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Gladwell for Dummies
November 5, 2009 3:46 PM   Subscribe

Such are the contradictions that seem to riddle not just Gladwell's thinking but the thinking on Gladwell's thinking, and perhaps even the thinking on thinking on that, and it is precisely these slippery but substantive contradictions that have allowed Gladwell to tout his revolutionary "big ideas" without couching them in anything so mundane as a logical, well-supported or otherwise sound argument. Gladwell for Dummies.
posted by defenestration (102 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
This will Gladwell.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 3:54 PM on November 5, 2009 [16 favorites]


I was just talking about him here last week.
posted by brain_drain at 4:03 PM on November 5, 2009


I like how this critique is guilty of much of what it espouses. This is irony, right?
posted by tybeet at 4:13 PM on November 5, 2009 [5 favorites]


Such are the contradictions that seem to riddle not just Gladwell's thinking but the thinking on Gladwell's thinking, and perhaps even the thinking on thinking on that, and it is precisely these slippery but substantive contradictions that have allowed Gladwell to tout his revolutionary "big ideas" without couching them in anything so mundane as a logical, well-supported or otherwise sound argument.

Is it just me, or does this read eerily close to Gladwell's own tone? It sounds so reiterative and breathless.
posted by phatkitten at 4:19 PM on November 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Is it just me or has this guy written like 8 books in the past two years? He can't be putting that much thought into them.
posted by empath at 4:20 PM on November 5, 2009


Is it just me or is "is it just me" like nails on chalkboard? Check out my latest book "Beginners: How Common Vernacular Preambles Created a New Kind Of Angst" where I provide disconnected anecdotes that I use to con sort-of-smart people into agreeing with my meth-borne whims.
posted by thedaniel at 4:26 PM on November 5, 2009 [27 favorites]


Is it just me?
posted by basicchannel at 4:27 PM on November 5, 2009 [4 favorites]


I like how this critique is guilty of much of what it espouses. This is irony, right?

It's a general principle of folk psychology that the things that annoy you in someone else are the things you need to work on in yourself.

I don't read either Gladwell or Tkacik, because they both give me the pip.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:28 PM on November 5, 2009 [5 favorites]


Is it just me or has this guy written like 8 books in the past two years? He can't be putting that much thought into them.

3 books in 8 years and one compilation of old newspaper articles.

Also, The Cringing Point by Merlin Mann.
posted by Gary at 4:28 PM on November 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


Is it just me or has this guy written like 8 books in the past two years? He can't be putting that much thought into them.

A professor of mine once said, regarding Richard Posner, that he writes an article or book a week or month, and when you do that you don't have time to think.
posted by kenko at 4:32 PM on November 5, 2009


My goodness, there certainly are a lot of people who don't like Malcolm Gladwell.
posted by languagehat at 4:37 PM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


I like the fact that one of Gladwells books basically calls bullshit on the idea that the "masters of the universe" -- successful businessmen and captains of industry are basically there because of luck (along with hard work) rather then their own innate superiority. In that sense, he's actually the anti-rand. I noticed when the book came out a lot of commentary online was "Well duh it's so obvious" but more elite opinion was more like "Well duh it's so wrong". The fact is, a lot of "elites" actually do think they're in their positions because of their innate betterness to anyone else.
posted by delmoi at 4:37 PM on November 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Sure, where "innate betterness" == "born rich, got introduced, kissed ass and stabbed peers in the back." Fuck that noise. I'm happy to be poor as long as I can be kind.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:40 PM on November 5, 2009 [7 favorites]


Your Favorite Canadian Non-Fiction Writer Sucks.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:42 PM on November 5, 2009


