The New Statesman has a wickedly harsh piece on Malcolm Gladwell and his “pseudo-profundity” by Steven Poole.
There are two important takeaways from the piece, which get right into the heart of why I think that the fact that Malcolm Gladwell is popular is a dangerous thing. And how popular he is: he sells like hotcakes, and he has direct access to the brains of the elites. My friends in the pharmaceutical industry tell me of seminars where he holds the keynote address for cosmic sums. His New Yorker pieces get bandied about Twitter and his memes feed straight into popular culture. Did you know that it takes 10.000 hours to become a virtuoso at something? Did you know that you make some of the best decisions in the blink of an eye? Of course you did. You heard someone at a dinner party citing Gladwell. And maybe he’s right about those things. That’s not what’s wrong with him. It’s the way he does what he does.
The first idea which is a good takeaway from the Poole piece is the idea of Gladwell as a pseudo-thinker (though I’m sure he’s a really nice guy) who substitutes stories and ideas for research.
“Through these stories,” he explains in the introduction to his latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants (Allen Lane, £16.99), “I want to explore two ideas.” The method of “exploring” ideas through stories is now the preferred mode of, or replacement for, serious thought and argument. Unfortunately, it can lead an incautious writer into a conceptual shambles.
This is exactly right. Whenever I read anything by Gladwell — which is rarely these days, because by now, I’ve learned not to bother — there’s a certain alarm I’ve installed in my brain that keeps going off. That alarm bell is called The Plural of Anecdote Is Not Data. It gives a little ping every time I notice someone trying to leap from a story to a conclusion about human nature without showing you how he extrapolated. Gladwell is one of the worst ones. He’s just absolutely egregious. Just keep repeating that phrase to yourself whenever you read him: the plural of anecdote is not data, the plural of anecdote is not data, the plural of anecdote is not data …
In my family, we talk about something which I should now name The Gladwell Examination.1 That is the tendency for people like Gladwell to sound extremely convincing about everything they say. Until they start talking about your particular area of expertise. Then suddenly, alarms are going off.
For me, the clincher was when he published a widely shared piece talking about social media and the civil rights movement — two topics I happen to know something about — and misunderstood things completely. I thought to myself, as you should, “how wrong is he the rest of the time about the stuff I don’t know about?”
He claimed that social media is unimportant in activism because a couple of close friends once did a sit-in in the civil rights movement (I paraphrase) and that social media could never start a revolution. And I thought to myself: “bullshit”.2 For two reasons.
One is that I actually know how much the civil rights movement was bogged down in organisational difficulties, communication difficulties and transaction costs. It’s basically, in addition to being the fundraiser and public face of the movement, what Martin Luther King did all day, or rather, failed to do all day. It was a huge part of what kept the movement from breaking through into public consciousness earlier.
The other is that no social movement depends on strong ties. It’s just too big. Social movements depend on political forces operating across the individual actors. They propagate through strong and weak ties, and many of the weak ties (also imagined weak ties — the tie of the individual activist to the idea of Martin Luther King, say, or whatever other leader of the movement is important) are just as vital as strong ties.
The second takeaway from the Gladwell piece is this:
Gladwell is a brilliant salesman for a certain kind of cognitive drug. He tells his readers that everything they thought they knew about a subject is wrong, and then delivers what is presented as a counterintuitive discovery but is actually a bromide of familiar clichés. The reader is thus led on a pleasant quasi-intellectual tour, to be reassured at the end that a flavour of folksy wisdom was right all along. Little things really can make a big difference; trusting your gut can be better than overthinking; successful people work hard.
The art here lies in making the platitudinous conclusion seem like a revelatory place to end up, after one has enjoyed the colourful “stories” about carefully described plucky individuals with certain hairstyles and particular kinds of trousers.
He later compares Gladwell to Dan Brown. I think it’s an inspired observation. Like Brown, Gladwell excels in making the reader feel intelligent, feel insightful and knowing. He managed to combine skillful storytelling and research in a way where he is always tiptoeing right on the knifeedge of banality, but always managing somehow to make the familiar sound counter-intuitive.
Gladwell, like Brown, furnishes a sort of pseudo-intellectualism. It gives the rush, the high of intellectual discovery and insight without providing any of the intellectual work that actual insight requires. His books and articles perform their abductive leaps onto unsupported conclusions for the same reason that Dan Brown’s books drop terrible prose and apropos-nothing facts left and right: they know their readers don’t care about the finer points of actually reading good thinking or writing. They just need to provide the substitute, the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter of the mind.
1. Also the name of the most boring Robert Ludlum novel ever.
2. I have an actual argument here, available upon request.
- David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell – digested read (theguardian.com)
- The pseudo-profundity of Malcolm Gladwell (newstatesman.com)