Gladwell versus the academy (a modern David and Goliath)

I’ll start with an admission: I have never read any of Malcolm Gladwell’s books.

It’s nothing personal or principled, but I just never got around to it;  I tend to prefer reading fiction in my spare time anyway. I have enjoyed some of his essays in the New Yorker, but that’s about it. So I am not writing about the content of his books.  I’m writing about the reception that his book receive, the criticisms, and the apparent belief by many that he’s a scientist. This, it seems, really bothers some actual scientists.

Malcom Gladwell is an enormously successful and gifted writer. No one can argue with this. His books Blink, and The Tipping Point, and Outliers have have made accessible to many people outside the academic and scientific world an understanding of some of the most interesting and exciting ideas in cognition, social psychology, and neuroscience. He has a long career as a journalist, is well read, and he’s no Jonah Leher….

With each book, Gladwell’s stature has grown, but I have noticed the reaction from academics has been less than enthusiastic. Many feel that he misunderstands (or worse, misrepresents) the scientific studies upon which many of his books are built. Dan Simons and Chris Chabris are two of the more vocal critics, and they are both well-respected and well-known scientific psychologists. They argued (in an article posted in the Chronicle of Higher Education that many people were overly enthusiastic about the premises in Blink, namely that intuition can produce better outcomes than analytic cognition. It’s not that they necessarily thought the book was wrong so much that they felt everyone was misinterpreting what it was about. In fact, Simons and Chabris are the authors of The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, which argues that human intuitions can be very deceptive. The title, by the way, refers to one of Simons’s most well-know experiments.

They are not the only vocal critics. Steven Pinker is probably closer to Malcolm Gladwell in terms of being a public intellectual (and he has received his fair share of criticism as well). And he too is critical of Gladwell’s books for some of the same reasons. In a review of Outliers,  Pinker writes that “The reasoning in “Outliers,” which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle.”

So now Malcolm Gladwell has a new book, David and Goliath.  As I mentioned before, I have not read this book, so I make no attempts to provide my own critique. But one anecdote in particular seems to have garnered a lot of attention. Gladwell discusses several stories of people who became very successful despite having dyslexia. His thesis seems to be that having dyslexia made it just a little harder for these people to get by, and so maybe they worked a little harder and compensated for the dyslexia and thus achieved greatness. Gladwell calls this  “the theory of desirable difficulty.” He bases this (apparently) on a study from 2007 in which subjects who read a mathematical reasoning problem in a hard-to-read typeface actually outperformed subjects who read the same problems in an easier to read typeface. So there may be a connection, but there may not be.

In a recent review in the WSJ, Christopher Chabris takes Gladwell to task. He points out that the 2007 study in question has not replicated that well. He wonders why Gladwell does not point this out. He wonders why Gladwell asserts as “laws” phenomena with many possible interpretations. The review is critical, and very good, and points out what I really think people should be aware of  when they read Gladwell’s book, namely that  it contains interesting anecdotes mixed with science, and that the writing is very good and persuasive. This need not be a bad thing, and Gladwell and his supportive critics point out that this is a great narrative form, and is exactly what makes Gladwell so good. Stories matter. Narrative matters. But the expanded version on Chabris’s blog went further, and Chabris worries that Gladwell knows full well that people over interpret his books and he simply does not care. He writes “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.”

Ouch.

Is this envy? I do not think so. Dan Simons and Chabris are successful authors in their own right. So is Steven Pinker. But the difference is that they are also successful academics and researchers. Chabris makes the point that many people simply consider Gladwell to be an authority, rather than an author. The term “Gladwellian” exists.

The review was critical enough to cause Mr Gladwell to respond on Slate.com. Gladwell suggested that “Chabris should calm down”, and  he even takes a mild swipe at Mr. Chabris’ wife. Why so personal? I will confess, that I did not find Gladwell’s Slate response to be very flattering. It came across as arrogant and dismissive. Does Gladwell imagine himself as the David and the Academy as the Goliath? Possibly, though I’m inclined to think the opposite. Gladwell’s “brand” is so big that he is very likely the Goliath in this this fight. And (in keeping with the these of his new book)  his gifts–his incredible writing talent– may very well be what could bring him down.

In the end, I’m glad that this debate is even able to happen. I’m glad that there is a journalist and writer like Malcolm Gladwell  who is interested and exited enough by human behavior and psychology to write best sellers. I’m glad that there are serious and respected scientist like Chabris and Simons to call him out when the claims go to far.

In the course of following these criticisms and counter criticisms  I’ve become much more interested in reading this work. I fully plan to read Gladwell’s book of Essays (What The Dog Saw)  and some of his books. As well, I’m planning to read Simons and Chabris book too. All concerned parties can rest assured  that I’ll be checking them out of my public library soon, and that no actual cash will flow.

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