De Pseudo-Profundis

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.

Photo: Flickr/Pop!Tech (CC BY 2.0)

That C should definitely be capitalised, if this is a title. Photo: Flickr/Pop!Tech (CC BY 2.0)

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.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”.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.

Despite heavy criticism, he stuck to his guns. And then, of course, 2011 happened. The events of that year landed on him like a ton of bricks and history decisively refuted his argument.

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.

  1. I used to like reading Gladwell’s stuff until I read something about a woman’s monthly cycle not being “natural” at all. (God, I hope it was Gladwell. It would be very embarrassing if I’m confusing him with someone else right now!) He went on to say that we just *think* women’s cycles should be monthly, but that’s not true. And I shook my head. Huh? Then why does it happen to us on a monthly basis, naturally? He never seemed to explain that piece of it and I couldn’t get past it. I haven’t read anything by him since.

    • Release said:

      Ha ha! I think that’s him, yeah. if I remember that one correctly, it was something about how it’s hard to market drugs that suppress a woman’s period because it seems unnatural, when in the state of nature, women would be pregnant a lot more often and therefore not have a period. So that’s why we should use drugs that suppress the period. Or something.

      Actually a perfect example of the argument from caveman. If the cavemen did it, it must be right for us. Or if we are evolved to do something (eat meat, be aggressive, have painful childbirth) it must be right for us. There’s a strange inability by people who espouse that line of thinking to not think about the fact that

      1. Evolution is not an endpoint, it’s an ongoing process of responding to the environment.
      2. David Hume took the idea that you can draw from the way things ARE an argument about how they OUGHT to be out back and shot it back in the 18th century. It’s called the is/ought-problem.

      But I’m not sure I’m entirely in tune with your response either, you’re saying that it happening once a month is natural. And it is, and that’s a healthy thing to keep in mind when considering health (the period going away for a while is often a really good sign that something is wrong, for example). But that’s not to say that it’s not plausibly medically right to suppress it. The point is: that decision should be made by the adjudication of peer-reviewed and replicated medical research. Not by some writer with a history of working for the pharmaceutical industry.

      • Bravo. Whenever I start to think like that I remind myself that really, “naturally,” I’m evolved to die in childbirth before my 30th birthday.

      • Release said:

        Ha ha! I was just saying that to a friend this morning! “If the Stone Age people were so damned natural, why did they die before they hit their mid-twenties?”

    • Gladwell is good at inflating his ideas which are simplistic in nature.

    • Release said:

      Good job, Fiona! I’ll read these more carefully later, I’m about to go to bed. But at first skim through your posts, I think your argument looks sound. It’s not a matter of how many hours you put in, it’s the kind of hours you put in. And one of the brilliant things about the mind is precisely this ability to effectivise learning strategies. Some people find new and revolutionary learning strategies for particular skills and get more out of their time. I know some deeply virtuosic musicians, and watching them rehearse is a kind of magic. There’s this deep focus, presence. It’s magic.

    • Release said:

      Oh, never got around to replying again to this: well done doing the work on the 10.000 hour rule! Your raise good objections and your arguments seem solid. I’ll try to do some work on it when I get the chance. It seems to be a worthwhile problem.

  2. wow. you changed my perspective on the matter. Thanks for that.

  3. I had a long, cantankerous comment written out, but I don’t feel like raining on any parades today. Gladwell himself rebuts these points fairly well here… (if you’re interested, I’ll post the link – otherwise this comment’ll take a dive into the spam folder).

      • hah! I already like you. Exactly, assholes.

      • Release said:

        Well put, Humans Are Weird. Assholes indeed.

        Well, look (btw, ever note how Obama overuses that phrase?): I think Gladwell is being reasonable and making a lot of good points. Probably his critics — myself included — would be well served by toning it down a bit. But aaaargh.

        So often his articles just seem willfully incomprehending or glibly jumping to conclusions. That thing that Chabris mentions at the top of his article, that it seems like Gladwell is willfully misunderstanding the science — again, in social media research, it really does seem that way to me — and that’s not made fine by adopting a reasonable tone.

