Malcolm Gladwell speaks: Can narrative be misused in journalism?

Malcolm Gladwell

On Tuesday, I asked here whether we should stop believing Malcolm Gladwell. I was commenting on a review (and subsequent blog post) of Gladwell's new book, David and Goliath, by Christopher F. Chabris, an author and neuroscientist at Union College in New York.

Gladwell responded to Chabris yesterday afternoon with a condescending, name-calling, self-defeating post in Slate that helps us answer that question.

The post says Chabris "should calm down," that his criticism is "not actually criticism; it is narcissism," and that he wishes Chabris could "come to a better appreciation of the narrative form." He accuses him of condescending to science popularizers, and says Chabris "is in no mood to be reasonable."

I could say more, but I think it's clear which one of them is in no mood to be reasonable. Gladwell didn't help himself with this post.

But the issues here are more important than the personalities. "The thing about narratives is that they often begin in one place and end in another," Gladwell writes. He's right–readers need to read to the end to get the point. And a good narrative won't let them quit until they do.

But he gives himself away with this observation: "All writing about social science need not be presented with the formality and precision of the academic world. There is a place for storytelling, in all of its messiness." He's contrasting "formality and precision" with "messiness," but that's not right. Whether we're talking about academic writing or narrative nonfiction, the distinction at issue here is between accuracy and inaccuracy.

Gladwell has demonstrated the power of narrative as well as any journalist could. His stories are spellbinding, and sometimes almost match Tarantino in their use of shifting points of view, narrative jumps, and meandering story lines that suddenly coalesce into striking insights that can give readers chills. His narratives are far from messy. They are very tightly controlled; that's why they work so well.

It's the power of narrative that makes it so dangerous: Seductive storytelling robs us of our critical skills. How else could the creators of Breaking Bad toy with us as they did, depicting Walter White as a monster and yet evincing our sympathy when he gently grasps his infant daughter's fingers?

The charge against Gladwell is not the use of narrative, as he says, but the improper use of narrative to drive home a truth, or a point of view, that isn't supported by the available evidence. And if the point, the insight, isn't supported by the evidence, then it doesn't matter how good the story is.

Boyce Rensberger, in a comment on my Facebook page (where I linked to my previous post), wrote, "The key to Malcolm is to recognize that his form of story telling is in no way to be understood as journalism." Wray Herbert picked up on that, writing " I think that's exactly right, Boyce. And it doesn't diminish his work at all to agree on that. He's a terrific storyteller and provocative thinker, and that's all I look for in his work."

But that can't be right. If Gladwell's work isn't journalism, what is it? Whether we think it's good or bad, journalism is exactly what it is. Unless one wants to derisively argue that it's fiction, there's nothing else it could be. And it does indeed diminish his work to say that it isn't journalism, because if that's the case, he's deceiving us. In his Slate post, he writes that his job is "to use storytelling to bring the amazing worlds of psychology and sociology to a broader audience." That's journalism.

I've confessed to being seduced by Gladwell's storytelling. But my assumption was that he was a meticulous journalist who investigated stories, abstracted some fundamental truths, and then conveyed those truths masterfully. He made me feel smart, because when I read his stories, I got it. Now I feel differently. What I thought were insights grounded in science appear to be Gladwell's opinions.

In his post at Slate, Gladwell seemed to be endorsing narrative at the expense of anything else. He protests too much. His readers, he writes, "are perfectly aware of the strengths and weakness of the narrative form." Gladwell's defense makes us more aware of the weaknesses. He thinks he's entitled to be messy for the sake of storytelling. I disagree.

I can't help but feel that I've been duped. And I've stopped believing Malcolm Gladwell.

-Paul Raeburn

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