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Is he the David or the Goliath?
October 5, 2013 12:04 PM   Subscribe

Does Gladwell matter? Is he relevant to our daily lives? If you don't think so, are you merely not his intended audience? Perhaps it's just a matter of taking it with "the proper portion of salt"?
posted by Obscure Reference (74 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Darn, I thought this post was an obscure reference to these guys.
posted by HuronBob at 12:31 PM on October 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


From The Millions' review of David and Goliath:
But for me, the book’s most troubling section deals with California’s 1994 Three Strikes law, which, until it was partially repealed last year, forced judges to hand out 25-year sentences after a third offense, even if the third offense was as minor as stealing a few slices of pizza. Crime plummeted in California after the Three Strikes law passed, but as Gladwell rightly points out, crime rates “also came tumbling down in many other parts of the United States in the same period, even in places that didn’t crack down on crime at all.” He cites conflicting studies on the impact of the Three Strikes law, and concludes “[t]he state of California conducted the greatest penal experiment in American history, and after twenty years and tens of billions of dollars, nobody could ascertain whether that experiment did any good.”

He’s right, of course. I grew up in California, and I voted against Three Strikes in 1994. So I would be inclined to agree with Gladwell except that it reminded me of a chapter from The Tipping Point on New York City’s so-called Broken Windows style of policing, made famous by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In New York City, just as in California, crime seemed out of control. In both cases, the government got tough on even the most minor offenses, and crime rates plummeted. Of course, crime dropped everywhere else at the same time, and nobody really knows why. But in The Tipping Point, because Broken Windows fit Gladwell’s thesis, Giuliani and his police commissioner were heroes who brought a great city back from the brink of chaos, while in David and Goliath, because Three Strikes doesn’t fit his thesis, supporters of the law are guilty of costly and heartless government overreach.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:32 PM on October 5, 2013 [41 favorites]


Quoth Kottke:

I read (and write about) most pop science as science fiction: good for thinking about things in novel ways but not so great for basing your cancer treatment on.

This is an insult to (1) popular science writing, (2) science fiction, and (3) thinking. Let's take them in order:

1. Good popular science writing takes great care, as a primary ethical principle, to get the science it's reporting right; its whole reason for existing is vitiated if it overstates, exaggerates, or unduly extrapolates from its conclusions.
2. Science fiction, in the sense Kottke seems to mean, is speculative writing, based on careful extrapolative thought about a counterfactual world. Lying about the actual world is in no way the same thing as writing fiction about another possible or imagined world.
3. Thinking that's worth anything can't possibly be inspired by insipid just-so stories or deliberate gee-whiz distortions of the facts — except perhaps by negative example. Perhaps it's true that Gladwell has by now inspired a bunch of useful critiques, which articulate intelligently how real scientific and social thought work. But being the Goofus to real intellectualism's Gallant is hardly his goal, nor the way the majority of his audience reads him.
posted by RogerB at 12:35 PM on October 5, 2013 [19 favorites]


Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book about how the trend towards positive thinking has undermined America, and one of her bones of contention with stuff like The Secret is that people read these manifestos about how they are in control of their destiny and forge ahead on making dream charts instead of forming labor unions to strike back at the people who actually control our destiny. I'm not entirely sure that I agree with her argument, although I do recognize the correlation between when we started seeing more and more prosperity gospel preachers becoming millionaire mega-stars and when more and more of the American labor force started to lose any bargaining power at the big table and a causation between those things is not impossible.

More relevant to this thread, however, is the fact that her argument isn't just "these things aren't true but people believe in them", it's that "these things aren't true and people believe in them instead of doing something actually helpful." The extra step where she advocates for unions and greater regulation of corporate interests is what makes her whole case actually matter, rather than just peevish grumping against a pop trend she finds distasteful.

Where's that extra step in the anti-Gladwell case? Maybe he's right, maybe he's wrong, but is there an actual real world consequence to whether or not his view of the world is verifiably real? If Outliers was wrong, what's the worst possible outcome - that someone spent 10,000 hours training at something they wanted to do? With David and Goliath is the worst case scenario that someone would try to achieve something that seems unlikely? People were doing that a long time before Gladwell wrote that book, as evidenced by the fact that the book documents cases that are hundreds of years old.

I can understand putting a target on the back of something that's popular but possibly incorrect, but while I can see why Twilight reinforces bad ideas about gender roles and how romance should work I can't see how Gladwell really fits that description. He writes books that are meant to be read on airplanes which people enjoy and hopefully take with a grain of salt. Its not the end of the world.
posted by Kiablokirk at 12:35 PM on October 5, 2013 [10 favorites]


Gladwell represents what's wrong. The victory of the non-doer over the doer. Analysis for the sheer entertainment value.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:44 PM on October 5, 2013 [8 favorites]


The problem, it seems to me, is that people write half-thought out books where they make a few assertions, perhaps weakly supported with evidence. Then businesspeople, politicians, and administrators of various stripes half-read those books and cherry-pick quotes to support whatever half-thought-out ideas they want to implement. Bolstered by this, they forge ahead with plans ignoring the input of people who actually work in the area that will be affected. More often than not, time is wasted, resources are wasted, good employees leave, and the organization is left a bit less functional than before. Then we lather, rinse, and repeat. The problem is not so much the half-quacks as it is their readers.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:46 PM on October 5, 2013 [28 favorites]


Analysis for the sheer entertainment value.