From the article:
Or, in the words of the Observer's Alexandra Jacobs, Outliers is about "how super-achievers like--well, like Malcolm Gladwell!--get where they are." And sure enough, in The New York Times Book Review, David Leonhardt took the bait, writing a brief alternative history of Gladwell's life crediting said "success" to his parents' professions. His mother, a psychotherapist, and his father, a mathematician, "pointed young Malcolm toward the behavioral sciences, whose popularity would explode in the 1990s," wrote Leonhardt; in addition, his mother, who "just happened to be a writer on the side," taught him "'that there is beauty in saying something clearly and simply.'"
That's exactly Gladwell's point though. He is where he is because he lucked out. Same as bill Gates or Steve Jobs or some hedgefund manager. They took million to one risks and happened to be that millionth person. All the hard work in the world might increase your chances from X to 100*X, but if the dominant factor is luck it's still like winning the lottery. It's like winning the lottery after buying 20 tickets a week for 10 years (that's 10,400 tickets) vs. someone who buys one once a year.
posted by delmoi at 4:43 PM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've read The Tipping Point and Blink and fail to understand the enmity towards Gladwell. Yes, his books are not scientifically rigorous, sometimes rambling, and not necessarily ultimately coherent, but Gladwell isn't a science writer. He doesn't need to have a thesis and he's not writing his books to conclusively prove something.

If you're an MBA or a cognitive scientist, should you be reading The Tipping Point or Blink respectively? Probably not. But are the ideas of Mavens, Connectors, and Salemen completely vacuous? Are concepts like the broken window theory and the volunteer's dilemma not important for everyone to know? Were the stories about Sesame Street and Blue's Clues not interesting?

Yes, you the big bad intellectual badass on MetaFilter may already know lots about these things. That doesn't mean there aren't worthwhile ideas in his books.
posted by christonabike at 4:44 PM on November 5, 2009 [30 favorites]


Are concepts like the broken window theory and the volunteer's dilemma not important for everyone to know?

If you want to introduce laymen to things like game theory, I'd suggest William Poundstone long before Malcolm Gladwell.
posted by DU at 4:52 PM on November 5, 2009 [4 favorites]


Or Douglas Hofstadter. Or Raymond Smullyan. Or Martin Gardener.
posted by DU at 4:53 PM on November 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


Oh, that was a fine takedown. Thanks for that.

My goodness, there certainly are a lot of people who don't like Malcolm Gladwell.

Have you tried to read the man's books? They're hilariously awful.

Truly. Hilariously. Awful.
posted by mediareport at 4:53 PM on November 5, 2009


Malcolm Gladwell singing with Stephen Colbert, Andrew Young and the Harlem Gospel Choir.
posted by Gary at 4:54 PM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


That article was a whole thriving vineyard of sour grapes.

I'm aware of Gladwell, and I bought "Blink" when it first came out to read during a summer vacation.. Overall, it was a laboured explanation of some obvious or intuitive stuff, but it resonated a bit with my unschooled opinions on thought processes. So, maybe that's his calling - explaining the obvious but unexamined to those of us too lazy to put the bits together ourselves.

And, Gladwell is a pretty good writer.So, the book served its main purpose - as an intellectual beach-read. I don't feel 'taken' or ripped off.
posted by Artful Codger at 4:56 PM on November 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Yes, you the big bad intellectual badass on MetaFilter may already know lots about these things. That doesn't mean there aren't worthwhile ideas in his books.

To quote Samuel Johnson, "What is good is not original; what is original is not good."

Richard Rhodes does a much better job with the "bringing cutting-edge thinking in a field to the lay reader" thing.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:57 PM on November 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


And, Gladwell is a pretty good writer.

*spits beer out nose*
posted by mediareport at 4:58 PM on November 5, 2009


The reason they publish more than one book every year is because not everyone has the exact same tastes in reading material. I don't enjoy Gladwell's work, but cheers to those of you who like it!
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:01 PM on November 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


What I've never understood is what's to be gained from reading his books, when he's done a perfectly adequate job of expressing their central idea is easily digestible New Yorker articles.
posted by unmake at 5:09 PM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


mediareport, grab a tissue, already.

Even the reviewer has a grudging admiration for Gladwell's writing style. From near the end:
In that case, perhaps Gladwell's intellectual compromises are neither commercial nor unintentional but rather a necessary outgrowth of his higher calling: to explore the secret workings of the world and impart the resulting data to its self-appointed stewards, the titans of industry. This conclusion, if true, may resolve many of the most puzzling incongruities riddling Gladwell's articles: his continued defense of the pharmaceutical industry even as he advocates for single-payer healthcare; his refusal to indict the financial sector's rigged "star system" as the engine of corruption that it is; the meticulous bleaching of his own prose so that he's whitewashed out any real context, any framework in which wars and economic collapses can actually be understood as wars and economic collapses rather than simulations or malfunctions; his near total avoidance of academic thought that does not base its findings on things observed in labs (with the exception of Carl Jung, whose legacy he reduces to the popularization of personality tests); his coyness about politics; and most memorably, his irritating, unrelenting readability.
Hey, I thoroughly enjoyed reading that review, and I 'get' many of the criticisms made against Gladwell. Sure smells like professional jealousy, though...
posted by Artful Codger at 5:12 PM on November 5, 2009


