I’ll stick with the fact that it is an interesting read and provides hope for the non-genius’ of the world of whom there are many successful examples.

      I believe the big picture calls for us to focus on the best intent of actions rather than perfection in analysis or deeds. Philosophically speaking, good works produce good results (karma, golden rule, etc).. Good intentions produce good people which aligns themselves with their souls. I have read two books by Gladwell and both left me feeling hopeful for the average Joe!!!

  11. Thanks for a very well structured and reasoned argument. However, i also feel, that the popularity of writers like Gladwell points to the yawning gap between 'researchers' and 'lay people'. To live their life better, lay people want conclusions which they can use in daily life, not 'conditional statements' with 'ifs and buts'. Researchers, in the name of accuracy and evidence, do not give them this actionable plan. And when someone fills the gap with incorrect logic, it is painful to watch.

  12. I'm reading Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow at the moment (slowly), and I have started to get the nagging sense of a recurring pattern: 1- psychological trick is set up, 2 - psychological trick is revealed, 3- it is explained "why I just fell for the psychological trick". At the time, you get an "aha" moment of "that's how this all 'works' then..." But when I reflect a bit more, I start to think "was I really thinking what the book says I was thinking during the 'trick' part of the process?" Or is the 'reveal' conditioning me into thinking that's what I was thinking? Seems Gladwell might be pulling a similar trick?

    1. Kahneman, at least, did the research himself. Yes, the book is written in a similar fashion (also Freakonomics, whatever the Heath Brothers have written, and many other top sellers - thinking also Charles Duhigg....) but Kahneman is a researcher and has the research to back him up - and you can read that research. Gladwell, although an excellent speaker and "forensic" writer, isn't a primary researcher. He finds stories that back up his notions and then writes about them, creating a compelling narrative to promote his view of humanity. There's nothing "wrong" with this, as long as you are a discerning reader who realizes it. Hence the danger of the "Gladwell proves" - because he doesn't.

  13. There's this great story-teller using tricks to make his stories seem more true! Tricks so sneaky that even the story-teller is being fooled by some of them!

    Gee whizz. That's never happened before.

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  15. I'm not sure what to think of this, but I can say that it makes me seriously question how much real evidence there is for a claim, when the author devotes at least two paragraphs to 'google magic', where he invents some numbers based on google searches he thought up and then (for some reason) started taking ratios. Sure, he claims at the outset that this is "utterly non-scientific and imprecise", but then why does he use it in his article?
    How do we know that he didn't google 20 phrases, and only showed the ones that best demonstrated hit point? Checking his numbers is a bit suspect as well. When I repeat the search, I get:
    "Malcolm Gladwell showed" : 16,800 hits
    "Gladwell showed" : 4050 hits
    Gladwell showed : (no quotes) : 245,000 hits
    I don't know why the second phrase gave me fewer hits, so I'll rack it up the mysterious of the Google search algorithm (which are a trade secret, and which change very frequently). It seems to me that you could use this method to come up with any kind of evidence you want.
    Also, this part of the argument seems entirely semantic. at least in mathematics, the words "show" and "prove" are synonymous. If an exercise in a book says "show A implies B" instead of "prove A implies B", there is no difference in what you are supposed to do.
    Finally, why the comparison with Pinker? The author gives a reason, but maybe several authors fit the bill, and only Pinker demonstrated his point.
    I am not arguing directly about the author's claims; as I said, I don't really know what to think about them yet. But the fact that he uses google search magic to corroborate his claims make them highly suspect. Either he is stupefied by the magical internets; or he doesn't respect the intelligence of his readers, thinking that they will by this kindergardener reasoning; or his argument simply wan't long enough to justify his articles word count, so he cobbled together some garbage and pretended it was journalism.
    In any case, I am not compelled to take him seriously, nor to read this author (Chabris) further.

    1. "I'm not sure what to think of this but..." is a rhetorical pose to make your disagreement coy. You're not coy. You're close to a troll, however. Taking Chabris to task over his use of google search rankings is pedantic. If you bothered to apply your deep critical skills to Malcolm Gladwell I wouldn't have to be thinking about you. And you'd be better informed and I could get on with my life.

  16. Interesting review. I find it curious that the reviewer seems to prefer a binary (black/white versus gray) conclusion about Gladwell's works (of which the reviewer disagrees with Gladwell's use of binary conclusions), but that's an easy target in any critical review (or meta-review, or meta-meta-review...)

    Certainly it's good to keep an open mind while reading/studying another's work -- and by open mind I mean a healthy skepticism and evaluation of what's going on. I can't help but apply this to both Gladwell's works and to the claims of the reviewer. In my mind it's not necessarily (or always) a zero-sum game. (Nor does each side have to be equal, in some literary type of False Equivalence as in James Fallows' recent essays).