ANATHEMA TO METAFILTER I KNOW RITE?
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 12:46 PM on October 5, 2013 [37 favorites]


one of her bones of contention with stuff like The Secret is that people read these manifestos about how they are in control of their destiny and forge ahead on making dream charts instead of forming labor unions to strike back at the people who actually control our destiny

This reminds me of a minister I heard on the radio recently. He is the pastor of a largely African-American congregation, and he's been trying to combat the "prosperity gospel" message that some of his people have been taken in by. So he runs classes in actual personal finance skills, classes in how to find better jobs, save money, get out of debt, plan for the future. A lot of his people have been told that they should do things like go into more debt to buy really nice cars and clothes and then pray, as this will "attract" prosperity into their lives, since God wants His people to thrive.
posted by thelonius at 12:50 PM on October 5, 2013 [23 favorites]


As long as people are buying, he will be selling. Part of my distaste is that people in general treat him as some kind of authority, but he's just a writer -- he's not really qualified to come to the conclusions he does. I could see him doing some kind of synthesis of the experts, but when I've read his books, he doesn't really seem honest about pursuing the truth. And his books are marketed as non-fiction, not fiction.

But a lot of people treat celebrities as authorities, so one shouldn't be surprised.

My problem with it is that his works punish people who create works which are honest about their conclusions. A competent exploration of talent and nature and nurture, for example, would reference real studies more strongly and show the contradictory evidence. And, probably would end up being more nuanced and not focusing so exclusively on "you can do it!" as a continuous mantra throughout the book.

But that wouldn't sell, for obvious reasons. I'd like to say I'm better than that, but the 10k rule is extremely appealing to me. I *don't* want to hear the contradictory evidence. And so it goes...
posted by smidgen at 12:51 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I haven't read Gladwell's recent books, but I remember reading the Tipping Point when it came out and thinking it was remarkably faithful to the relevant mathematics.

The thing about Malcolm Gladwell is that he's an excellent writer. Like Michael Lewis. The reason they're more successful than other people in their domain isn't because they say what people want to hear, or because they have more interesting or novel theses to put forward; it's because they write better English sentences than the many, many other people trying to do the same thing they are. (See also: Nate Silver.)
posted by escabeche at 1:00 PM on October 5, 2013 [13 favorites]


Gladwell reminds me of those people who think they are so smart and brilliant that their first-blush smug insights about things are going to be better than what people in the trenches know and have been dealing with for years.

There can be value in the viewpoint of someone who is zoomed way out, but I often get the impression Gladwell has just never talked to an actual expert who has walked him through why, yes that is a tempting thought, but it's actually much different because of X Y and Z.

He's just always scanning the crowd for possible emperors that might be less than fully dressed.
posted by bleep-blop at 1:00 PM on October 5, 2013 [9 favorites]


Gladwell is cocktail party smart, and he writes and sells books that can be, as GenjiandProust said above, cherry picked for clever sounding ideas that others can use to be cocktail party smart.
Folks who seek deeper analysis can and do. I read his essays in the New Yorker if they are germane to my interests, but i lose patience with his longer pieces because they just don't hold up.
posted by OHenryPacey at 1:07 PM on October 5, 2013 [11 favorites]


Metafilter: the Goofus to real intellectualism's Gallant.
posted by jonp72 at 1:19 PM on October 5, 2013


it's because they write better English sentences than the many, many other people trying to do the same thing they are.

Well, yes, if the writing sucks, no one will read it (well, that may also be false, but I'm willing to believe it for now :-)) I agree with you, but I also think privileging a particular conclusion makes this a lot easier for him to construct a narrative. There are a bunch of good writers in a similar domain (as you pointed out), but their work isn't the same as Gladwell's -- they tend to walk the walk.
posted by smidgen at 1:22 PM on October 5, 2013


David and Goliath are mythic heroes, i. e. fictionally inflated characters; the title is excellent but not in the way the author probably intended it.
posted by bukvich at 1:31 PM on October 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Good non-fiction writers can communicate with truth the reasons why something that might seem dull or uninteresting at first is actually really fascinating and worth knowing about. They shed light. And they perform a huge service to our culture. We need more of them.

Crappy non-fiction writers don't do this. For whatever reason -- laziness, lack of curiosity, or maybe they just don't give a shit. Instead, they pick a conclusion first and then cherry-pick, summarize facts in misleading ways, treat anecdotes as data, and/or misunderstand stuff that experts know inside-out in order to get to that conclusion. The good ones mask this with an engaging writing style and a personal "intellectual" brand. They often perform a disservice as they give intellectual weight to crappy ideas that sometimes become deeply ingrained into our conventional wisdom.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, for example, fits into the first category.