I'm not going to pretend that I don't understand the Gladwell backlash - after all, I feel a similar sort of disgruntlement towards Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, who basically fill the same role - but I have to say, the guy is not the Antichrist a lot of people paint him to be. This feels like the third or fourth time I've seen a post here about how terrible the guy is, and that seems entirely disproportional to me, given how many terrible things there are in the world.

In one of his graduation speeches, Kurt Vonnegut said that getting a liberal arts degree was basically learning how to have cocktail conversations. Its not that far from the truth, actually - insofar as my time in college has done me any good at all, it has helped me network, and what else is networking but learning how to make yourself look good via small talk? The role of the guru class is to provide some sort of framework for cocktail conversations outside of the academic world. And to that end, I feel like Gladwell does a lot better job than a lot of other writers.

And why would I say that? Well, let's take Howard Hawk's famous dictum that a great movie has three good scenes and no bad ones. I can automatically write off Thomas Friedman, then, because I can guarantee he'll have bad ones; and David Brooks is such a bonehead he'll never have any good ones; but Gladwell - even when he doesn't have an overarching thesis which makes a lot of sense, or which can be conclusively proven - tends to have interesting examples. Someone else upthread mentioned his discussion of Sesame Street, which is a great example of this, but really his books are peppered with them. Outliers basic thesis was simultaneously very obvious and absolutely unproveable, but I was glad I read it because he did a good job conveying interesting information to me about plane crashes, Bill Gates and Jamaican slavery (all topics which are interesting, if not exactly things I'd ever research on my own.)

Even when I think he's wrong, he's wrong in a way that I find worth debating. I don't think he's a great thinker per se, and I'm not sure that even he would portray himself that way. (After all, Outliers was basically about how he's lucky to be where he is, and as far as I can tell, he's always credited other people for the research that they did when he reports on it.) But that doesn't mean he's not helpful to know about - I mean, hell, its way easier to work Sesame Street into conversations than fucking Hegel, and the cost of getting his books from the library is way cheaper than my 4 year degree.

If you expect anything more from him than three interesting vignettes and a good set up for cocktail conversation - well, I hate to say it, kiddo, but you have awfully strange standards for best-seller-list-baiting pop journalism.
posted by Kiablokirk at 5:17 PM on November 5, 2009 [22 favorites]


I like how this critique is guilty of much of what it espouses. This is irony, right?

I like how your sentence is about irony but refers to something utterly unironic. This is irony, right?

(For the most part, I expect people to be "guilty of" ideas they espouse. Anything else would be hypocrisy. Perhaps the word you were seeking was excoriate.)
posted by jock@law at 5:20 PM on November 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


and most memorably, his irritating, unrelenting readability.

Honestly, Artful, we're debating taste, and mine diverges strongly from yours. *shrug* Perhaps we agree that Gladwell's prose is irritating, though - irritatingly shallow and superficially breezy, while spewing obvious generalizations and pretending they have intellectual heft. Trust me, I tried reading as closely as I could stand and was just plain astonished at the awfulness of what was being held up as cutting edge thought. I even remember exactly where and when I was as I realized what a con artist he was.
posted by mediareport at 5:27 PM on November 5, 2009


At least he's not as bad as Friedman.
posted by antihostile at 5:28 PM on November 5, 2009 [5 favorites]


We can at least agree on that.
posted by mediareport at 5:29 PM on November 5, 2009


I think it's just that his name is Malcolm. Such children are always subject to persecution.
posted by emhutchinson at 5:35 PM on November 5, 2009 [3 favorites]



I've read The Tipping Point and Blink and fail to understand the enmity towards Gladwell. Yes, his books are not scientifically rigorous, sometimes rambling, and not necessarily ultimately coherent, but Gladwell isn't a science writer.


