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8Oct 2013

Should we stop believing Malcolm Gladwell?

Should we stop believing Malcolm Gladwell?

One of the premises of Malcolm Gladwell's new book, David and Goliath, is that "the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty."

And here's one of his examples: A paper published in 2007 reports that two groups of people were asked to solve three mathematical reasoning problems. One group read the problems in a normal typeface; the other read the problems in a light-gray italic print that was difficult to read. The group that had trouble reading the problems scored 29% higher. The counter-intuitive conclusion is that making things harder improves performance.

I haven't read the book; I'm taking this example from a review in The Wall Street Journal by Christopher F. Chabris, a psychology professor at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. Gladwell's example is impressive, not only because of its fascinating and unexpected result, but also because unlike so many scientific studies, it has immediate, practical implications: We can try this trick ourselves.

But before you try that, you might want to read Chabris's deconstruction:

First, the study involved just 40 people, or 20 per typeface—a fact Mr. Gladwell fails to mention. That's a very small sample on which to hang a big argument. Second, they were all Princeton University students, an elite group of problem-solvers. Such matters wouldn't matter if the experiment had been repeated with larger samples that are more representative of the general public and had yielded the same results. But Mr. Gladwell doesn't tell readers that when other researchers tried just that, testing nearly 300 people at a Canadian public university, they could not replicate the original effect.

This is not an isolated incident, Chabris writes. "This flaw permeates Mr. Gladwell's writings: He excels at telling just-so stories and cherry-picking science to back them."

Chabris goes on along these lines for 2,500 words in the Journal and in a long post on his own blog, entitled "Why Malcolm Gladwell Matters (And Why That's Unfortunate)." If Chabris's charges are correct--and he's not the only one to make such accusations--then I'd take this a step further:

Should we stop believing Malcolm Gladwell?

Chabris links to a 2009 New York Times review by the Harvard psychologist and best-selling popular writer Steven Pinker of Gladwell's What the Dog Saw--And Other Adventures. Pinker writes:

Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “sagittal plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.

Pinker also takes a slap at Gladwell's book Outliers, writing, "The reasoning in “Outliers,” which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle." Ouch.

Both Chabris and Pinker confess to admiring Gladwell's story-telling, but in this context, that's not necessarily a compliment. The charge is that everything--facts, analysis, and fairness--is sacrificed on the altar of storytelling

Chabris sticks to criticism of David and Goliath in The Wall Street Journal, but on his blog he takes a look at some of the things Gladwell has said in interviews. Incredibly, Gladwell seems to be telling us that accuracy is not among his priorities. And many reviewers who should know better seem to think that's just fine.

Chabris quotes Dave Berri at the Freakonomics blog who writes:

...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.

Isn't this upending the whole rationale for nonfiction writing? If stories are worth telling, Berri is saying, who cares if they're built on cockeyed reasoning? Chabris quotes another reviewer who writes, "I read (and write about) most pop science as science fiction." Well, that certainly lets science writers off the hook. Thought-provoking is good enough! I wish I'd known that when I started my last book, and I'll keep it in mind for the next.

But it's Gladwell's own comments that are most disturbing. "If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then you shouldn't read them: you're not the audience." This is an interesting twist on the more common authors' response that if the book is too complicated for you, try something else. What is Gladwell saying--that he's aiming for the lowest common denominator? Anyone who's read his work knows that is not the case. Excerpts from is books fit very nicely into the pages of The New Yorker, which publishes some of the most intelligent and literate writing in America.

Here are further comments from Gladwell, as collected by Chabris:

I am a story-teller, and I look to academic research … for ways of augmenting story-telling.

...we’re obsessed with things like coherence, consistency, neatness of argument. Readers are indifferent to those things.

Gladwell, it seems to me is admitting, in the first comment, to cherry-picking research that fits his thesis (which is based on...what?), and in the second he is saying that readers will happily settle for sloppiness and faulty argument. It's not true. Coherence and neatness of argument are precisely the values that Gladwell adds to the research he writes about. The art of nonfiction storytelling is framing a neat, consistent tale out of a jumbled pile of factual building blocks. (And notice that Gladwell doesn't say anything about accuracy.)

I have long been an admirer of Gladwell's; I wish I could put stories together the way he does. But I'm now afraid to read him. My work, my intellectual life, and even my social and emotional experiences with my family are based on knowing what's really going on--not Gladwell's made-up ideas of how things should be. I don't want to base my reading, or my life, on Gladwell's currency: things that might or might not be true, but which make possible masterful storytelling.

-Paul Raeburn


Forgive me if you and your readers are already aware of this but I want to point out this exchange that Gladwell had with the writer of the blog "Ask a Korean" over this very issue earlier this year. ( ).

The issue at play is exactly the same thing, just over a different body of work (Outliers vs. David and Goliath).

Malcom Gladwell is a pop-sci writer- he tries to make white papers & research acessible to those not in academia. He does this through storytelling. Yes, the general population has been dumbed down thanks to Hollywood. Great. Now what... read more

As the other commenter stated below, the "igon value" misspelling appears in an essay about the investor Nassim Taleb. It's an excellent piece that's not only well-written, but really hits the mark.