    In other words, in my perspective there's a distinction and difference and possibility of interplay between creating a song, and creating an article about music theory. You can have both, either, neither, or the fourth unexpected option.

    I'll continue to enjoy Gladwell when I enjoy Gladwell, and continue to disagree when I feel I need to disagree (and enjoy/roll my eyes as needed at his critical reviewers). And let the notes (musical or metaphorical) fall where they may.

    1. Very well put. Both the music creator and music reviewer are there for showing different windows. And both are useful.

  17. Where some people see synchronicity in Gladwell's writing, I too tend to see bad comparisons.

    That said, you're off base on the Tipping Point. The "influencers" thesis has been around a lot longer than Gladwell (the earliest formal statement I know of is in Katz and Lazarsfeld, 1956). The reason it didn't revolutionize marketing is because marketing folks already knew this.

    Christakis and Fowler's Connected is a good introduction on contemporary attempts to empirically measure diffusion in social networks. Owing to some bad math, their conclusions were overstated at the time of publishing. Google scholaring "network theory information diffusion" will turn up quite a few more recent and more robust results.

    Of course, the amusing part is that if you discount the "influencers" paradigm, you also take the rug out from your argument that Gladwell matters because he influences public opinion.

  18. Great post. Though I will say that Malcolm was one of the first non-fiction books I read and it probably played a role in sparking my interest in more academic books. I tried going back and reading outliers and I must say I felt it was very silly in hindsight for buying into his book but nevertheless it got me interested. I do feel though I am in the minority of cases and most readers will never delve deeply, and mostly just stick to what they read for talking points.

  19. @ Steve Brown

    The basis for the author's argument and review of Gladwell's m.o. doesn't entirely hinge upon the "suspect Google Search Results", and while somewhat circumstantial still lends credence.
    A better example in the essay of Gladwell's misrepresentation of "hard science" would be the study using the 40 students at Princeton ( which when conducted with larger groups proves inconclusive...) but I would like to respond to what you said specifically:

    " google search magic to corroborate his claims makes them highly suspect"

    There are a number of factors that would cause your SERP ( Search Engine Results Page) to not jive with the exact number quoted above and I can think of a few without even making an unbelievable claim to have "cracked" or "understand comprehensively" Google's search algorithms ( Google pays many people far smarter than I am to way stay ahead of internet marketers).

    E.g , you are logged into Google or Gmail when searching and based on your search history, what google already knows your interests to be, prior search phrases already containing Gladwell etc. are providing you with SERP result numbers you see instead of matching precisely the author's numbers. Another distinct possibility? Browsers being used, the difference between running a search on a mobile device versus a computer....

    The "Google Search Magic" as you call it is not the entire basis of his claim and for you to discount his entire premise out of hand because of a less than scientific method is just as equally absurd.

    Search results do not necessarily prove unequivocally his point, but the jump and dissonance between Charbis using SER number and you saying the author "doesn't respect the intelligence of his readers" is quite ridiculous.

    I for one , believe it is you who is "stupefied by the magical internets", as most readers can comprehend and realize that search engine results do not make or break Chabris' point!

    1. Use Duck Duck Go to get unbiased Google search results.

  20. I was with you until you started your google search analysis... Talk about hypocritical!

  21. Have you seen this post? (not scientific though it does give more context than Gladwell does and expose his story-telling motive a bit)

    1. This was really interesting. Thanks for linking.

      I find, however, that Gladwell is vindicated on this one in the end. A Korean military officer corrected the article's misunderstanding of rank and deference in the comments, also reinforcing the argument that Korean honorific endings interfere with communication in high-stress, time-sensitive situations. And there is a follow-up post wherein Gladwell replies to the piece. The blog posted their response to Gladwell's response and Gladwell commented on that post, revealing more about his sources. Expertise, cultural understanding, and research all appear to be on Gladwell's side in the end.

      Here's Gladwell's rebuttal:
      Here's the blog's counter-rebuttal with Gladwell's follow-up in the comments:

  22. Thanks again for all the comments. I will post some replies soon. Meanwhile, a reader named Kyle tried to post some notes that were too lengthy for Blogger's limits. He emailed them to me and gave me permission to post them myself. The next few comments will be his.

  23. COMMENT #1 BY "KYLE":

    I feel like your review quotes Gladwell from interviews, and then completely misses the point he is making in those interviews, while at the same time inferring things that simply aren't there. When Gladwell says,

    "If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn't read them: you're not the audience!"