Um, Gladwell is indeed a science writer and his books and articles are certainly promoted as science writing.
posted by Maias at 5:43 PM on November 5, 2009


Gladwell is indeed a science writer and his books and articles are certainly promoted as science writing.

They're promoted as social science/sociology/psychology/cultural studies. I think most people in the US think of "science writing" as referring to the hard sciences and medicine, not the social sciences.

I don't think Gladwell is any less well informed than most journalists who write about social sciences, sociology, psychology, and cultural studies. This is not high praise, though.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:47 PM on November 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think that one of the reasons that people react so negatively to Gladwell is that he occupies a strange liminal space between "serious" prose and "mere" pop-culture. Pop-culture mavens hate him for his pretentiousness because he uses polysyllabic words and discusses big ideas; scholars hate him for his superficiality because he dumbs everything down to the point of vacuousness.

I think of Gladwell as the Herbie Hancock of journalism. Hancock played with Miles Davis, but he's probably most famous for Rockit, which is a fabulous song but hardly 'serious' jazz. A lot of folks appreciate his playing and recognize him as a great musician, but its tough to find someone who will actually admit to being a Herbie Hancock fan.

Similarly, Gladwell's got the chops to write "serious" stuff, which he can do on occasion (I assign his "Million-Dollar Murray" to medical students, and it gets them thinking in a way that a million "serious" articles never would). But he makes his money off of popular books that sell to young corporate execs looking for an edge.

Gladwell is easy to hate on because he doesn't stick to one genre or the other, which means that most of the time he doesn't do either especially well; but it doesn't detract from the fact that he is extremely good at what he does: making otherwise obscure scholarly work accessible and relevant to people who wouldn't otherwise give a shit. Flawed? Yes. But valuable nonetheless.
posted by googly at 6:01 PM on November 5, 2009 [4 favorites]


Perhaps the word you were seeking was excoriate.

I'm just going to copy-paste that and itallicize it. Yep.
posted by nosila at 6:01 PM on November 5, 2009


Oops. Two 'l's ain't right.
posted by nosila at 6:02 PM on November 5, 2009


Moe, the controversy-prone author of this piece, is right about one thing: NY literary agents really are running around trying to find the next Gladwell.

I had an idea for more of a journalismy nonfiction book having to do with the history of cool thing X. A potential agent who wanted to work with me said it would be too niche unless I went more in the direction of a Gladwell think piece book. You know, "how X affects every segment of our lives." But I didn't want to go there. Didn't feel it was my place to portend and pronounce all over the place.
posted by Kirklander at 6:09 PM on November 5, 2009


Haven't read him. Saw him on TV on a couple of shows. He's an overeducated idiot who writes for other overeducated idiots. He's like the non-fiction version of Stephen King: he just types and types, then sends the result off to a publisher without worrying about what it was he was typing.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 6:10 PM on November 5, 2009


Haven't read him. Saw him on TV on a couple of shows. He's an overeducated idiot who writes for other overeducated idiots. He's like the non-fiction version of Stephen King: he just types and types, then sends the result off to a publisher without worrying about what it was he was typing.

So, you haven't read his writing, but feel fully qualified to pass judgement on it? Remind me agan who's the one who just types and types, then hits [Post Comment] without worrying about what it was he was typing....
posted by dersins at 6:25 PM on November 5, 2009 [17 favorites]


I usually buy books based on author interviews, reviews, articles, anything I can find. The method never lets me down, but I'm not going to build some skyscraper of bullshit Gladwellian "theory" about how that works, I just know what works for me. And what also works for me is knowing- without reading his books- that Malcolm Gladwell caters to an audience who's head is so far up its own arse it has zero chance of seeing daylight ever again.

He reminds me of The Secret- wishful thinking for the kind of people who's wishes are already granted by being pretty lucky in life: intelligent, able to earn money, etc. Fuckheads who can't believe how good they've got it will always seek out ideas that support their belief they're kind of special, and that support their opportunism, greed and bad taste in clothes and footwear.

See what I did there? I just spouted some half-baked shit. When I do it, it's the internet, when Gladwell does it, it's a book for marks.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 6:25 PM on November 5, 2009


He's like the non-fiction version of Stephen King: he just types and types, then sends the result off to a publisher without worrying about what it was he was typing.

Interesting that you can divine this without ever reading his work.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 6:38 PM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't like his work much because it simplifies things I work to complicate.