        That said, let me give Gladwell two pieces of credit where credit is due:

        One is for engaging with his critics. I’ve seen him participate in comment sections on random blogs and write other long, engaging pieces like this one, meeting the criticism head one. That’s not easy, and I appreciate it.

        Another is for what he says about stories. Stories are important. Stories can and should be integrated in powerful ways into the popular imagination about science and social research. I appreciate that.

        My quibble with Gladwell is about how he uses stories. He’s not doing what he says in this piece. He’s using stories to make weakly founded claims about constants in human relations and human nature. That’s not okay. He’s been caught cherry picking research many times and he tends to create easy stories that navigate between the kinds of papers that make the kinds of claims that become outliers in meta-analysis, is my distinct impression from the fields I have knowledge of. That’s also a fairly consistent criticism of him.

        The comment section at the Faculty Lounge is very interesting and worth another read:

    • (This is a response to the link, but there’s no “reply” button that far down the comment tree so I’m responding here instead)
      Did you read that article closely? It’s a bunch of ad hominem attacks on his critic, telling Chabris to “calm down” multiple times, but never actual addressing the substance of the criticisms.

      • I think ‘multiple times’ is a bit of an exaggeration. I counted once in the article and once in the title.
        I thought he addressed the criticism quite well. First stating what the criticism was and then why he disagrees with it. I do think he could have left out the constant mention of Chabris and not personalised it so much and just stuck the a dissection of the actual criticism.
        I like this article a lot. It tells us to be open when reading these types of books and not be taken in blindly without applying our minds and a bit of common sense.

      • How on Lucifer’s purple earth is telling someone to calm down an ad hom attack? Unless I read your comment wrongly – oh well. Either way, I didn’t get that vibe from the article at all.

        And generally, Release, author of the article person (to address your above point, too), I agree with you. Gladwell’s work is too watered down for me. I read it, laugh at it, stroke my beard, think, ‘hmm, well that seems a little vague but sure… he did mention that this was just a thought teaser, right’, pee, cause I drink a lot of coffee while I read, and then put him away in my bookshelf, usually, like you seem also, a little underwhelmed at the content, but mildly pleased by the stories.

        I would personally prefer that he placed more emphasis on poking holes through certain arguments, or general perceptions, rather than him trying to merely create new diluted dogmas. Or at least place more emphasis on the fact that his research, and his understanding of the said research, is limited, and ultimately, just another screw in the pie, or apple in the wheel. But hey – I’d also prefer that “the people” (read like a politician) read Gladwell rather than watch reality television. (Kind of. I don’t actually care at all to be frank).

        All your criticisms were fair (except the ‘best decisions in the blink of an eye’ comment. That was harsh, man, real harsh. Blink also said that some of your worst decisions can happen within the blink of an eye… it was, I reckon, one of his more balanced books [granted, I’ve only read Outliers and Blink – so whada I know?])

        That’s all I gots.

        NOpe, one more thing. Alas, all pop books will jump to silly conclusions… probably for the sole sake of sales. Tis the problem with the author, or with that we, as a general collective, are more willing to consume fluffy sugar water to fleshed out analyses and hypotheses? I’d imagine *imagining* that Gladwell himself would willingly heed to any criticism about his books not representing the full story. He seems a pretty smart dude. How would his publisher feel about him changing his tone? Probably irritated. Does this make Gladwell a sell out. Yes – would be my answer, followed by a gentle “meh”, whispered into the wind.

      • Release said:

        Humans: I hear you, and it seems like you have a healthy and skeptical approach to Gladwell, and your friendly criticism of him is a good way of going about it. I don’t really have anything to quibble with in what you say here. Let me just make two points, for the record:

        First, as a card-carrying socialist, the correct way to signal that you want “the people” pronounced like a politician is to use Scary Capital Letters:

        The People.

        Preferably in a sentence containing the words (also capitalised) “Bourgeois Hegemony”, “Dialectics”, “Historical Materialism” and “Geschichtsphilosophie”.

