Defending Malcolm Gladwell to Intellectuals

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An Email Exchange

A few months ago I was copied on an email from one intellectual to another. The email praised a highly negative review by political philosopher John Gray of Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, David and Goliath. Omitting correspondent names, the email read as follows:

A masterly example of the art of intellectual evisceration:

And a most worthy subject for same!!

I don't really like Gray, but I have to admit this was brilliantly done.

einstein1By an intellectual, let us agree to mean someone who makes a living from writing and speaking about ideas without, in the first instance, looking to public approval or reward, but who instead puts (or purports to put) a premium on rigor, research, and scholarship. Professors are thus intellectuals, but journalists and writers of popular books, such as Gladwell, would be excluded.

Of course, this definition leaves something to be desired. Some who style themselves as intellectuals may in fact crave public approval and make that the principal aim of their intellectual endeavors, only too happy to compromise their integrity as a means of advancing their standing. And some "non-intellectuals" who depend for their livelihood on public approval may be intellectually honest, refusing to sacrifice their standards to the tastes and fashions of their readers.

I want in this article to defend Gladwell to intellectuals. I believe that Gladwell has something to offer them. In fact, I expect that many intellectuals have read Gladwell and regard their intellectual lives as enriched for having done so. With his books having sold well over 5 million copies, this seems overwhelmingly likely.

At the same time, I expect that many intellectuals have not read Gladwell and are uninclined to do so because of critical reviews like the one cited in the above email. In response to that email, I wrote back:

I've read Gladwell's David & Goliath. Have you? I'll grant that Gladwell focuses on cases where the seemingly powerless overcome the powerful, and thus largely bypasses cases where brute force triumphs. But I know all about Gray's examples of the Nazis and Stalin (e.g., the Czech town that the Nazis razed), so one shouldn't read Gladwell as presenting the whole truth about power but as providing a useful perspective on it.

I'm going to present the rest of this email exchange because it underscores why intellectuals find it too easy to dismiss Gladwell. In reply, my intellectual friend remarked:

I confess I have never looked at Gladwell, so I guess I shouldn't comment on him.

From book reviews, though, he sounds like someone pushing scientism. I always pigeon-holed him in my mind alongside Alain de Botton and other purveyors of the consensus to the masses.

Perhaps that is unfair.

Then, again, life is short . . . [sic]

pieter-claesz-vanitasLife is indeed short. Yet because of its brevity, do we take the words of some to dismiss the words of others without actually knowing what those words are? Such a question could be posed in a moralizing tone, but I raise it rather with a sense of regret: unfortunately, we don't have the time to read everything; consequently, we will of necessity dismiss some people and ideas on the word of others, and this means that we will at times be wrong to do so. Gladwell's writings, in my view, constitute a case in point.

I responded to my intellectual friend as follows:

I think you need to give Gladwell more the benefit of the doubt. I don't see how he can be thought to support scientism, especially with his conversion back to Christianity:

This exchange ended with the following admission by my intellectual friend:

Interesting. I was entirely ignorant of all this.

Just from reading reviews of his previous books, I had formed the impression that he was an enthusiast of de-moralized social science explanations of human behavior, not unlike David Brooks.

I am happy to know I was mistaken.

If there is a lesson in this exchange for intellectuals, the first is that if intellectuals are going to denounce Gladwell, they should read him and not merely critical reviews about him. But, for many intellectuals, the well has already been poisoned, criticisms of his books lodged so deeply in their psyches that it is impossible for them, without some further justification, to muster the energy to look at his work more closely and objectively.

Two Reasons to Take Gladwell Seriously

I want therefore, in what follows, to offer two considerations for why intellectuals may, without embarrassment, attend to and seriously engage Gladwell's work. In offering these considerations, I'll also suggest why many of the criticisms offered by intellectuals against Gladwell's work miss the mark.

In the service of full disclosure, let me say that I have read all five of Gladwell's books: Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, his collection of essays What the Dog Saw, and his most recent David & Goliath.