The misspelling is unfortunate, but it's also completely irrelevant within the context of the piece. The error appears when Gladwells quotes some finance experts he overhears discussing mathematics at a whiteboard, and he's clearly a fly on the wall to this discussion. But eigenvalues are irrelevant to the story; in fact, it seems they're only mentioned to indicate that the math is a little over the author's head.

For critics to latch on to something so incidental suggests their position is weak, or derives from something petty and juvenile. Pinker should reflect on his motivations.

So let me get this straight. It's acceptable to write scathing critiques of books you haven't read?

The Igon Value quote comes from his piece about Nassim Taleb which is one of my favourite essays - not many writers could have caught the essence of the man so well. I think many people read his books and use them as the basis of some good arguments with others, rather than believing them wholesale. And yes, I know what an eigenvalue is.

Hearing Pinker criticize Gladwell for "cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies" provoked a snort of derision here, I'm afraid: Pinker is a world champion cherry-picker. See: The Better Angels of Our Nature.

That said, it seems slightly unreasonable to expect a popular writer to include the results of every replication of the studies they cite. Perhaps it's time to stop considering works of popular science to be the final arbiters of 'truth', any more than critical readers consider popular journalism to be objective?

If Gladwell is openly 'admitting' to polemic (and I'm not clear whether he is), it seems he's being rather more honest than Pinker et al.

How about:

Shaq was indicted for receiving bribes from a lobbyist in 2009 but was then re-hired by his former employer, a member of the house of representatives, when the charges were not pressed.

That's TELLING, and that's what I for one, WANT when I read journalism.

Anecdotes about ordinary people affected by an issue; descriptions of some famous person's face, height or general manner; the ambience of the restaurant where an interview took place, etc. are of no interest to me and do not belong in serious journalism.

I also hate the show-don't-tell approach in fiction: really great writers of fiction (Trollope, Dostoevsky, Dickens, V. Woolf) are TELLERS.


As a scientist - it's been clear to me since day one that even calling mg a storyteller misses the point. He's a destroyer of other people's stories. 

As a capitalist - more power to him. He's suckered millions into opening their wallets. What the hell, people give all the credit for great songs to the  singers. People believe Oprah knew everything every author on her show ever wrote about because she read a treatment before the interview and let the author speak only when it suited her. Heck, people even think Oprah paid for all those "gifts." (NOT)

As an educator - mg's work must only be suffered as examples of what not to do and how not to do it.

As an entrepreneur - it saddens me how many in American management believe they are wiser when they weild mg. How many new business proposals are being shot down every week inside corporations because the new idea doesn't have 10,000 hours work behind it yet?  (It's a new idea, fool. Give me budget and we'll spend far more than that on a proof of concept.) mg is a counter-management fad.

As an author - it infuriates me how much publishing oxygen people such as mg consumes.

As an American - it saddens me how little allegience we have to truth. We get and accept (and I suppose therefore somehow deserve) then Ben Afflecked explanation of root cause of "Pearl Harbor." We get the Ron Howarded linkage between genius and mental illness (completely false, actually separated by decades) but my, oh my, what a "Beautiful Mind." (although, the Nash Equilibrium has NOTHING to do with "getting a girl in a bar.") mg no doubt "justifies," ( although he probably believes that's a synonym for "reasons") "Why can't I do in print what films and TV do on the screen?" 

And perhaps that's the nugget. The long term negative effects of the hollywoodization of truth are both difficult to measure and overstate. 

I guess we need a study. 



Gladwell is the same Gladwell as when I was his editor at The Washington Post. At first, I fell for his approach and brought him over to the science pod from the Post's business staff. Then I realized that he cherry picks research findings to support just-so stories. Every time I sent him back to do more reporting on the rest of the story, he moaned and fumed.

When I read his proposal for "The Tipping Point," I found it to be warmed over epidemiology. It was based on a concept and a perception so old it was already an ancient saying about straw and a camel's back. But gussied up in Malcolm's writing style, it struck the epidemiologically naive as brilliant. Brilliant enough to win an advance of more than $1 million.

Interesting that the Freakonomics people think storytelling trumps truth, since they've been accused of the same sort of thing. 

Writers love good writers and Gladwell is a wonderful writer. The in-crowd tends to be an echo chamber for and adulators of anyone else who is 'in'. Lord knows that's Malcom Gladwell. But neither of these truths should lead any honest journalist to excuse Galdwell's unforgiveable core flaw; telling less than the truth, while claiming to do so. And no, an apology that 'it's just story telling' is - forgive the word - horseshit, because his claims aside, Gladwell's books and articles offer the reader no such caveat as he is invited in to what is presented as insightful truth. That is dishonesty defined, and yes, should undermine the faith any reader has in the veractiy of anything Gladwell offers, no matter how wonderfull well-written.

"In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong." Steven Pinker

I'll suggest that in this quote, Pinker has it exactly backwards. What he's describing is journalism.

What Gladwell (and Lehrer) do is establish a reputation for being knowledgeable themselves about some topic. They're not interviewing experts and attempting to write and explanation of what they heard.

Pinker hits the nail on the head with this rightway-round explanation of Gladwell's writing: "cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies," nothing to do with interviewing experts.

Oddly, a number of well-known scientists writing outside their own field do exactly the same thing.

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