    His point is that his goal is not to influence academia, but to distill (his own personal interpretation of) it. He should make more of a point about this, and I feel it's not written about anywhere, but nearly every field Gladwell writes about is open to some interpretation. He simply presents his.

    Your interpretation? He doesn't want to be held accountable! Other people go away! What is he really saying? If I was writing it for academics, I would have written something entirely academic, and left my interpretation out of it.

    You go on, radically re-interpreting him:

    "Not backing down, Gladwell said on the Brian Lehrer show that he really doesn't care about logic, evidence, and truth—or that he thinks discussions of the concerns of "academic research" in the sciences, i.e., logic, evidence, and trut —are "inaccessible" to his lowly 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.'"

    Gladwell's quote does nothing more than point out that if you want these topics to sell as books, you have to write them as stories. If you write them in a way that satisfies academics, they won't sell to the common man. You go on to make a somewhat petty argument that you disagree--that's nice, and I would like to think so too, but who is the best *selling* author? I think we can all agree that, of all points, he knows what he is talking about here.

    However, does Gladwell say he "really doesn't care about logic, evidence, and truth"? Please. You disgrace yourself by injecting so much nonsense into such a benign quote.

    I can't help but slam my head against the desk watching you read what you want to read into his quotes. It boggles the mind that someone in your field could be so susceptible to such blatant... I don't even know what to call it. It's beyond cherry picking and bias. Just, trying to see what you want to see where it isn't.

    1. Yes -- I came to the comments to make the similar points about the interpretations of the Gladwell quotations. I read "If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn't read them: you're not the audience!" to mean that if you are already familiar with the material, don't complain, because the book is written to be accessible to people who aren't. And I admire Gladwell's storytelling skill -- it's engaging and memorable. It's not science writing. Gladwell himself refers to his work as a gateway to the harder stuff. To me, the stories (weaving together, human-interest, historical and philosophical anecdotes) are the main attraction, not the nebulous themes or the hat-tips to research.

    2. "The book is written to be accessible to people who aren't (familiar with the material)" But if the book is not rigorous in evidence and logic, what difference does it make if it's accessible? He's graciously letting the general public access inferior arguments, blanketing them in good stories to make them feel like they now know something scientific.

  24. COMMENT #2 BY "KYLE":

    You write:

    "In this and another quote, from his interview in The Telegraph, about what readers 'are indifferent to,' the condescension and arrogance are in full view:

    'And as I’ve written more books I’ve realised 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.'"

    I'm just blown away. Same thing. Arrogance and condescension in full view? I don't see that at all. Not even a little bit. But you see him as arrogant. And so you read it into his words. You are oblivious to the fact that Gladwell and you share completely differing worldviews; in his mind, his books are valid. His critics, like yourself, are focusing on trivialities and hung up on things that just don't matter. And he is right, to some degree! He isn't writing a dissertation. You are not his audience.

    Let me ask you: when a grandfather shares wisdom gained through hard life experiences with his grandkids, tells stories of his life and extrapolates to lessons he gained from them, is he doing the kids harm? By using n=1 data? Gladwell sees himself in the same light. He has gained insight through a combination of academia-light reading, journalistic style research, and personal intuition. He then writes very compelling books. Like a grandfather, I'm sure he makes plenty of errors. But he's not an academic trying to be anal about preventing any error.

    Your interpretation?

    "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 do not 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."

    The fact that he doesn't mention correctness or proper evidence is NOT that he believes they don't matter, but that he believes he satisfies correctness, and that his evidence is adequate--just not to an academic standard! In other words, sometimes the grandfather gets a lesson right from his n=1 data. Would that be acceptable in academia? No. But academia is *wrong* to reject some of this data. (I understand *why* they reject such data, and it makes sense. But it doesn't mean that real, useful lessons from anecdotal evidence do not exist. That's my point. That's Gladwell's perspective, as far as I can tell. And it's a point COMPLETELY lost on you.)

  25. COMMENT #3 BY "KYLE":

    You write:

    "Perhaps ... perhaps I am the one who is naive, but I was honestly very surprised by these 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 admission, so benighted—as to need oversimplification and to be unmoved by little things like consistency and coherence? I think a higher ethic of communication should apply here, not a lower standard."

    Trust me, he knows he isn't being an academic. But he believes in his writing. He, like a grandfather, is not being unethical by sharing his take on the world. It is up to other individuals to take the good and let go of the bad. I love Gladwell's stuff, and even though I have listened to the audiobook of 'outliers' twice, I don't accept that there isn't some kind of innate talent that is also coming into play.

    Why? My own personal n=1, intuition based beliefs. THAT is the realm Gladwell is operating in. Judging him otherwise just misses the point, and your quote/response method could not have made that dissonance clearer.