In saying that I read these books, let me be more precise: I have listened to them as audio books read by the author, Gladwell himself. As it is, I have a severely autistic son for whom I must care, and so I am often unable to sit down and read books in the conventional way. So, at a play park or on a walk with him, I've listened to many books, Gladwell's among them.

I have found the content of Gladwell's books engaging, and I've enjoyed his actual reading of them. From his reading, it's obvious that he enjoys what he is sharing with his listeners. For instance, he does a particularly good job reading certain poignant passages in Outliers, where he describes his ancestry in Jamaica under slavery.

What, then, is it about Gladwell's books that intellectuals should take seriously, and what should they make of criticisms of his books by other intellectuals? For me, Gladwell offers intellectuals two invaluable things:

  1. A knack for raising interesting questions and drawing interesting connections (these being flip sides of the same coin).
  2. Ready access to interesting personalities, whom Gladwell describes in everything from informal conversations to formal interviews.

The second consideration requires no elaboration. Gladwell is a superstar journalist/writer. He is thus in a position to sit down and have coffee with many colorful and fascinating people, people most of us would love to engage in conversation but won't for lack the opportunity. I've found Gladwell's interviews perceptive and insightful. In at least one case I knew the interviewee personally, and I thought Gladwell nailed some things about this person that I sensed vaguely but had never precisely articulated to myself.

The first consideration is, of course, the more important for intellectuals, and goes to what Gladwell offers by way of ideas and insights. It needs to be admitted at the outset that Gladwell is not offering traditional fare to which intellectuals are accustomed. I rarely find him establishing a claim by marshaling evidence in rigorous logical argumentation. Nor, thankfully, do I find him pretentiously moralizing, as is the custom of so many public intellectuals intent on saving the planet from some perceived ills.

Gladwell, as I read him, is mainly in the business of raising interesting questions and drawing interesting connections. For some intellectuals, this will be too impressionistic for their tastes. But for others, it can be a spur to further thought and investigation. In my own case, I rarely find myself in blithe agreement with everything Gladwell writes. But I do find myself adding to the connections he makes, pondering exceptions to his rules, raising further questions, and in general being stimulated to think more deeply.

The 10,000-Hour Rule

gladwell-outliersTake Gladwell's discussion of the 10,000-hour rule in Outliers. According to this rule, excellence in any serious endeavor requires about 10,000 hours of work or practice. Gladwell looks to everything from the Beatles playing gigs in Hamburg to computer programmers learning their craft to make his case that the 10,000-hour rule holds. (By the way, working 8-hours a day, 5-days a week, 50-weeks a year, for 5 years yields 10,000 hours; in other words, 10,000 hours is a five-year full-time job.)

Now, one could read Gladwell's discussion of the 10,000-hour rule as an exercise in confirmation bias, in which one simply looks for evidence supporting a conclusion while ignoring countervening evidence. And at times Gladwell might be susceptible to this charge because he tends to write without a lot of qualifications.

But if one has read enough of Gladwell, one realizes that he is not a dogmatist. He takes his readers to a window with an interesting view and asks them to look through it and see the same things he sees. He does not deny that there are other windows and that these may lead to different views and conclusions.

Thus, when I read Gladwell's discussion of the 10,000-hour rule, I note with interest the various people he describes as achieving expertise by working 10,000 hours at a given activity, but I also think of people whose natural talent is so flamboyantly excessive that they reach remarkable heights of achievement without anything like 10,000 hours of work.

Counterexamples to the 10,000-hour rule that come to mind for me include prodigy musicians who are not even teenagers performing at places like Carnegie Hall and prodigy mathematicians like Charlie Fefferman of Princeton, whose advisor Eli Stein saw him expeditiously solve problems worthy of doctoral dissertations when Fefferman was only 16. Fefferman was a full professor in mathematics at the University of Chicago at age 21.