        Second: I know this was hard to tell, but I wasn’t saying that that’s what Gladwell was saying in Blink. I was saying what Hypothetical Dinner Party Person Who Doesn’t Read A Lot Of Books And Mostly Buys Them In The Transfer Lounge At Heathrow Or JFK would have as a takeaway from Gladwell. Not strictly speaking his fault, but if you make your ideas light and bouncy enough, sometimes it’s hard to make your audience critically aware of the nuances in it.

        Anyway, good to see what you think.

    • Release said:

      Thanks for the link! I’ll look at it later on.

      • Fair point; caps do create a nice politically self righteous sorta oomph. And yes, you are right. But in my eyes, again – meh. I’m easily beguiled by light bouncy things. I don’t trust them, I squint my eyes at them, but I’ll play with them until I break something important, or until I get tired. (I’m usually tired pretty quickly). Thanks for the banter. Banter good is. Good is banter. Stay safe. Say no to drugs, unless they’re free. Namaste, and now must go.

      • Release said:

        Thanks for stopping by, please come again (not like that).

    • Thanks for posting the link. Very interesting.

  4. Interesting post. You do have to be really careful to question what popular science writers tell you. I’m wondering if anyone knows how to find out which writers are (mostly) respected among other people in their field?

    The real problem, as you said, is that it is a lot easier and more fun to read the arguments that are based on stories rather than numbers and which simplify things down to a single sentence you can remember and repeat. And many scientists and writers struggle to agree on anything, let alone every point in a full length book.

    I’m still looking for a solution – so far it consists of reading lots of different authors, but that’s not always practical.

    • Release said:

      Diversity in sources is a good place to start, I think. Another thing I look for is recommendations from scientists in blurbs or reviews. But the basic problem you acknowledge seems difficult to get past: our mind is good at stories. Not data. Science is not something that comes naturally to us. That’s why, for instance, “my friend beat cancer using alternative medicine X” beats “alternative medicine X has no clinically proven effect”

  5. The what-do-I-think-when-they-talk-about-MY-field test is key. People like Gladwell are smooth, persuasive writers, and if they know even a bit more than you do about a field, it’s easy to believe them. But then they do something like misspell “eigenvalue” and you realize how little concern they have for the truth. (You might argue that a misspelling is minor, but it really isn’t: if you don’t know enough about a field to be able to spell some really basic jargon, and your editor isn’t fact-checking you to the point of noticing that you’re repeatedly misspelling a key term… well, how closely are you reading those scientific studies? Who is checking that you’ve interpreted their findings correctly? Probably no one.)

    • Release said:

      You know what I’m feeling now? Schadenfreudian.

    • Release said:

      And consistent misspelling of major concepts is one of the ring-my-alarms-things as well.

  6. mrtso1989 said:

    The first book I read by Gladwell is Blink and it is going to be the last that I am going to read by him. I think a better comparison is to compare Gladwell with Tony Buzan, the writer who claimed that the so-called mind map can save a lot of studying and also advanced many pseudo – scientific tips for more effective learnings. The common thing that they both have is to have given out a message: Hey, don’t study, and don’t train yourself like a dog. There’s some smarter way. Just sit here, and rely on your feeling.

    The sad fact is that success come from hard work and hard studying, rather than from a blink of the eyes.

    • Release said:

      Well put. There’s some really convincing work from cognitive science that the way to do cognitive work is to work at it. To really stop and really think, critically and hard and using every tool in the metacognitive bag of tricks. Stories should be used as a catalyst for that process, not as a substitution for it.

  7. Very interesting article. I cannot call myself an expert on anything Gladwell has written about. I am an engineer, I haven’t studied human nature or psychology or human behaviour etc. I have only read two of his books, The Tipping Point and Outliers. I can’t say that I have taken those books to mean that I must abandon hard work, common sense and logic in trying to achieve my own success, but rather here are a bunch of examples that illustrate how his hypothesis or theory or whatever has worked for some people. Or here’s a correlation that he has drawn between the two if you like that better.
    Anyone who thinks some wisdom from a book will ever replace hard work is dreaming or crazy or both.
    I found his books entertaining and I also found some truth in them for me. Things like the 10 000 hour rule which to me is about putting 10 000 hours of quality hard work and still requiring an opportunity to come your way. I’ve started Blink and I totally get the idea of trusting your gut feel or instinct more. I haven’t read it as saying go with your gut blindly, maybe I’m still coming to that part.