Malcolm Gladwell does not.

(Nor do the Freakonomics guys.)
posted by chasing at 1:35 PM on October 5, 2013 [10 favorites]


Metafilter: the Goofus to real intellectualism's Gallant.

Hey, MetaFilter always offers the last piece of pie to others before having seconds!
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:36 PM on October 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Gladwell is cocktail party smart

Exactly. I don't have strong feelings about Malcolm Gladwell; in fact I rarely think of him at all. In thirty years no one will have any idea who he was. One of the reasons used bookstores are going out of business is because their stock is weighed down with thousands of volumes of books from fifty years ago that are rather similar to his, books that attracted some conversation when they were current but are utterly forgotten today.

But he's not, you know, hurting anybody. Like you say, he's a reasonably competent journalist who can explain what some people are doing in short pieces. If you want more, go elsewhere.
posted by Fnarf at 1:37 PM on October 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


But he's not, you know, hurting anybody.

I actually really disagree.

People read his books because he's presented as an authority -- someone with good ideas. If he's not and if his ideas are broken or run contrary to the way the world actually works, he's hurting the reader. I mean, he's not chopping your pinky off. But he's harming your ability to think about the world properly. Which is an even worse problem if you happen to be someone who wields a lot of power...

Non-fiction writers need to be held to a really high standard. What they do is important.
posted by chasing at 1:41 PM on October 5, 2013 [12 favorites]


Part of the reason Gladwell has such a ready market is that - at least in my experience - lots of academic research is inaccessible. I recently spent some time poring over academic journals reading research on a particular area of customer switching. Very hard to drill down to the findings. In some cases it was very hard to see what the findings were at all.

OK, so I'm not an academic. But I'm not dumb either. Time after time, the research I read was bone dry, buried its lede and waffled round the point, didn't progress one's thinking much at all and in some of the cases looked poorly thought out and a waste of time. OK, so I wasn't the target audience, and some of the protocols like lengthy literature reviews matter, if not to me. Notwithstanding that, my overwhelming feeling was of an opportunity missed to communicate something interesting in a clearer manner.

Gladwell helps fill that niche: he translates dry and disparate research into something readable. He creates narratives where academics might offer caveats and methodologies. He writes for an audience that has no interest in literature reviews and does so without conscience. I'm not saying I agree with how Gladwell constructs such neat narratives or simplifies complex research to the level of sound bites and slogans. But I can see why there can be large gaps in pop science between the researchers and secondary consumers of the research.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:49 PM on October 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


This blog post by Henry Farrell seems relevant.
Under this interpretation, many (possibly the vast majority) of business books are not really ‘books’ in the sense that they are intended to be read for the sake of their ideas, let alone their prose. If they are read, it is so that their maxims can be repeated to others within the firm, demonstrating loyalty. They are books only in the sense that they are physical book-like objects. Really, they are objects of ritual exchange. And business authors are less idea-crafters than hierophants, dedicated to helping senior management perpetuate the sacred mystery, or, when necessary, reinterpret it a little in congenial ways.
In my experience, it works fairly well to be somewhat cynical about the role of "ideas" in society. Human beings are generally not intellectually honest truth seekers.
posted by leopard at 1:55 PM on October 5, 2013 [16 favorites]


In New York City, just as in California, crime seemed out of control. In both cases, the government got tough on even the most minor offenses, and crime rates plummeted. Of course, crime dropped everywhere else at the same time, and nobody really knows why.

I'd thought it was pretty well accepted at this point that one major contributing factor was the reduction of environmental lead pollution.
posted by weston at 2:04 PM on October 5, 2013 [7 favorites]


The Farrell blog post reminds me of seeing ads for a service where you could get the distilled gist and important of the most important current business books emailed to you for a fee because nobody had time to read those books. Purchasers of the service just wanted to know the catchphrases and buzzwords.

The Gladwell books I've read (Tipping Point and I think the next one) very much strike me as candidates for that kind of service. The Freakonomics guys do too. They're slicker and broader aimed than something like "Who Moved My Cheese?" (one of the actual business books I've seen handed out) but what I've read of them seemed inclined to accept just-so stories and overly simple explanations for complicated phenomena. (E.g., the crime drop discussed above, which is not a single-factor problem.)
posted by immlass at 2:19 PM on October 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


The fact that he referred to eigenvectors as "igon vectors" in one of his books is pretty revealing - his conclusions are supposed to be based on a solid foundation of statistics but he has patchier maths knowledge than the average undergrad.
posted by kersplunk at 2:24 PM on October 5, 2013 [13 favorites]


"They are the readers who will take Gladwell's laws, rules, and causal theories seriously; ... write them up in their own books and articles (David Brooks relied on Gladwell's claims more than once in his last book)

Oh SNAP! We got ourselves a twofer in this article.
posted by symbioid at 2:26 PM on October 5, 2013 [8 favorites]


Maybe he's right, maybe he's wrong, but is there an actual real world consequence to whether or not his view of the world is verifiably real?