But one doesn't just have to look to prodigies for counterexamples of the 10,000-hour rule. One can also look to Gladwell's avocation of running (Gladwell is an avid runner). Thus, in a comment from him that does not appear in any of his books, Gladwell admits:

Running teaches you about the inherent unfairness of the world. Two people can work exactly the same, in fact, one can be infinitely more devoted and train much harder and not do as well. An object lesson in how unfair life is. (ref)

Roger-Bannister-Breaks-4-minute-mileRoger Bannister, the man who first broke the 4-minute mile (on the right, breaking the tape at 3:59.4 on May 6, 1954), trained to break that time as a medical student. He had a single hour a day to train---the rest of the day was taken up with his "real" work. Bannister trained hard at running when he trained, but he could devote to running nothing like 10,000 hours.

So is Gladwell wrong to tout the 10,000-hour rule? Even if it is not an inviolable law, he is right to draw our attention to it. The 10,000-hour rule does seem to apply more in some fields of endeavor than in others. It is an interesting question how far talent can take a person, and how much work needs to supplement talent if one is to have success.

MagnusCarlsen1Could the 10,000-hour rule have been violated more in times past than today? Think of chess, a game that nowadays is a full-time occupation for grandmasters, especially those competing for the world championship (currently held by Magnus Carlsen of Norway). But back up a century, and you'll find Emanuel Lasker, who was world champion from 1894 to 1921, also working as a professional mathematician and philosopher. About chess he remarked: "Chess must not be memorized, simply because it is not important enough." Perhaps all things have grown in importance in the intervening years, and now expertise must increasingly be purchased with 10,000 hours of hard work.

When I read Gladwell, I often have quibbles and doubts. But quibbles and doubts can be spurs to think more deeply. Some authors are wrong, but uninterestingly wrong---their errors are obvious and boring. Insofar as Gladwell is wrong, I find him interestingly wrong. Gladwell is a wonderful stimulant for further thinking. In my own case, if it were not for Gladwell, I doubt I would have read Dan Ariely's work on behavioral economics of Roy Baumeister's work on self-control, from both of which I've derived much benefit. And these are just two examples where Gladwell has spurred me to further reading.

Key Criticisms of Gladwell by Intellectuals

Critics of Gladwell, however, make a show of not being impressed with his work. Some critics are just downright insulting, making sure that their insults are articulated with an appropriate shine of erudition so that everyone will know just how smart they are and how dumb Gladwell is (thus "stupid" becomes "fatuous," "B.S." becomes "fairy tales," etc.).

Steven_Pinker1Other critics will spotlight actual errors in Gladwell's work, but then harp on these errors as somehow invalidating the totality of his contribution. Steven Pinker takes this to the point of cattiness. Thus, in a New York Times review of What the Dog Saw, Pinker, to underscore Gladwell's supposed ignorance and unsophistication, notes not once, not twice, but three times that Gladwell misspelled the word "eigenvalue," even closing his review with the misspelled form of that word.

Now, as myself a mathematician, I have a deep fondness for eigenvalues. They are a crucial concept in linear algebra, from which they then get applied extensively in statistical analyses, especially in the social sciences. But eigenvalues also come up crucially in functional analysis, the infinite-dimensional extension of linear algebra, where they find application in quantum mechanics (the square of an eigenvalue ends up being the probability of a measurement landing in the state associated with it).

All that to say, I probably know a lot more about eigenvalues than Pinker and have a greater right to be offended at the word's misspelling than he. And yet, I'm happy to cut Gladwell some slack here. To be sure, Gladwell and his fact-checkers should have done a better job---this mistake should not have slipped by. But Gladwell has never passed himself off as a paragon of erudition. He publicly admits that he was a mediocre student in college. Despite having a professor father and earlier ambitions to attend graduate school, Gladwell is at peace with merely possessing a bachelor's degree.

simplicity2An unfortunate characteristic of many intellectuals is that unless you have been properly educated and socialized in their discipline, especially by paying attention to its nuances and steering clear of its solecisms, they will dismiss you as having lost all credibility. To me, this seems unfair, for it suggests that the important thing in discoursing about a discipline is to be a card-carrying member of the discipline's guild, displaying all its proper accouterments, rather than understanding the gist of what's at stake in the discipline. In my own view, Gladwell has a gift for cutting to the heart of a subject or discipline, understanding its gist, even if he lacks the nuance required to satisfy a Steven Pinker.

brain_scansPerhaps the most serious criticism of Gladwell that I've encountered from intellectuals is that he is merely making a series of more or less commonsense observations, which he then tarts up with a veneer of "science" (e.g., from sociology, psychology, or brain studies). Accordingly, Gladwell is reinforcing the widespread tendency of popular writers to lean on science in an intellectually indefensible way, finding in numbers a pseudo-precision and gaining from science an unearned authority.