  8. awax1217 said:

    I actually was part of the movement. I grant you a small part, maybe a cog or a rod but I did see what you said is correct. There was a lot of hemming and hawing. Leadership was in a constant state of being challenged. Some wanted the help of the “Man” and some did not. Trust and drama were in the forefront. Once the main concept was stated everyone wanted their methods accepted. Think of the American Revolution. It was on the verge of being unfunded at every turn. Washington not only had to fight the war and pick his battles but he had to feed the army and house them. His men wanted to abandon the fray at a moments notice. Note none of the big battles occurred during the planting season. Same thing with the Civil Rights Movement. Who was paid and who volunteered became an issue. Reverends could work for nothing and their congregation fed them and housed them. The average Joe needs income so it was hit or miss who would march. The pecking order was who leads and who follows.

    • Release said:

      A pleasure to talk to you and hear your side of the story! I recently read Bearing the Cross, the MLK bio. It is full of these kinds of day to day grind, squabbles, turf fights, economic issues, legal issues …

      Where were you active? Were you in one of the smaller organizations?

      • awax1217 said:

        I was in Brooklyn College. My main fight was to get Black people into the college as a means of them getting an education. I marched in Brooklyn. It was a liberal school but with less Blacks than on my hand. It was not right. I did a sit in. Finally they caved and did the right thing. I stayed in the background as I did not want to get thrown out. But I was at some meetings. Squabbles were evident. I argued for Spanish people to and was shut down.

      • awax1217 said:

        Give my blog a shot at I have the Right to Know. You can see how the inner workings of groups work. There are layers of who has what rights and who is the inner circle. Let me know what you think?

      • Release said:

        Great that you did the work. The squabbles about hispanic and white membership in the civil rights struggle is also telling. There’s a way in which these struggles end up being sanitized and presented as a clean fight of good against evil. At the time, to the people involved I’m sure you found it much dirtier, more compromised. More of a real struggle, a real movement, than the cleaner version we see in the movies these days.

        But I’m always glad to talk to someone who did their part. In the March on Washington anniversary, a lot of people forgot that the civil rights movement was a movement. (And that it was a March On Washington for JOBS and Freedom!

  9. As much as I agree about Gladwell, your post is really just a hit piece cobbed from, and supported by another hit-piece.

    • Release said:

      Well, first off, you’re saying that like it’s a bad thing.

      No, but seriously: I’d have to disagree. The article in the NS I’m linking and my own comments aren’t showing our work, but we’re not trying to be a scientific takedown. Though others have done that kind of critique both in popular format and more extensively, see e.g. most recently, a post I was shown today:

      The point is that the NS piece catches Gladwell making major, mindblowing conceptual errors. It’s written in a snarky, caustic style. Mine maybe errs on the side of that too, but my assessment of mr Gladwell’s work isn’t just “a hit piece”. That would be an unnecessarily negative piece intended to slander a person. My post, though a little off-hand, is based on my reading several of his books and articles and seeing a persistent pattern. And that pattern has spread from mr. Gladwell to other writers. I have come to think that his way of writing and thinking is spreading and that it’s providing people with the wrong tools for thinking.

      In brief, then: if you feel like there’s a certain part of my post you would like me to expand or show my work on, I’d be happy to oblige, within reason.

      • You’ve written nothing here that changes my opinion.

      • Release said:

        Oh, I’m sorry — I didn’t realise you were just trolling, not making an argument or engaging in conversation.

  10. I read the blog and several comments. Thanks for the blog, I enjoyed being challenged on how I perceive Gladwell. My comment is more of a reaction to the comments, both in agreement and disagreement. There are people that assimilate what they read, more or less at face value. That isn’t wrong. It is liberating for some people. There are people that say to themselves, Hey wait a minute, that doesn’t add up, and go deeper… equally ok and no less liberating. Then of course there are people that are “againsts.” They try and pick nits about anything that’s wildly popular-nothing can really be done to satisfy them. It sounds like Gladwell took some liberties, using empirical data to make his points. That’s what all authors do. Good, bad or indifferent, there is a point to be made and data is used to validate it. If you want scholarly research articles, with concrete and absolute facts, read those. That is written with some level of sarcasm as even academic scholarship is prone to bias and statistics shaping to validate its own points.
    I learned this on the first day of Grad school Research Methods and Statistics class: There are lies, damned lies and statistics. Mark Twain

    • Release said:

      Thanks for the constructive criticism, JWollf! I’m not entirely sure I agree with everything though.