  26. COMMENT #4 BY "KYLE":

    You mention Gladwell picking the form of the study that best suits his purposes, even though a larger study later performed did not find the same effect. This is important, because I think it *could* be the strongest piece of actual data you have to present for him being an *unethical* writer, which is the case you are making by the end of your article.

    I think it's very important to note that you also find reason to pause at the discrepancy between the studies--and, given that you mention that you intend to post later on the topic, you obviously have an *opinion* on the matter as to which studies should be followed and which ones not.

    Why can't Gladwell be in the same place, also having an opinion on which study is valid, and which one isn't? Your argument would then be, as you said, that he should have gone into explaining, at least, that there is question about this study, since the results have not always been replicated, and that the original author argues that there's a reason the larger study did not succeed in replicating the results. But, again, that is EXACTLY the point. The vast majority of people don't WANT to read that stuff.

    I do. You do. But we're the exception. The majority of those people out there making Gladwell's fortune? They just want a complete picture. They're not in this for the science. Will they walk away with some wrong ideas, take some assumption of Gladwell's as gospel? Sure. Is this a terrible crime? It's only replacing some other misconception they probably already had. And they do it all the time with other data points. So who cares? People like you and me, on the other hand, will type "David and Goliath criticism" and go look for exactly where others with higher qualifications disagree with him, and weigh their criticism.

    And that's fine. Welcome to the world. Most people don't care about truth, they just care about the narrative. That's why fiction sells more than non-fiction... And it's something Gladwell has beautifully exploited. More power to him.

    In other words, we come back to our proverbial grandfather. He may know other people with different experiences as his, and he may even have come across some conflicting data in his own life. But he doesn't sit his kids down and go over all of the conflicting data with them. And I'm sure he (even sometimes wrongly) creates little explanations for why those data points didn't fit his model, in his mind.

    (Lest a counterargument be made that I am justifying Gladwell being patronizing to us, I would like to point out that this form of conversation can just as easily happen over coffee or dinner; most people sit down and tell each other complete narratives, and talk as if the world is a thing understood, and speak in generalities, using hyperbole. Gladwell isn't quite as bad as all of that, but he is certainly leaning towards writing to people in the way they most naturally think--and it certainly isn't immoral. Only in an academic setting is one beholden to explain all data useful or not to your narrative.)

    1. "Gladwell isn't quite as bad as all of that, but he is certainly leaning towards writing to people in the way they most naturally think--and it certainly isn't immoral."

      This seems to be your thesis Kyle, to which I say: who cares if he's immoral or unethical? Even if Chris does, so? Gladwell is still misusing evidence and probably drawing improper conclusions. He says wrong things as though they're right. You don't have a problem with that stuff being influential? Do you have a problem with Jenny McCarthy? She's full of shit about autism, but doesn't think she is, and she has been tremendously influential. That's bad.

      Regardless of how egregious the error (and yes, McCarthy is way worse than Gladwell), all wrongness in the world should be diminished, not propagated. Maybe that's not the way things are, but it's the way things should be, and I applaud Chris for fighting that fight.

    2. thanks for posting these very critical comments!

      I will do the "false equivalence" bit -- I think Kyle is right that the quotes were treated unfairly, but that does not absolve Gladwell of taking shortcuts.

  27. Great post. As an aspiring pop-science writer myself, I constantly worry that I am just trying to be Gladwellian. However, I am going to have to throw my hat in the "don't take him seriously" ring. People took Jonah Lehrer seriously and look what happened - he made up quotes by Bob Dylan. Is that the same as omitting replication studies? Every pharmaceutical company on the Earth does exactly what Malcolm Gladwell does. Do you take pharmaceutical marketing seriously? I don't - nobody should.

  28. Critical thinking is hard. Takes training. Remember, we're raised on a steady diet of easy in just about all endeavors in the USA. We also permit folks who believe in invisible sky gods and zombie worship to set public policy and to decide that scientific refutations to their biases can be not only ignored, but ridiculed. Evolution? Climate change? Rising sea levels? And after every presidential or candidate speech we hear "and God bless America.".

    You are a sane, competent, educated, and perceptive man writing a critical piece on something near and dear to my heart, and doing a good job of it. I appreciate the effort you put into tracking down some of the omissions in Gladwell's books. Sadly, he does have a point that the common man does not care too much. Even an engineer (like me) is that common man often. We take easy and entertaining at face value and propagate misinformation more often than we think, I am sure. But I have been bombarded through out my entire professional life with "I don't care how it works, just make it work" and in that attitude lies some truth about the way many people think. Too much trouble to learn, just give me the answer.