As someone who sees in science a thoroughly human and fallible enterprise, I don't find this criticism particularly damning. I would grant that sometimes it can be a stretch getting from the science to which Gladwell appeals to the point for which he is arguing. But for me, the interest in Gladwell's use of science is not to nail down a particular point. It's not so much that science proves a particular point but that there's a resonance between the science Gladwell cites and the point he is making. If the resonance is interesting, draws an insightful connection, provokes further inquiry, that's enough, in my view.

Also, Gladwell's use of science needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Even if the science he uses merely tarts up a common sense observation in one case doesn't mean that it does so in another. In many cases, the science he employs is relevant and insightful. It's also worth bearing in mind that often Gladwell is telling a story or drawing on history and not leaning on science at all.

Gladwell on Power

Of the five books Gladwell has written, David and Goliath is likely to be the most controversial with intellectuals. This is because the topic of the book---POWER---is as large a theme as one can find; for intellectuals this is more than a journalist-writer is entitled to bite off and chew, especially within a modest-sized book. Leaving aside his collection of essays (What the Dog Saw), Gladwell's other books have dealt with more manageable topics: the psychology of first impressions (Blink), how things go viral (Tipping Point), and the contingencies underlying success (Outliers), none of which takes on a topic as grand as power.

In his approach to power, Gladwell strives to upset our ordinary intuitions. We tend to think of power as that which enables us to achieve our purposes even if at the expense of others, as an advantage that makes us victors and turns others into losers or victims. Gladwell's point is that power can be deceptive, that the advantage of power can backfire, and that a lack of power in one area can mask hidden power in another area.

As always with Gladwell's books, I found much in David and Goliath to stimulate further thought. Take his discussion and application of the Cognitive Reflection Test, sometimes described as the world's shortest intelligence test. The test consists of the following three questions:

  1. A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
  2. If it takes 5 machines 5 minutes to make 5 widgets, how long would it take 100 machines to make 100 widgets?
  3. In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

MIT_logoStudents at America's best universities will, on average, miss at least one question on this test---this is true even for undergraduates at MIT and Princeton, the two schools with the best overall performance on the Cognitive Reflection Test.

The test isn't so much difficult as misleading. People's automatic or reflexive answers to the three questions are, respectively, 10, 100, and 24, but these answers are wrong. By taking a deep breath and asking what's really going on in these questions, one readily comes to the correct answers, respectively, 5 cents, 5 minutes, and 47 days.

Having presented the test, Gladwell next asks whether performance on it can be improved by making it more difficult to read, as by presenting it in a less legible font. According to one study that Gladwell cites, doing this actually improved average performance on the test. This seems counterintuitive: a test that people have trouble with becomes easier to do well on when the actual questions become harder to read.

And yet, according to Gladwell, there's a lesson here: difficulties in life that hinder our performance in one area (in this case, making sense of the questions) may improve our performance in another area (in this case, answering the questions correctly). Gladwell applies this lesson to, among other things, dyslexia, noting that many high successful people in law and business (especially entrepreneurs) are dyslexics, and that their success can at least in part be attributed to the skills they gained in "working around" their dyslexia.

I personally found this connection intriguing. In my own experience, I've discovered that making things too easy for people can hinder getting the best results from them. I think of the chick that needs to punch through the shell of an egg on its own in order get the strength it needs to live outside the egg, and which is not helped by having the task done for it. I think of the initiation rites in everything from criminal gangs (hazing rituals) to graduate school students (qualifying and comprehensive exams), that establish group identity and develop perseverance and character (though not necessarily good character).