      As I think I say somewhere above, I’m not against Gladwell for his popularity. I read many popular science writers, and appreciate their work. Most recently I’ve been reading Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Peter Singer. All immensely popular, all widely read, all popular writers in their fields. I think they are all a little more to the academic side than Gladwell, but I think my point holds.

      My disagreement with Gladwell is not in his popularity. And neither is it for taking a few liberties for the sake of a good story. I’m not looking to read academic papers (I do that, but I’m too much of a lover of good writing to do too much of it).

      It’s the story itself that is the trouble, not the way he’s telling it. He’s telling faulty stories that get widely read and assimilated into the way people construct the world in their heads. And while he’s wrong about many things in particular, he’s also a catalyst for faulty thinking in general. People use these stories to concoct not just ideas that don’t (necessarily) work (like the there-might-be-something-in-it 10.000 hour-rule or the idea that social movements rely on strong ties and that social media are irrelevant) — but something far more dangerous: Gladwell is validating the idea that anecdotes translate easily into conclusions about how the world works. But inductive reasoning is difficult, and deriving general laws from contrarian readings of anecdotes is a poor substitute for more rigorous processes. These kinds of processes must, I still insist, underly serious writing. That writing can be pyrotechnically good, and entertaining at a bestseller level. But the thinking behind the writing needs to be rock solid, thorough and data based. And I’m just not convinced that Gladwell is reaching that level very often. So while I confess to frequently enjoying his work, I take serious issues with the thinking behind it.

      And also, I think that Carthage should be destroyed and that good writing and good thinking are necessary but not sufficient causes for each other.

      • Release said:

        Oh, and I like your blog. I’ll keep an eye on it. Thanks.

      • I wasn’t trying to imply that you are an “against,” I was just replying very generally to the post and responses. I agree with what you said in your response to me about congruence in what is written. There is a peace that comes with the lemming like nature of taking things at face value. I never do that personally, so it is only through envious observation that I make that claim. I question why I (and others), HAVE to question. Why I have to point out inaccuracies and set the record straight. Gladwell doesn’t inspire that need in me, but a lot of other stuff does; I’m working on it. Maybe Gladwell is to Scholarship what Miley Cyrus is to music.

      • Release said:

        Maybe he is to science what Miley Cyrus is to twerking.

        Oh, and you shouldn’t diss the lemmings. They’re very interesting creatures. I’ve met them. They’re fierce. Smart. Temperamental. That whole they-commit-suicide-thing is a myth.

        But they have a crazy, boom-and-bust population cycle which is very unsustainable. The capitalists of the rodents.

  11. johnny said:

    I agree with the general drift of your post, but I think you’re wrong to dismiss Gladwell’s argument about the limitations of social media in furthering progressive activism, which is the one thing he gets more or less right.

    Gladwell’s central point in that New Yorker piece was that effecting meaningful social change is a difficult thing to do, because it requires directed activity sustained over a long period of time, something that calls for a centralised and hierarchical organisation of the kind which social media is ill-suited to foster. You cite the “Occupy” movement as a counter-example, but I think the “Occupy” experience just proves Gladwell’s point, since it has singularly failed to change anything.

    (When I clicked on your “2011 happened” link I was actually expecting a link to something about the Arab Spring – the usual example advanced by advocates of internet activism, looking to appropriate the energy of the dispossessed masses, as if we had played the key role by giving them Twitter and Facebook. Of course it was old-fashioned “strong ties” in the form of labour unions and political parties that made things possible.)

    I wrote more about this at the time:

    • Release said:

      Hey, sorry for the late reply, your comment got stuck in the spam filter.