    Gladwell feeds an appetite. It's why he's commercially successful, I suspect. Commercial success does not correlate with truth or difficulty.

    Good work, sir. Thanks for a dose of caution. I needed it!

  29. Back in 2006, I wrote:

    Gladwell's problem is that he's not egotistical enough. He's always getting wowed by the overwhelming genius of somebody with a complicated-sounding line of patter. He doesn't do simple reality checks on theories that smart-seeming people tell him because he's just not cynical enough. He really, truly admires all these people he writes about and believes they are all brilliant, even though their theories often contradict each other. (That's why his bestseller Blink made no overall sense whatsoever.)

    As Gladwell wrote after breathlessly retailing a couple of economists' dubious explanation of Ireland's recent prosperity and getting shot down by Jane Galt and commenters on his own blog:

    "I will confess to having a slightly reverential attitude toward academia. I'm the son of an academic. Much of my writing involves taking academic research and trying to translate it for a more general audience. And I've always believed that if you set out to write about the work of academic specialists, you have a responsibility to treat that work with respect-- to acknowledge your own ignorance and, where appropriate, defer to the greater expertise of others."

    No, your job as a journalist is not to defer to the greater expertise of others, but to figure out what the key questions are to ask your subjects so readers can see if they really are the experts they claim to be.

    Of course, you apparently can't become Malcolm Gladwell unless you are as big a sucker as Malcolm is. I'm sure PR flacks are inundating the New Yorker office daily with ideas for Gladwell stories because he doesn't have a skeptical bone in his body.

    And readers like that. Gladwell seems so genuinely confident that somewhere out there is some genius who can tell his readers exactly how to get rich, and that Malcolm will find him for them. And Malcolm's trusting nature is genuine. He believes in his own stories more than even his most devoted fans believe in them.

    1. excellent point! One thing that really is likable about Gladwell is that he likes the people he writes about -- and that makes him vulnerable.

      I find the substance of Christopher Chabris critique interesting, including the Google test, but why become quite so strident? I also felt the quotes were treated somewhat unfairly.

      My impression was that when Gladwell tells his stories in articles, it often works. There is the nuance and the openness, and you go away and are inspired to think about an issue from another angle.

      The books? Here he really struggles to hold it together, since the larger syntheses he attempts are not his strength at all.

      Gladwell is a brilliant conversationalist, and that opening of space is extremely worthwhile, but it's also great that Christopher Chabris takes the time to show the limits of that approach.

  30. Imagine, if you will, a textbook written by Gladwell. How would it hold up versus a traditional textbook? Agreeing that the facts were the same, would that change your thoughts?

  31. Well, I wrote a letter to the editor to the New Yorker (which they choose not to publish) mentioning that Malcolm Gladwell tends to contradict himself. He posited a 10,000-hour rule noting that nobody can become a true expert in less than 10,000 hours. However, his recently articles in the New Yorker emphasize that certain people have genetic or natural proclivities toward excelling in certain disciplines. He cites a Scandinavian cross-country skiier who won the World Championships after only six months of training. This is a direct contradiction of his earlier work.

    1. See my comment further up about how the 10,000 "rule" did not originate with Gladwell (as he himself points out in Outliers but which nobody seemed to then go see for themselves).

    2. It's not a "contradiction" in that it isn't an either/or scenario. For those of average talent (which is almost everyone), technical mastery can generally be achieved with a great deal of work. The 10k hours is just a heuristic, a wide littoral, not a barrier. For those who have a particular latent talent (i.e., it "just clicks" for them), they don't necessarily need the 10k hours to achieve the same level of mastery. Not that they won't also spend 10k hours perfecting it, but the point is, a few people do have "gifts" that make it much easier for them to achieve mastery much earlier. What I've taken from his writing (of which I've only read Outliers, but which mirrored my own experience long before I ever knew about him) is that hard work (which implies focus) and constantly striving for increased skill (which implies obtaining feedback to correct mistakes) yields, overall, better and more consistent results than simply having talent, and that talent really isn't the main arbiter of success. Intuitively, this isn't rocket science. But I find that most people are stuck on the fact that they might not have "talent" for a particular skill, and therefore never even try to learn it, much less achieve mastery at it. This is especially true in the arts. I have always disagreed with that view, and have personally observed many people with far less natural talent, but far greater discipline, achieve a higher degree of success than those who simply have natural talent, but lack studiousness. And, I also think it's true of human nature that when we lack certain advantages, if we posses drive, we can use those disadvantages to form the basis of great achievement. Not having read anything about his dyslexia argument, I implicitly agree that having a disability like that can either ruin a person, or it can cause them to increase their level of focus to achieve their goals. From what I think Gladwell is saying, if you are going to have a disability at all (which nobody can control), better to have dyslexia than cancer, because if you have the internal drive to succeed, dyslexia can be a good platform from which to develop and practice focus, whereas cancer is much more likely to kill you. It doesn't make dyslexia desirable necessarily, but it doesn't mean that it doesn't yield something valuable. Perhaps something that you wouldn't have gotten if you didn't have the disability. There are many stories of this throughout history. I think the point (regardless of whether these things are certainties, or "conclusive" from a scientific perspective, is to see how your disadvantages can be transformed into advantages.