I don't know about his other books, but I wouldn't be surprised to find that many (most?) readers of Blink took away the idea that your gut-level response to any given question is as good as or better than your considered response formed after deliberation.

In one specific case in that book, Gladwell argues that your first-blush evaluation of the quality of your surgeon is better evidence than the actual survival statistics for the surgeon! (Weirdly, the facts that Gladwell reports in making that case do not support his conclusion but rather support the conclusion that which surgeons people decide to sue is better predicted by their first-blush opinions than by the survival statistics.)

Further, there is at least one potentially serious general problem engendered by bullshit (in the technical sense of an indifference to the truth): Encouraging a bad habit about truth-seeking with respect to the impractical things that Gladwell discusses is just to encourage a bad habit of truth-seeking full stop. Although I don't entirely agree with his view, W.K. Clifford wrote very eloquently about the general problem: "The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery."
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 2:37 PM on October 5, 2013 [12 favorites]


In thirty years no one will have any idea who he was.

John McPhee's Oranges is nearly 50 years old now, and is still one of my favourite books, even though the science and business info is completely outdated. But I'm not sure Gladwell is even trying for the same niche as McPhee.
posted by rollick at 2:42 PM on October 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I work at a science institution. Many of the scientists who work there are loath to make any statement without total confidence - especially when it is not within their exact field of expertise. They often go to great lengths to point out when something is not yet provable - or the evidence is still inconclusive. They also live and die by "scientific review".

Many of these scientists would be horrified about Gladwell's methodologies - reviewing small data sets, jumping to conclusions without rigorous debate, then making emphatic statements about "the truth".
posted by greenhornet at 2:43 PM on October 5, 2013 [7 favorites]


I like the "cocktail party smart" analogy, here is a clip of Gladwell's speech at a recent Google sponsored conference. It's essentially a synopsis of his new book, and starts off with his framing his speech as "Why would I, Malcolm Gladwell, whose time is really valuable and who is surrounded by interesting people, come speak at this Google conference and speak for free?" (I'm not paraphrasing here, BTW, this is literally the context).

To me it comes off as someone who is inoculating himself against criticism and is fully committed to his schtick: "OMG! It's so non-intuitive for someone to speak at a Google conference and present themselves as a solipsistic asshole, so that's what I need to do".

He's not really in fine form as a public speaker here, but I have to admit he can craft a compelling narrative.
posted by jeremias at 2:45 PM on October 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


John McPhee's Oranges is nearly 50 years old now

Watch yourself, now! John McPhee is one of the greatest writers this country has ever seen. I have a near-complete set of first editions of his stuff. He is BRILLIANT. And he is not Gladwell, not by a long chalk.

One of the things McPhee never does, in extreme contrast to Gladwell, is claim importance. He doesn't give a damn about importance; he cares about understanding -- his own understanding. In his books you never get the sense that he's saying "you have to get this"; he's saying "isn't this amazing?" That's what makes for great nonfiction: don't tell us, show us. If you don't want to read a McPhee book, it's no skin off his nose.

Gladwell strives for importance. He wants to be heard, and to influence. Those are poisonous desires, I think. Your subject has to demand its own attention, in its own right. Everybody wants to understand the world around us, but you can't proceed from that desire -- you have to start with the world, not yourself.
posted by Fnarf at 2:51 PM on October 5, 2013 [19 favorites]


I was going to comment, but then I realized that I have only read one of Gladwell's books. I remember nothing about it besides the entertaining story about how Grey Poupon mustard became so popular.
posted by freakazoid at 3:01 PM on October 5, 2013


The problem, it seems to me, is that people write half-thought out books where they make a few assertions, perhaps weakly supported with evidence. Then businesspeople, politicians, and administrators of various stripes half-read those books and cherry-pick quotes to support whatever half-thought-out ideas they want to implement.

Indeed, see also: Florida, Richard The Creative State/City/Chicken Coop, the Freakonomics guys, and at the dark end of the spectrum Bjorn Lomberg. I find a lot of this stuff is just bourgeois neoliberal fables dressed up with an aura of respectability, to be repeated with po-faced assurance when enacted unpopular policies or persuading people that CEOs are a better class of person.

I just find Gladwell and his ilk so irrelevant. They have nothing to say of import. Nothing that is real. Ironically, given their stated raison d'etre, they are the opposite of truth tellers. I think Adorno or someone like that could have a field day with them. I wonder if Zizek has written about them?
posted by smoke at 5:02 PM on October 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


One insidious thing about Gladwell is that his work often contains at least a kernel of plausible truth. For example, with the "10,000 hours" meme, while the specific claim may not be provably true, it's generally accepted that "lots of practice" is how a person gets really good at doing something. Saying that it takes at least 10,000 hours (or more) is just quantifying it and putting a sort of pseudo-scientific sheen on the punchline of that old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 5:22 PM on October 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Don't forget Matt Yglesias.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 5:30 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


A lot of people work as hard as the luminaries in a field, get pro-level good, but they don't have that extra dimension of greatness. Anyone know who is the 50th ranked chess or tennis player in the world? I bet that person is really really good, and I bet they did work 10k hours, but only the top 25 players get a shot at the big elite tournaments. And that's because they are just better.
posted by thelonius at 5:37 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sometimes it might also be because they get into situations that require them to put other needs (like the needs of loved ones and friends) ahead of their own ambitions. The talent and ability part of success is a much less important factor than singlemindedness and determination and situational stuff like socioeconomic status, personal connections, and dumb luck from what I've seen.