But Jesus fuck, he's not an "idiot" and calling him that makes the critique seem stupid.

I mean, Ann Coulter writes nonfiction. Now that is an idiot.

Also, WTF does "overeducated" mean? Really? On metafilter?
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:41 PM on November 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


I are not over-eddificated. Trust me on this.
posted by Artful Codger at 6:48 PM on November 5, 2009


delmoi, thank you for defining an intellectual spectrum i'd not previously considered: Ayn Rand <>Malcolm Gladwell.
By putting these two on the same axis you've simplified my job of avoiding a whole continuum of bad ideas and the insufferable people who hold them.
thanks again.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 6:49 PM on November 5, 2009


feel fully qualified to pass judgement on it?

He did his best to convince me that he had something worth saying on a couple of occasions, and utterly failed. I have too much good stuff to read already.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 6:52 PM on November 5, 2009


I don't even know who Malcolm Gladwell is and even I am disproportionately averse to his personage. Now then. In re yours of the fifth inst., yours to hand and beg to reply... brackets...

We have gone over the ground carefully, and we seem to believe, i.e., to wit, e.g., in lieu, that, uh, despite all our... precautionary measures which have been involved...

we seem to believe that it is hardly necessary for us to proceed unless we receive an ipso facto that is not negligible at this moment, quotes, unquotes, and quotes...

Hoping this finds you, I beg to remain, as of June 9th, cordially yours, regards. That's all, Jamison.
posted by nola at 6:59 PM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


That success is in the eye of the unsuccessful would seem to be the great unspoken dilemma dogging critics asked to consider the work of the rich and famous author and inspirational speaker Malcolm Gladwell.
This is the worst fucking sentence I have read all month.
posted by ghastlyfop at 7:01 PM on November 5, 2009 [4 favorites]


Yeah, E.B. White would have split that thing into a few pieces.
posted by Kirklander at 7:08 PM on November 5, 2009


Unless they're well rendered, argued, and written, hatchet jobs are incredibly boring. That first sentence was like chewing the broken glass - the rest of it feels like the aftermath.
posted by ghastlyfop at 7:26 PM on November 5, 2009


I have too much good stuff to read already.

Careful there, if you read too much you might seem--horrors!--overeducated. Don't want to lose that folksy charm that serves you so well.
posted by neroli at 7:30 PM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


I mean, you're not really taking this seriously, are you?
posted by ghastlyfop at 7:31 PM on November 5, 2009


If you're less interesting than the object of your criticism, what's the point?
posted by clockzero at 7:31 PM on November 5, 2009


I'm not going to pretend that I don't understand the Gladwell backlash - after all, I feel a similar sort of disgruntlement towards Thomas Friedman and David Brooks

The problem with Friedman and Brooks is that they're actually wrong about stuff. They flatter the intellect of people who believe things that are obvious but actually wrong, while Gladwell just seems mostly obvious to most people. Does Gladwell make many factual errors and stupid statements? I haven't seen anyone point them out the same way you see with Friedman and Brooks.

Friedman is just so dumb. I mean this is the guy who said we need to go into Iraq to send the message "Suck on this" to "The Arabs", even though unlike most people he understood that there were no WMDs and they had nothing to do with 9/11.
posted by delmoi at 7:40 PM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


I love Malcolm Gladwell! I find his books easy and interesting reads. Given that he does no actual academic work of his own but merely collects cool stories and sells them, I suspect there are a lot of sour grapes going around. But I enjoy him lots. I wouldn't call him a cutting edge thinker by any means, but I do think he manages to push interesting ideas into the north american spotlight. Kudos to him.
posted by Hildegarde at 7:50 PM on November 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Careful there, if you read too much you might seem--horrors!--overeducated.

There's a point past which some people can't be educated. My impression of Gladwell is that he passed it some time ago.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 7:50 PM on November 5, 2009


A lot of folks appreciate his playing and recognize him as a great musician, but its tough to find someone who will actually admit to being a Herbie Hancock fan.
Although I appreciate what you're trying to say...this is a terrible, terrible, musically and culturally ignorant comparison.
Yours truly, a Herbie Hancock fan.
posted by ghastlyfop at 7:53 PM on November 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Like the Patriots fans who chant "Yankees suck!" while playing the Raiders, I'd like to follow up on the numerous people who have used this thread as a chance to hate on Friedman. What a jackass.