      Unfortunately for us as human beings, we don't see to value success when it comes too easily, and we don't try very hard unless there is some kind of resistance. There is a saying in viticulture (which I'm paraphrasing): "No stress in the vine, no character in the wine." I think this is also true of human beings. These are metaphors, yes, but that doesn't make them untrue, simply because they haven't had a regression applied to them. Collections of anecdotal stories are no less valuable or even true, simply because it cannot be applied to all people. I can say for certain that in my own life, I never get more motivated to do something than when someone else tells me I can't do it, and which has happened to me more than once. And with my daughter, the one thing I have always emphasized in every endeavor, is that she never quit. Because if you quit, you instantly know the answer to the question: Will I succeed? But if you don't quit, you now no longer know the answer to that question. You may succeed famously, you may succeed barely, you may fail miserably. But the outcome is no longer guaranteed, and inside the cracks of those variable answers, is just enough nutrients for hope. I think human beings need this. But, it's just an opinion.

  32. How can one ever trust someone who, in effect, deceives by omission. Gladwell's admissions of inattention [indeed unconcern] tend to prove him a bullshitter in the Frankfurtian sense.

  33. One thing we have noticed about Malcolm Gladwell is that he has this great ability to make ordinary things sound great. We spotted this example:

  34. I've never read Gladwell but your review of him sounds like he writes self-help books for business people. Making up laws is what all self help books do. One of the best selling self help books, The Secret, is completely based on "The Law of Attraction". I had people in my own family believing that through the power of positive thinking they were going to get rich. Rubbish.

  35. Can someone please add the citations for the 2007 typeface study and the one that failed to replicate it, please? I'm intrigued, but don't have enough details to find them.

  36. If it weren't for original thought and art then there wouldn't be anything for academics to discuss and argue. If you can't do, teach comes to mind.

  37. Count of "malcom gladwell proved" to show the influence? Yes, it says that it is highly non-scientific, but why then even bother? For the record, "Eddie Murphy proved" has 12400 results. Otherwise interesting, I still like Malcolm Gladwell and the connections he's making, it is good to point out that his points are not proved science though.

  38. What are we expecting Malcum Gladwell to do? Explain everything perfectly to us? Give us all the answers wrapped up in perfect proofs? If we choose not to communicate an idea until it is perfect, do we not diminish the value of the exchange? Aren't there many ways to explain the human experience? Do we really expect Gladwell to completely exhaust any topic? People who need a perfect product produce little. That is not a bad thing, but it may not be the focus of Gladwell's writings. I like interactions that serve as catalysts to my own experiences. That said, presenting inaccurate information as fact is disheartening to the reader. Perhaps recognizing the limitations of his arguments would free Gladwell and readers of this "conflict of interest" so many seem to be feeling. We like him but wish he were just a bit more honest.

  39. Philip Greenspun's commentary on Gladwell's take on airline safety in Outliers is similarly damning:

  40. I'd argue that it isn't that he *matters, but that his appearance on the scene was close to inevitable. An ecological niche had developed and was ripe for the filling. The vast intelligent bulk of American society is busy & preoccupied these days, and as consumers, they've become accustomed to a culture of 780 calorie salads. What's sad is a particular lapse critical thinking when it comes to exactly the sort of healthy junk food Gladwell is so masterful at concocting, and (worse) a particular gladness at being relieved of it. The very lack of rigor in his writings grants permission to take it easy, to roll with his "storytelling", but we can feel safe that at least there is some redeeming nutritional value. It isn't all empty calories. Right? So until we come to cite the works as though they had been rigorously wrought, no harm, no foul, it's supposed. But he is cited as such, so there is some harm & foul (is I think what you're saying), at least in ripples; collaterally. I agree with that. That this permission is taken & relaxed with over a healing herbal tea with six packets of sugar melted in, is what's a little sad.

    *I wish you had broken this word into something like 'has influence'.

    P.S. I'm grateful you've exposed his condescension & arrogance. I'm pissed.