But what the hell's that got to do with Gladwell anyway? He's never been at the top of any field has he?
posted by saulgoodman at 6:06 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think Adorno or someone like that could have a field day with them. I wonder if Zizek has written about them?

smoke, do go on. I'm intrigued by your train of thought. Were you being ironic, or do you believe people like Adorno and Zizek are more substantial thinkers than Gladwell? I'd love to hear reasons why, because as much as I want to admire Critical Theory for its ability to speak the truth, at most it seems like an art form for the ultra-intellectual, ultra-zen West.
posted by jwhite1979 at 6:18 PM on October 5, 2013


One of the things McPhee never does, in extreme contrast to Gladwell, is claim importance.

This seems like a weird thing to say. Gladwell's standard move is to take some familiar thing, like ketchup, that you wouldn't think could support a 10,000-word New Yorker feature, and write a really interesting 10,000-word New Yorker feature about it. Which is exactly the role John McPhee used to play. And is exactly the opposite of claiming some kind of vast cultural importance. Gladwell's message, as far as I can tell, is always that every mundane item in our field of view has an interesting story to tell if we peer at it closely enough.

The Freakonomics guys do too.
Don't forget Matt Yglesias.

Again, weird examples to me. Levitt is an academic economist, and the research he writes about in that book is largely his own. I think it's safe to say he knows what it says. And since that research has made Levitt a pretty famous economist, I doubt it's wrong on its face, or trivial. Of course it can be disputed, but all science is disputed -- I mean, people dispute D Kahnemann's work in psychology, but nobody says he shouldn't write books laying out his theories and the research he's done that led him to formulate them.

As for Matt Yglesias, I've been reading him since he was an undergrad philosophy major, and I've always felt that his philosophical training shows through in the clarity of his writing and his disinclination to accept total BS.

Anyone know who is the 50th ranked chess or tennis player in the world? I bet that person is really really good, and I bet they did work 10k hours, but only the top 25 players get a shot at the big elite tournaments. And that's because they are just better.

This is the crux. I mean, that obviously, this is not something Gladwell would dispute at all. But it's clear that people read his book, or more likely read about his book, and then go around saying "Malcolm Gladwell says talent doesn't matter." That is Chabris's criticism; that Gladwell's books encourage careless reading and that he's at least to some extent responsible for the views that careless readers associate with him. There's some truth to that. But I think some falseness too. My own experience: I write popular science, and I wrestle constantly with the question of how much to simplify in order to write something that people outside the field can read.

And here's the thing -- I often write an article that says something like "Lots of people say X and their justification for saying X is Y, but their implicit argument that Y is evidence for X is actually incorrect." And when I write that article, lots of readers say "Hey, escabeche says that X is wrong." Am I responsible for the people who unjustifiably think X is wrong because I wrote? I honestly don't know. Hard question.
posted by escabeche at 6:34 PM on October 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ummmmm, I guess because Adorno specialised in writing about the 'industry' of culture; how the context in which art is produced is just as important as the content (and that context is typically destructive), and how even when art/thinking/sociology is critical it often reflects the dominant social structures and language and thus struggles to be genuinely engaged/critical.

His negativism is a refreshing antidote to the Gladwells of the world, deeply positivist, forever trying to say what something is or isn't. Nailing down modern neoliberal 'truths' and mores through what is actually storytelling, not investigation.

Zizek because of his playful engagement with popular culture and general observations the lack of clothes so many of our empererors bear. His cheerful scorn for solemn pop-culturalists and the free-wheeling, bombastic nature of his arguments exposes the inherent (equally facetious and fantastic) similarities with his opponents I feel.

Of course I think they are more substantial than Gladwell - even where I disagree with them vehemently. Jesus Christ, they both have Phds, for a start. Additionally they are both genuine, lasting intellectuals of their age who will leave legacies that people will remember and discuss years from now. And they peddle arguments - however flawed - with orders of magnitude more complexity than Gladwell's Just-So stories. They are not even in the same league. It's like comparing a home chef that makes a nice scone to Heston Blumenthal.
posted by smoke at 6:35 PM on October 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


GenjiandProust and smoke's comments remind me of my new most-often referenced book, Joel Best's Flavor of the Month: Why Smart People Fall for Fads:
What these commentators don’t seem to notice is that the fads in their particular institution resemble the short-lived enthusiasms that occur elsewhere. In our society, most serious institutions—medicine, science, business, education, criminal justice, and so on—experience what we can call institutional fads. These institutional fads, especially in business, education, and medicine, are this book’s subject.