      First off, notice that the link to 2011 happened is actually two links, one (definitely the more important one) going to the Arab Spring, the other to OWS. 🙂

      Saying that Occupy accomplished nothing, well, they didn’t elect any candidates, that’s for sure. But it’s hard to say that making that kind of action happen on that kind of scale without leadership is … well, not nothing. And they did help push awareness of inequality into the public mind. I think it’s still early days for Occupy. We’ll be seeing that particular movement and set of techniques spring up and get reborn again and again and again in the coming years. (Cue John Lennon playing Imagine here.)

      But more importantly, I’m not saying that Twitter caused the Arab Spring. That’s just not true. But I think that as someone who has been involved in political activism before and after Facebook, let me tell you this: more is different. There is something that can happen with social media that cannot happen without, or at least cannot happen at the same rate. To me, this is just something on the order of an experiential fact that you can’t really get me to not believe. The Arab Spring didn’t happen bc of Facebook, but it happened in the spectacular way that it did in part because of Facebook. More is so, so very different.

      And that’s also my point: Gladwell’s idea that strong ties = long-term engagement with the movement is just not true. There’s plenty of research indicating the opposite of Gladwell’s point, that the weak ties that propagate action across a movement is where the juice really is. As in corporations or military units or other large teams, it’s not the friendship of the close cells that *really* matter, it’s the ability of the entire organisation to cohere around common goals and to feel a general loyalty towards that goal, and the common members.

      So I remain deeply unconvinced by Gladwell’s argument about social media. And I’m a little annoyed that he keeps digging in on this point in his debate with Shirky.

  12. dat6 said:

    I have only seen a small bit of Gladwell in my internet adventures, but he does seem to be popping up everywhere. You point out the fact that he lacks hard evidence in his arguments, but I ask, did he ever claim to be the sort of writer that uses hard evidence? Perhaps he means to use “research” as a term of endearment for his own dabbling.

    Why do we hold him to this higher standard, saying he should be something he obviously is not? I think perhaps because he is becoming widely popular.

    Perhaps he is just more of a casual writer than we would like him to be, and we believe this loose style of thinking is all right as long as no one sees it and believes it. But perhaps maybe we could lay off the Gladwell-criticism a bit? As I said, I have not had much experience with Gladwell, so I have no bias, but I sense a a underlying tone of sabotage in these arguments. I am glad to see that people heed the responsibility to say something and inform people the minute something seems to go awry. Gladwell also has the right to think and write as he will. There is something to be said for casual conversation.

    • Release said:

      Well, sure, but no. Here’s why:

      1. Books about ideas aren’t casual conversation. They’re delicately constructed arguments written over a period of months or years. If I want casual conversaton, I don’t go to the bookstore, I go to a bar.

      2. The reason I’m being a bit aggressive on the sciencey bits with him is that he’s presenting his work as a science writer. Or a social science writer, at any rate. He’s constantly citing research to underpin his argument, but it’s too often done in a loose way that makes wild leaps of imagination not supported by the evidence, is my experience.

      • “sciencey bits” LOL. i instantly saw sarah palin when you said that:)

      • Release said:

        ContactRida: All under the umbrella of job creation.

      • dat6 said:

        Ah, I gotcha. I didn’t know too much about the sort of parameters he proposes to work within. But if he doth proclaim himself to be a science writer, then he doth put himself in the way of scientific scrutiny! Thanks for your civil feedback. I have a tendency to play the defender of the accused… (:

      • Release said:

        That sounds like a good habit to be in. 🙂

  13. Midwestern Plant Girl said:

    Interesting read!
    Congrats on gettin’ pressed!!

    • Release said:

      Thanks! An honour. And completely out of the blue. I had like 10 readers three days ago. Now I have hundreds of followers. I’m thrilled.

  14. great post. i bought Blink when it first came out and i found it very insightful and true. coming from a not so nice childhood it was crucial to know when shit was going to hit the fan. i have always been good at reading people since i was young. reading Blink gave me an aha moment. but life is a buffet. no one person has all of the answers. i never bought anymore of his books. nothing personal, just didn’t. it’s a blessing that i have ADD (i was diagnosed way before it became a catch-all diagnosis). i tend to pick at things, take what i need and move on. maybe i knew the guy was full of shit which is why i just bought one book, but like they say, ‘even a broken clock is right twice a day’.