  41. Perhaps the problem is that Gladwell really wants more to be a philosophic than a scientific popularizer. But not having all that much education (college dropout) he doesn't really know the difference. Or he knows the difference but realizes that in this empiricist age, his audience will only gobble up what are essentially (bad) philosophical arguments when they are couched in the rhetoric of science.

  42. I don't disagree with the larger point, but, to mean anything, your informal google-experiment needs to be normalized to the total mentions of "Malcolm Gladwell" (38,800,000) vs. "Steven Pinker" (1,050,000). Doing this gives a ratio of 1.05:1 and suggests that your dramatic results were due to the relative popularity of Gladwell, not to more influence. A rather Gladwellian mistake...

  43. "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."

    I think his point is that being burdened with an inability means you're going to find space in an advantage that fewer people are going to naturally gravitate towards; that is, we only take on certain skills when being forced too, rather than by a rational choice.

    You could probably nitpick his example but at the very least, it's a legitimate idea if there ever was one.

  44. I guess I don't understand how people can defend Gladwell for "boiling down" what appears to be unintelligible scientific knowledge for a lay audience by omitting or disregarding contrary evidence. Three tremendously accessible and influential scientists quickly come to mind who were able to publish well received and widely read books, and who NEVER resorted to misrepresenting scientific results in the process: Richard Feynman, Isaac Asimov, and Carl Sagan. I'm sure there are more, but these are authors most lay people can easily identify.

    I'm sorry, but the apologists have it dead wrong on this one. What Gladwell does for the social sciences is nearly as bad as the hack job global warming deniers do for climate research.

  45. Perhaps, faith-based storytelling crowds out scientifically sound storytelling. That's my theory, based on my research sample (n=1).

  46. Steven Pinker proved that Harvard scientists with much better reputations than Malcolm Gladwell can misrepresent science to promote feel-good political correctness.

  47. I am a little surprised that no one has called Chabris on one of his central examples when he accuses Gladwell of knowingly using social science in misleading ways.

    Chabris claims that the Alter and Oppenheimer experiment has never been replicated and makes fun of Alter and Oppenheimer for saying that the experiment has been "conceptually" replicated (see his Slate piece). However, what they meant by that is that in several experiments with a similar concept (but perhaps not the exact same execution) the results HAVE been replicated. And this is a valid response. After all, Alter and Oppenheimer have no way of forcing other academics to replicate their experiment in the exact same way, and they can quite validly take exception to variations in other academics' experiments seeking to be similar.

    Furthermore, in social scientific studies, there is nothing unusual about using college students as your experimental pool of participants, and 40 participants is not an unusually low number either.

    Moreover, in a cursory search, I was able to find several recent studies that have in fact replicated Alter and Oppenheimer's study in part or in whole (although not with the exact same execution). And, the study continues to be positively cited in academic papers.

    Which leads me to a criticism of Chabris. Isn't he guilty of the same thing that he accuses Gladwell of doing? In his Slate critique, he is presenting as settled, something which is clearly NOT settled in the social scientific literature. But what is worse in the case of Chabris is that he CLEARLY knows better whereas it is not clear that Gladwell knew about the debate when he cited the study.

    Who is the dishonest one now?

  48. This article is right on. Perhaps most importantly, it infers the root of the problem - Gladwell is lazy. He's unwilling to put in the work that would be required to write something that is both interesting and accurate.

  49. Great review. I've read a couple of Gladwell's books; they always kind of felt like eating sugar cereal -fun to eat but not very filling.

  50. Great review. I loved his books and talks. He presents matters with such certainty. The use of the word "law" and "rule" can lead one to believe these are universal proven truths. Simplification is very useful in order to make research become useful. Summarizing them as rules/laws is thus a very powerful tool. Lesson to learn - take with a serious grain of salt, especially with Malcolm Gladwell's writing. I will still read the new book. But thanks to you, my eyes are now wide open. I wonder if I'll enjoy it as much now... But this is a very important public service - to let everybody know about this issue. Thanks!

  51. I totally agree with your review. I find it most surprising that Gladwell has made a career of catch-phrasing popular banalities - but he is at least aware of it - and it would seem most of his fans don't particularly care for "science" just his entertaining writing. On the other hand I was very pleased that you compared Gladwell to Pinker - who is a very talented scientist and who has done an good job of popularizing his work and others. (As a Canadian I must add I am proud of that tenuous connection to both of them.)

  52. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  53. Those who wonder what the harm of misleading but thought-provoking pseudo-academic entertainment may do, it might be useful to enter some current conversations about education. For instance, the “flipped classroom” idea is bringing new context to lecturing.