Institutional fads are not trivial; they have real consequences for our lives. Most of the time, our experiments with new diets or exercise programs have little lasting effect. But when we rely on the current child-rearing guru’s advice for raising our kids, our families are affected by whatever passes for today’s wisdom. When our children attend the local school, what they learn is shaped by that school’s current policies regarding teaching practices and discipline. We depend on our doctors to use diagnoses and treatments that can help us, rather than following some worthless trend. Our work lives—even the continued existence of our jobs—can depend on which management scheme our employers adopt. Whenever our lives intersect with social institutions, we can be affected by whatever ideas—including short-lived fads—are circulating within those institutions. (pgs 4-5)
posted by spamandkimchi at 6:45 PM on October 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


As for Matt Yglesias, I've been reading him since he was an undergrad philosophy major, and I've always felt that his philosophical training shows through in the clarity of his writing and his disinclination to accept total BS.

Clarity? Yglesias's main failing as a writer is that he's deeply committed to such a deadpan, affectless tone that it's impossible to tell half the time when he's making fun and when he's being a complete idiot. (Not helped by the fact that as he's gotten older he's gotten more attached to subjects in which he's got little expertise, so he's a complete idiot a lot of the time.)

Totally agreed about his disinclination to accept bullshit. (Unless it happens to be about microeconomics and in particular occupational licensing.)
posted by asterix at 7:18 PM on October 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Gladwell is one of those writers who have turned me off of a certain kind of nonfiction, the "why people are the way they are," sort. Every book I've read like that is just so flimsy or based on such a subjective POV, that I can't trust it to tell me anything worthwhile, or more important than the insights gleaned during your typical late-night BS session. I don't know if we are really capable of understanding ourselves, as a species, in that overarching sort of way. I have no trouble with people continuing to try, of course, I just would take a lot of convincing that they had succeeded. And it wouldn't be a condense-and-popularize writer like Gladwell that would be the one to have a real insight, it would be someone who actually got their hands dirty doing the hard research.

Now nonfiction about, say, ketchup or the history of rubber tires or what have you, is of course not perfectly objective but is small enough and based on things that are verifiable historical events that I don't mistrust it, unless the writer gives me a reason to. In the same way, I found Nickel and Dimed trustworthy because its subjectivity is front and center; Ehrenreich speculates about what her experience means but doesn't assume (just the opposite) that her actions would be the same as another person's in that situation.

While I'm thinking of it, "nonfiction" is one of those not-useful but necessary terms, isn't it? Everything from physics textbooks to self-help fads.
posted by emjaybee at 7:19 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Levitt is an academic economist, and the research he writes about in that book is largely his own.

Levitt and Dubner have made a Freakonomics brand the of the same sort as the Gladwell brand. There's also a second book, a blog (with writers other than Levitt and Dubner), a podcast, etc. One of the recent posts on the blog is about Gladwell's latest, but it's not written by Levitt or Dubner.
posted by immlass at 7:23 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh OK, sorry, I didn't realize there were "Freakonomics guys" other than Levitt and Dubner. I don't know anything about them and if you say they're terrible I believe you.
posted by escabeche at 7:43 PM on October 5, 2013


I'll just leave this here for anyone still taken in by Gladwell's just-the-facts facade.
posted by Treeline at 7:52 PM on October 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


That Shame project thing is moronic and I'm going to keep on saying that here whenever somebody posts it.
posted by escabeche at 7:54 PM on October 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I don't have anything substantive to add about Malcolm Gladwell, but to me, this post reads like it was written by Carles.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 8:11 PM on October 5, 2013


I write about science on the internet quite a bit, but I am not a scientist, and I'm constantly worried that I'm a fraud and all I'm writing is (despite my diligent research) actually wrong.

Malcolm Gladwell appears to have the inverse problem. Which is not to say that I am a better writer than Gladwell, but I do think it makes me a more honest one.
posted by simen at 8:25 PM on October 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


escabeche - I don't even know that all of their new stuff is that terrible, but the blog was getting weaker back when it was with the NY Times (which it apparently left for the Freakonomics web site in 2008, if I've read the archives correctly). I felt they had the 24-hour news problem: they have [x] amount of material to put out in the public eye (blog posts, podcasts, etc.) and it's hard to keep up the quality on a publicity-friendly schedule. The "cocktail-party smart" line resonated with me about the brand overall, but that doesn't speak to the quality of Levitt's original academic work.

See also: Strauss and Howe making a cottage industry of turning their American generational theory into a predictive exercise and retrofitting it on English history back to the 1400s.
posted by immlass at 9:09 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


You go right ahead and continue to say whatever it is you happen to think escabeche, I'll do the same. Yasha Levine's piece is well worth reading and considering if you've ever read anything by Gladwell. If you're allergic to gonzo writing it may not be for you.