I have to say, Gladwell's article in the New Yorker about Harvard admissions, ending with the line that Harvard is a luxury brand and should be understood as such, has helped me understand more about higher education than a lot of Chronicle of Higher Ed articles that involved more facts and/or figures. After reading this piece, I don't feel too bad about not having read his books, though.
posted by sy at 7:55 PM on November 5, 2009 [2 favorites]


Um, Gladwell is indeed a science writer and his books and articles are certainly promoted as science writing.
You might want to get in touch with every bookstore.
posted by ghastlyfop at 7:57 PM on November 5, 2009


Mo Tkacik drives me nuts for two reasons.

1. I'm still irritated with her for that Liz Winsted thing where she and that other Jezebel writer got drunk and joked about rape.

2. Her writing employs too many tools, too many adjectives. Its like an engineer who just graduated from college and suddenly has access to everything in the machine shop, or like the most recent Guns N Roses album. She uses everything all the time and her writing gets really annoying really quickly. Say more with less, Mo.
posted by ben242 at 8:30 PM on November 5, 2009 [1 favorite]


The problem with Gladwell for someone who cares about many of the questions he explores is watching him take up an issue, confuse it with six others, add a bunch of wooly associations, banal anecdotes, and specious details, mistake X for X' for about 10 values of X, omit a dozen confounding details that anyone could think up with a few minutes of critical thought, assert a bunch of factual claims that are mostly wrong, deduce a few further claims that he fails to notice contradict X1-X6, and then wrap it up in a banal conclusion about .001% of the way through the elaborately branching pathways of an important issue. The culminating "Ta-da!" and ensuring applause is just icing on the cake; it's watching him virtually destroy the kitchen in the process that is the real agony.
posted by chortly at 9:00 PM on November 5, 2009 [11 favorites]


Also, WTF does "overeducated" mean? Really? On metafilter?

You may be more familiar with the term, "educated stupid."
posted by grobstein at 9:03 PM on November 5, 2009 [3 favorites]


late, but had to:
Metafilter: Is it just me?
posted by progosk at 11:33 PM on November 5, 2009


I feel somewhat similarly to chortly, but perhaps not to the point where I'm willing to entirely dismiss Gladwell's work. I appreciate Gladwell as an excellent aggregator of interesting psychological and sociological data. I find his conclusions often insufferable. Nonetheless, I'm willing to ignore the latter for the sake of the former - I'm perfectly capable of taking the studies he presents and drawing my own conclusions.
posted by TheRoach at 12:03 AM on November 6, 2009


I've always suspected that Malcolm Gladwell's main talent is a well developed ability to make his readers feel cleverer than they actually are.
posted by rhymer at 5:15 AM on November 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


Malcolm Gladwell's A successful nonfiction writer's main talent is a well developed ability to make his readers feel cleverer than they actually are were.
posted by Artful Codger at 5:30 AM on November 6, 2009


> I think of Gladwell as the Herbie Hancock of journalism.

Thank you, that's an excellent comparison. I will now add Gladwell-haters to the same bin of "people who have a mistaken impression of their own intelligence and good taste" into which I dump Hancock-haters. Hate on, you crazy diamonds!
posted by languagehat at 5:32 AM on November 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


You may be more familiar with the term, "educated stupid."

No, I am not. I fail, ever, to see education as a bad thing. I think it's anti-intellectual nonsense to say it is.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:03 AM on November 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


Thank you, that's an excellent comparison.

What? That's insane. I love Herbie Hancock, from "Watermelon Man" and "Fat Albert Rotunda" on through to the amazing post-industrial metallic racket of "Rockit" and beyond. Your easy dismissal fails.

Seriously, languagehat, just *try* reading one of his books and *then* start making easy dismissals of Gladwell's critics.
posted by mediareport at 6:30 AM on November 6, 2009


They're promoted as social science/sociology/psychology/cultural studies. I think most people in the US think of "science writing" as referring to the hard sciences and medicine, not the social sciences.

This. I teach in the social sciences and have had to explain to many a new graduate student why Gladwell's books are not rigorous enough for classroom use. I read "Tipping Point" and "Blink" and kept searching around for references. How was he making these conclusions? It was really unsatisfying. Not to mention a slog of a read because his writing is not really enjoyable.