    • Release said:

      I think he makes lots of good points in Blink, actually. As he does in most of his books. There’s always something of value to take away. But I think we should still approach him with a lot of skepticism.

      • i approach everyone with a lot of skepticism. it’s my nature:) or is it my nurture, ha.

      • Release said:

        Ha ha!

  15. enrique said:

    “If you’re never wrong, you’re never interesting.” (F. Salmon) Plus, does anyone detect a hint of envy in this post?

    • Release said:

      I didn’t criticise him for being uninteresting (he’s not). I criticised him for being often more than a little wrong, and for being wrong in a way that gets other people to be wrong. Re: envy. I can’t fault you for thinking that. But I do think I can fault you a little for saying it out loud. But I swear, I’m not envious of Gladwell. I’m not the envious type. I’d be way more envious of him if he was right more often.

  16. This is quite interesting, I’ve never read any books by Gladwell, i was interested though. Now, I’m not so sure whether to read his books or not. I guess i’l just charge it to experience if i get the chance of reading his books,

    • Release said:

      You know, there’s been a couple of people who say that, and I’m not sure giving him up is the entirely right response. He’s worth giving a try (I like Blink and Outliers), but he should be read against the grain, is all I’m saying.

  17. Makes you think and keeps you thinking – bit like Gladwell!

    • Release said:

      Well, hey, whatever floats your boat, right? 🙂

  18. pipmarks said:

    1. I am a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell.

    2. I don’t take everything he writes as gospel.

    3. I would have been surprised if it were not possible to pick holes in many of his arguments.

    4. He raises lots of points that help me to explain and (possibly) confirm my suspicions about some issues based on my intuition. (Why is this a bad thing?)

    5. He raises lots of points that make me ponder issues that I had never thought about before.

    6. He draws connections between otherwise disparate stories to find common threads that may or may not be plausible but are usually intriguing and worthy of consideration.

    7. I find most of the articles and posts that knock him to be boring and not worth reading.

    Who cares if the number is 8,000 or 10,000 hours? For me all Gladwell is saying is that child prodigies and innovators did not magically appear without some hard slog and a few serendipities. Great – that means there is hope for the rest of us!

    8. Stories are powerful tools for sharing and communicating ideas – especially to the majority (see my post:

    As Zachary Miller says in response to the New Statesman critique:

    ‘There are thousands upon thousands of well-written, peer-reviewed journals out there that contain far more wisdom and scientific merit on one page than the sum total of Gladwell’s output. With that said, I hardly ever read those journals and I quite frequently find myself with Gladwell’s work because his stories are always engaging and interesting. And if you take them with a grain of salt, I don’t see what’s so wrong about that.’

    9. Here’s the point. We need to educate people so that they can think for themselves and do not take Gladwell’s stories and conclusions as gospel.

    They are the starting point (not the end point) for interesting discussions about where to send kids to school, the possible downside to accepting an offer to the best university, age-based intake policies for sports teams, and why it is not necessarily a bad thing if little Johnny has dyslexia etc.

    Gladwell himself says in ‘David & Goliath’ that he has rethought some of his ideas on affirmative action since he wrote ‘Outliers’ (in the end notes on Chapter 3).

    10. If Gladwell draws a long bow every now and then, take heart that archers can be trumped by cavalry so all you have to do is find a few people on horseback or in chariots to take him down.

    • Release said:

      Pipmarks: Sorry for the late response, and thank you for your arguments, which I find to be one of the more constructive critiques. I actually think we’re not that far apart in where we stand, but you land on Gladwell being a net positive, while I’m not so sure.

      So first, let me say what I probably should have said a little louder in the post itself: I enjoy a lot of Gladwell’s work. I think he writes well about hard problems and he is capable of some really good feats of teaching hard stuff to people. I also think he challenges my intuitions with his contrarianism, which is good.

      Let me also say that your points 8, 9 and 10 are very well put, and that I agree that the biggest problem with Gladwell is that he has space to maneuver because there just isn’t that much good science writing.