Since Freakonomics has been mentioned, the Steven Levitt piece is also worth a peek:
Named one of Time magazine's "100 People Who Shape Our World," Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics, is generally assumed to be a harmless, quirky pop economist for trivia nerds. However, Levitt has a history of attacking teachers' unions, advocating for the privatization of prison labor, defending online gambling and occasionally crossing over the fringe-right line by promoting climate change denialism and, some have argued, racial eugenics. A dyed-in-the-wool Milton Friedman neoliberal from the same “Chicago Boys” network that brought you the "shock doctrine," Levitt’s idea of economics Utopia is a world in which "the market" solves all our problems and government is restricted to protecting property rights.

posted by Treeline at 9:15 PM on October 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Eventually we will learn the counterintuitive, but in retrospect obvious, truth about Malcolm Gladwell.
posted by idiopath at 10:17 PM on October 5, 2013 [22 favorites]


As I've said before in regards to Levitt and S.H.A.M.E.: Yeah, when your number-one "smoking gun quote" on an economist is "I almost always believe in free markets as the solution to problems," then you're not exposing his shame, you're just disagreeing with him. There's a difference.
posted by Etrigan at 10:18 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


That Shame project thing is moronic and I'm going to keep on saying that here whenever somebody posts it.

Do you have some facts to repudiate a record that suggests that, indeed, Gladwell is a very well-compensated corporate propagandist?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:58 PM on October 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Do you have some facts to repudiate a record that suggests that, indeed, Gladwell is a very well-compensated corporate propagandist?

Even if he is... so what? His most well-known work isn't about subjects where that really makes a difference. (Don't get me wrong: I think he's close to useless. But I also think that Shame Project thing on him was dumb as fuck.)
posted by asterix at 11:55 PM on October 5, 2013


Never read a Gladwell book and never feel motivated to. It always seems I've probably got everything worth knowing about it from reading a review.
posted by Segundus at 11:59 PM on October 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Even if he is... so what?

Where his money and ideas come from matters because a lot of people seem to treat him as an intellectual whose words should be taken as unquestioned gospel. Whereas, in reality, Gladwell is the modern day version of that 1950s doctor/huckster in the white coat who instructs readers to smoke Lucky Strikes (or whatever brand) because it's good for your "T-zone" — and because he's an Authority, you should Listen. So it kind of does matter whose ideas Gladwell is pushing.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:40 AM on October 6, 2013


But what the hell's that got to do with Gladwell anyway? He's never been at the top of any field has he?

I think being at the top of a field is a bad thing to expect from science writers. Good science writers have a lot of contacts within the scientific community that they can ask questions of; they are able to look at things from a much more generalized, polymathmatical angle than most scientists are because being at the top of a specific field generally requires being pretty deep in that field. A lot of science now is really siloed, and science writing and science journalism help bridge those gaps between fields and also between laymen and scientists.

I don't want this to be taken as an endorsement of Gladwell at all-- I don't think he comes out super fantastically with measurements that I do like. I just don't want to use that particular kind of measurement, because a lot of scientists who really are at the top of their field are shitty writers or are studying topics that don't have a lot of relevance for the lives of laymen. Gladwell's writing is about how people work and usually seems to bridge psychology, psychology, anthropology, economics and generally a handful of other fields too, which is very different than looking at the work of people writing about, say, astrophysics.

Some of Gladwell's work was really useful for me when I read it, which was in my late teens-- it created categories/schemas that I could use to explain things and told stories well. Freakonomics was useful in the same way. I get what Kottke meant by "good for thinking about things in novel ways but not so great for basing your cancer treatment on", I think, because that's how it was useful for me. The Tipping Point and Blink in particular had some concepts I still find useful for thinking about things-- the Maven/Connector/Salesperson thing, the "sweet spot" between being very stressed/not stressed at all where time seems to slow down and you can make better decisions (as opposed to heart-racing-overdrive), the ketchup flavor balance thing and the notion that getting in the 10,000 (or however many) hours of practice at things is important because the people with the privilege to do that end up being more successful than the people who don't have those resources: these are all things that have stuck in my brain and which have been useful frameworks for me.

That's useful for me in the way a lot of methods of thinking about things are to me. I think Gladwell, oddly, was sort of the precursor to TVTropes in my head, because he created a lot of useful categories for thinking about life-stuff and people-stuff, but then I found a database of categories of ways to think about life-stuff and people-stuff, and that kinda ended up meaning a lot more to me personally. (I spend more time thinking about fiction than pretty much everything else and tend to frame everything as stories in my own head, which is part of why Gladwell appealed to me so much, but it's also why TVTropes became more useful to me in the long run.)
posted by NoraReed at 12:46 AM on October 6, 2013


sort of the precursor to TVTropes

I know what you mean, but I don't think his publisher is going to be splashing that quote over future advertising.
posted by Segundus at 12:58 AM on October 6, 2013


Like TVTropes, links to Gladwell should come with a warning.
posted by brundlefly at 1:33 AM on October 6, 2013


GenjiandProust: "Metafilter: the Goofus to real intellectualism's Gallant.

Hey, MetaFilter always offers the last piece of pie to others before having seconds!
"

knocks GenjiandProust out

Metafilter always points into the distance and feigns interest in something that isn't there.