    TEDtalks and non-fiction monographs are closer to lecturing than peer instruction, unless their authors/creators/speakers engage audience members. Similarly, the move from xMOOC to cMOOC can show the importance of cutting through the hype (as Rolin Moe has been doing).

  54. While I respect your opinion, I feel like you're looking at his books from the wrong perspective. Gladwell's point is that he has noticed trends in society, and he's showing them to us. I'm sure you could attribute his observations to his own biases, and that's true, but there's more to it than that. In the example of his newest book, "David and Goliath", if we look at our own lives and the situations we feel were most beneficial to us--those that encouraged the most growth and taught us the most about ourselves--most of us would talk about what originally seemed like difficulties, even tragedies, but turned out to be valuable experiences. If we look at those experiences and still call them tragedies, then there's a good chance that those experiences still hold us back to this day, still keep us cynical or angry or scared to take risks. So yes, dyslexia can be an incredible obstacle. But there are others who would call it a gift. I am not dyslexic, but I did lose a parent when I was young. For the part of my life that I saw this as a curse, it was. But when I found a way to change my perspective, it became an incredible learning tool, and my life began to flourish. The key lies in our disposition.

    Thus, my longwinded point is that Gladwell sees these things and looks to science to explain what he feels to be true. Like he said, the stories come first, the science, second. But not solely because these stories are fun or entertaining, but because they are modern (or, in this case, historic) parables to learn from. He looks to the science to back up his claims, and maybe the science isn't always consistent...yet. Just because something has yet to be proven doesn't mean it isn't true. There are plenty of ideas that seemed completely radical and improbable, until we realized that they were true. No, we shouldn't manipulate science in order to justify falsehoods, but that's not really what he's doing. He's looking for truth, he's challenging us to try these things out, test new perspectives. In the meantime, he's inspiring people, giving them hope that, in this case, what they believed to be their greatest weaknesses may, in fact, be their greatest strengths. That's pretty powerful. Is it false hope? Maybe, but probably not. Is there ever such a thing as false hope? If a person with dyslexia (or paraplegia, or epilepsy, or one parent, etc) begins to believe that his/her life is not limited by circumstance, is it possible to call that false? I'm sure you could give me some statistics, or set up an experiment, but all quantitative measurements are as subject to bias as you claim Gladwell's writings to be. The questions that we ask come out with bias, with skepticism. I'm not saying that science is useless, just that it's important to remember that we see things as WE are, not necessarily as they are.

    So, yes, I see your point. But I respectfully disagree. At the same time, I really enjoyed your writing, and your arguments, so hey hey!

  55. Thanks, thanks, thanks. And now for Mr. Gladwell, a rejection letter. (

  56. This comment has been removed by the author.

  57. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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  68. Thank you. I started reading Blink, and with each page I become more convinced that Gladwell is full of shit and a charlatan. Thus helps crystalize it. He never seeks clunterexampled and many of his claims are frankly unbelievable.

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  71. "Where two or three are gathered.."
    I know I'm late to the game here so rather than repeat what's been said I'll just say sorry Chris but you're missing the point. Big time. To me the genius of Gladwell is evident in a very simple and practical way: when I find myself at a party and I find two or three people who have also read any Malcolm Gladwell guess what? That will be an interesting evening! They will have opinions. We will discuss. We will open our horizons to see what others thought. We might think less of one of his "isms.." - i.e... coolhunting, the law of the few, etc.. or we might come away thinking of one of them more. The point is I've never had it get heated. Why? Because like it or not we disagree with you - we never assume his "rules" and laws are hard and fast - there seems to be an understanding that, just like a good political thriller, one can see the motivations of both sides and is left to debate and discuss.. for hours of beautiful and wonderful conversation.
    For me it was only the first chapter I ever read - the first few sentences - that got me - in chapter one of Outliers. I never had any explanation for why I didn't do as well as other kids at organized sports. It's not that I'm not athletic, but it's with a september birthday I was always almost a year behind though in the same grade. That meant that my already obvious view of myself as an outsider (my dad was a park saviour and trail builder, and an absent one at that) was being cemented every day on the schoolyard when I felt I had to try twice as hard just to be a middle of the road player at most games. This was a huge breakthrough for me and though I've gone on to read all of his books, I never felt he was saying "you have to agree with me on everything," or "this is proven and can't be re - thought or discussed further." In fact I felt - as it's clear many others do - the opposite - that he is merely disseminating social science and product patterns through a Jamaican-English-Canadian mindset and most of all through that strange head of hair.
    I liken your opinion to Matt Damon's in Good Will Hunting - you know all the facts and you can recite all the proof you want and yet.. his ideas are the ones we're debating. And I for one enjoy that part the most.

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