      What I think lands me on the other side of the fence from you is that I think that along with all the good stuff that he does, Gladwell slips in some bad habits of thinking. A kind of hair-trigger inductiveness (often called “abductive reasoning”) where two instances of the same kind of story means that a general rule has been uncovered. It’s not a healthy habit to cultivate without also instituting some system of checks and balances. And that tends to show in not just how much he is a little or a lot wrong about, but that in general it seems to be the same kind of mistake every time (in short: abductive thinking and confirmation bias).

      I also think that a little too often, his findings don’t have “depth”, in the sense that he seems to provide what I called in the post the “high” of intellectual discovery without also teaching the way you do the hard work that leads you to those kinds of discoveries. Every time you read a gripping good yarn like this, you should also come away with some sort of instrument for thinking about other stuff.

      Thanks for your comments!

      • Release said:

        Oh, and I was going to say: my problem is not so much that he is firing long bows as the fact that we’ve invented the machine gun and the intercontinental ballistic missile and the longbow is a bit inaccurate and short-ranged for the sort of stuff we should be looking at.

      • pipmarks said:

        Thanks for your reply.
        Everyone seems to be focusing on the issue of whether Gladwell’s claims can be backed up or not (and it looks like there is reason to seriously question some of them) – but I would be more interested to know whether his ideas have had any impact and if there have been any detrimental (or beneficial) consequences due to his (possibly flawed) conclusions.
        For example, have any countries changed their sports intake procedures? Are schools or parents reviewing class sizes? Are universities being questioned about students in the bottom half of the class being used as ‘fodder’? Have command and control roles changed to give greater flexibility to rely on gut feelings rather than blindly following standard procedures? etc
        Maybe it’s too early to say. Hopefully if anyone does look into it, they use scientifically credible methods and sample sizes!!
        You’re right that weapons have changed over the years, but Gladwell’s point about breaking the rules may still be valid:

      • Release said:

        Pipmarks: I seem to recall that scene in Raiders … being written because Harrison Ford had the runs and could only shoot for about five minutes at a time before having to run to the bathroom.

        Your other point is valid, though I do think that his influence is, if I may say, a bit more pernicious. He slips into the groundwater and exercises influence below the level of policy. He changes the tools for thinking people have lying about, I suspect. And that’s the dangerous bit. If the tools he provides aren’t good enough — and some of them aren’t I suspect — then we might have a problem in the long run. Remember that particularly people in the business community love his work.

    • “Who cares if the number is 8,000 or 10,000 hours? For me all Gladwell is saying is that child prodigies and innovators did not magically appear without some hard slog and a few serendipities. Great – that means there is hope for the rest of us!”

      Well, Gladwell seems to care, which is apparently why he emphasizes 10,000 hours. And the reason we should care is that the research which he claims proves the 10,000-hour figure does not prove it at all. He could have simply said that anyone who wants to be successful has to work very hard and put in a lot of practice, which I don’t think anyone would disagree with at all. But Gladwell focuses on the 10,000-hour figure, and then selectively quoted and/or misinterpreted research which he claims supports that figure. And if that’s how he structures his reasoning, as Release points out, then it’s legitimate to question the accuracy of his other conclusions.

      • Thank YOU. Share on FB, Twitter, etc. Feel free to use (with attribution and link) on your blog.

  19. Interesting post. But at the end of the day we have our own brain, and we are supposed to make our own conclusions based on the data we receive through our senses.

    • Release said:

      Hey, thanks! Oh, I love Language Log. I used to read them all the time. I look forward to reading it.

  20. Seems like it’s ‘tipping point’ time for Gladwell-love!

    • Release said:

      I’m sure he’ll tip back in the blink of an eye.

  21. I have ‘The Tipping Point’ on the edge of my desk as I write this. I’ve tested it and true to its name, push it past the half-way point and it tips onto the floor. That guy is a friggin’ GENIUS!

    • Release said:

      That’s brilliant! I guess pushing the book to the edge of the desk makes it an outlier in a blink of an eye, right?

      • Oh, please

  22. This type of thing is extremely refreshing. Thank you!

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