Mmmm. Pie.
posted by Samizdata at 2:03 AM on October 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've read a couple of Gladwell's books and have enjoyed them as interesting and entertaining, even while acknowledging that the findings provided inside were not necessarily scientifically sound. But I can definitely see the argument that books like these are at least potentially dangerous to the degree that there are going to be people who take the attitude of, "Since it was published in a book it must be true" and assume all of the book's insights have been vetted for accuracy. The popularity of Gladwell's work increases this possibility, where philosophies developed from these books becomes corporate policy, for example.

(Says the guy who once had to sit in a "Who Moved My Cheese?" seminar during a corporate sales retreat.)
posted by The Gooch at 5:09 AM on October 6, 2013


Do you have some facts to repudiate a record that suggests that, indeed, Gladwell is a very well-compensated corporate propagandist?

I would need there to be such a record first.
posted by escabeche at 5:33 AM on October 6, 2013


I read the ketchup article a few years back, and I'm pretty sure my tiny mini market on the wrong side of the world is not more than a data point, but there is a designer tomato sauce brand that is expanding in quite a solid manner here — which doesn't invalidate Gladwell's thesis on the macro level, but, yunno.

The G himself would never let a sentence like that into the wild.

This crappy little market was also an early incubator of low fat Greek yoghourt with fresh fruit you mix into it sales. I wonder how that went?
posted by Wolof at 6:30 AM on October 6, 2013


The discussion of both the ketchup article and John McPhee reminds me of nebulawindphone's great comment from last year, comparing the two styles.
posted by rollick at 6:57 AM on October 6, 2013


As I've said before in regards to Levitt and S.H.A.M.E.: Yeah, when your number-one "smoking gun quote" on an economist is "I almost always believe in free markets as the solution to problems," then you're not exposing his shame, you're just disagreeing with him. There's a difference.
I like how eXiled criticized one very specific type of "libertarian" with several caveats, which was then lysed by the interbutts and mutated into a generalized loathing for antiauthoritarian politics of any kind, to the point that people feel comfortable saying deranged shit about repealing the first amendment.

Meanwhile, Limonov is still in jail.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 7:08 AM on October 6, 2013


This, of course, alludes to you: people have loathed (American Big L) Libertarianism ever since Ayn Rand started pretending she was a philosopher, if not well beforehand.
posted by idiopath at 8:50 AM on October 6, 2013


Ayn Rand is more sympathetic if you look at her "philosophy" as a PTSD formation from seeing the horrors of Stalinism. Yeah, it's incoherent and unhinged, but I don't blame her for it any more than I'd blame someone for hating men after being severely abused.

Of course, the reaction against Gladwell and that ilk might be a less concentrated version of a similar thing, hatred for a kind of thinking people feel oppressed by.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 9:11 AM on October 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


hatred for a kind of thinking people feel oppressed by

all the more so when that kind of thinking pervades the political/media elite to such a degree that it's not even seen as an ideology anymore, it's just received truth. This is precisely why it's so important to expose the ideology and the money lurking behind the morality tales presented as neutral science that writers like Gladwell and Levitt produce.
posted by Treeline at 12:15 PM on October 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I would need there to be such a record first.

It has been reported in papers of record (Washington Post, for instance) that Gladwell has worked for various large corporations at times to promote controversial products. I hope you agree that WaPo is a paper of record. I hope you agree that it reports stories with a decent level of accuracy.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:51 PM on October 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


He's not a serious enough thinker for me to have formed much of an opinion. After reading a couple of his works the thought occurred to me that this was like reading the Classics Illustrated comic book series and my time was better spent reading the classics rather than a comic book derived [because that is what his writing is, all derived] from a classic.
posted by SteveLaudig at 2:01 PM on October 6, 2013


It has been reported in papers of record (Washington Post, for instance) that Gladwell has worked for various large corporations at times to promote controversial products. I hope you agree that WaPo is a paper of record. I hope you agree that it reports stories with a decent level of accuracy.

I certainly agree with what you say about the Washington Post. As for the first part, I don't really know what you're talking about, so I can't say. I didn't see anything like that in the SHAME article, which I did read, but maybe you're talking about something else. The only thing I could find there that mentioned the Washington Post was this story, which SHAME doesn't link to but which I think must be the one they're referring to. I wouldn't describe Malcolm Gladwell a "well-compensated corporate propagandist" because he was the featured entertainment at a Bank of America conference, but YMMV.
posted by escabeche at 2:30 PM on October 6, 2013


an interesting article about Gladwell and how he uses "the index of interesting" effectively
posted by rebent at 7:33 AM on October 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


The thing about Malcolm Gladwell is that he's an excellent writer. Like Michael Lewis.

Exactly this. Gladwell is also a captivating speaker.
posted by callmejay at 12:10 PM on October 7, 2013


Should we stop believing Malcolm Gladwell? - MIT Tracker - Peer Review Within Science Journalism
Why Malcolm Gladwell Matters (And Why That's Unfortunate) - Christopher Chabris

The jury can no longer reasonably be thought to be out on this person, folks.
posted by Treeline at 8:12 PM on October 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


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