In any case, critics have been hard on Gladwell for his use of the Cognitive Reflection Test. One psychologist claims that Gladwell ignored unsuccessful efforts by scientists to replicate the effect described in the study that Gladwell cites (ref). Others see Gladwell as touting the "benefits" of dyslexia.

Anyone who interprets Gladwell as wishing dyslexia on kids because of the success it might engender for some in their later lives is clearly not reading him charitably. No one who has dealt with a special needs child wishes the deficit in question on that child or any other child. Gladwell is not a sadist. The man has a heart. His point, however, remains, namely, some deficits lead to compensatory actions that in turn can lead to remarkable successes.

As for whether the typeface in which the Cognitive Reflection Test is presented leads to varying performance on it, I'd say the verdict is not yet in. But regardless, Gladwell's broader point that weaknesses can in some circumstances be transformed into strengths seems worth pondering, especially determining the circumstances that make such a transformation possible (some weaknesses, it seems, simply remain weaknesses and are never redeemed).

Although there's much about David and Goliath that I thoroughly enjoy, I don't want to give the impression that I regard it as a perfect book. Gladwell's treatment of power is in places uneven. Take his example of the Nazis' failure to crush the French resistance or the British failure to bring order to Ireland during the 1960s and 70s, despite their clear military superiority. Though interesting as case studies involving certain individuals that Gladwell spotlights, his treatment of power in these examples struck me as a bit thin and not easily generalized.

In concluding this discussion of David and Goliath, I want to address the most disturbing example of power reversals in the book, namely, the brutal rape and murder of a Canadian teenage girl, an act of violence that her parents needed to confront not only at the time of her death but also years later when the perpetrator was caught and brought to trial. These parents, especially how they handled their daughter's death upon having to relive it when confronted with the killer years later, perhaps more than anything prompted Gladwell's conversion back to Christianity.

The power confronting these parents and threatening to overwhelm them was the grief, bitterness, anger, and unforgiveness that are the natural response to the moral evil that invaded their lives. It could have destroyed them and their family. But it didn't. Why didn't it? They found a strength in themselves to forgive, love, and move beyond this tragedy, a strength grounded in their Christian faith. This, for Gladwell, was extremely moving, and helps explain why he is a Christian today.

It seems to me that Gladwell's account of how these parents handled their daughter's death constitutes a thorough-going refutation of John Gray's principal criticism in his review of David and Goliath (i.e., the review about which my intellectual friend emailed me and which prompted this present essay). According to John Gray: "Gladwell thinks that he can persuade the reader to accept the difficult truth that the weak are not as weak as the reader imagines. If they play their cards right, they can prevail against the strong."

This is a simplistic and cynical way of characterizing Gladwell's view of power, especially in the present case. The parents of the daughter who was raped and murdered were not playing their cards right. There is no straightforward sense in which they prevailed against the predator that did this to their daughter. Certainly, they were unable to bring their daughter back. The loss they experienced was real and irrevocable. And yet the evil did not overcome them. Rather, they were able to stand as witnesses of redemption despite the evil.

In Gladwell's view of power, it is not that the weak overcome the strong because they are able to discover hidden strengths that allow them to confront the force of the strong with a greater and oppositely directed force of the same type. There is no direct clash between the power of the strong and the power of the weak. The power of the weak is of an entirely different quality from that of the strong, and their victory, insofar as they "prevail," is to win on a different playing field from the one defined by the strong.

Ecce-Homo3Sometimes this can lead to a clear-cut victory in the conventional sense, as when David in fact slew Goliath. Yet often the victory is not one that the strong would even acknowledge as a victory. The Jesus, who is the focal point of Gladwell's conversion, is one who met the political and military power of the Jewish and Roman authorities by dying on a cross. Moreover, even in his resurrection, Jesus did not reveal himself to the Jewish and Roman authorities. As far as they were concerned, they had succeeded in killing him, and the only problem that remained was to eradicate the fairy tales that his disciples were spreading about Jesus having resurrected. Gladwell's conception of power as described in David and Goliath is therefore consonant with his re-found Christian faith.

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