I get it. Academic articles can be a hard read when you are used to reading for fun. However, reading for fun is not the point of academic articles. Drawing broad conclusions based upon anecdotes or a cursory read of an academic article is lazy and occasionally frightening. We have enough problems being taken seriously in the fields of organizational development and industrial psychology. Fending off CEO's who thrust a copy of "Who Moved My Cheese" into our faces or CLO's who want us to order 5,000 copies of "First, Break All the Rules" gets tiring.

There are a few writers who can bridge the gap between rigor and fun, so it can be done. Atul Gawande's writings on systemic issues, ethics and performance in health care. He's got his writing for public consumption ("Better", "Complications, his articles in Slate and The New Yorker) and the academic research to back up his point of view. Bruce D. Perry, author of "The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog" is also the author of a number of academic articles. Although the subject is disturbing, "The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog" is quite well written and an interesting read for the layperson.

Gladwell is lazy.
posted by jeanmari at 6:30 AM on November 6, 2009 [5 favorites]


Oh, yes. I will definitely second Atul Gawande as a marvelous antidote to Gladwell's facile bullshit.
posted by mediareport at 6:37 AM on November 6, 2009


Whilst we're weighing in here, I really really dislike Taleb. Here's the opening to Black Swan:
The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull[1]. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories[2]: those who react with "Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?"[3] and the others -- a very small minority -- who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool[4]. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary[5].
[1] Much like myself, Taleb the nondull. Also, this book starts with a reference to Eco. I'm clever, you see. You're reading a clever book.
[2] Checkout my upcoming binary strawmen, you're with me or against me!
[3] There's one!
[4] This set including me, and, now that you know the correct answer, you.
[5] ENOUGH TALEB! For what possible reason? Libraries are very well known for being full of books that you haven't read. There's one near my house. Everyone knows libraries contain unread books. In what sense is antilibrary a useful term, and in what sense is 'anti-' a sensible prefix for teh term anyway?

I'm afraid I couldn't stomach any more than five more pages of this book, but it continues in this tone, setting up nonsensical arguments and knocking them down with cherry-picked examples of unexpected events from throughout history. No rigour whatsoever. Total masturbation.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 7:17 AM on November 6, 2009 [4 favorites]


So a slight, nerdy, unassuming smart guy has become not only a best-selling author, but also a household name and social butterfly despite his nerdiness (indeed, because of it), and he likely has more romantic opportunities than he can possibly handle.

But I'm sure none of the anti-Gladwell sentiment is motivated by envy.
posted by brain_drain at 7:25 AM on November 6, 2009


Hancock played with Miles Davis, but he's probably most famous for Rockit.

What. I'd say his most well known pieces are Chameleon, Cantaloup Island, Watermelon Man, Bring Down the Birds. And he's worshipped by every serious pianist I know. Who are the Beach Boys to you? "That 80's band that did Kokomo"?
posted by kersplunk at 7:34 AM on November 6, 2009


These scientists tended to share a universal message: contrary to our latent anxieties about modern life, everything is all right

Dear god, Kacik has not read any anthropology. My master's and PhD coursework left me feeling like flinging myself off a building. Then off to Africa for 18 months to study widows (sob!). I read Outliers on the plane home, and that's probably all the Gladwell that I've read.

Sure, it was simple and a bit repetitive. Sure, a few of his bigger conclusions were dubious. But I actually thought he did a really good job of exploring ways in which circumstance and context create situations of possibilities for how people develop. It seems to me that this is an area in which social science is rarely translated well into popular science. Most of my students this term are writing essays that compare "nature" with "nurture" and equate "nurture" with choice; this is a fundamental misassumption that I see widely, and which I think that Gladwell does a good job of dismantling. Or, he doesn't really dismantle so much as he builds up from a different position, assuming that where you come from matters and asking how. It was refreshing, and yes, his cheery tone was exactly what I needed at the time so maybe I liked it a little extra for that.

Academic articles can be a hard read when you are used to reading for fun. However, reading for fun is not the point of academic articles.

But Gladwell isn't writing academic articles and there is no pretence by him or his publishers that he is anything other than a journalist writing "human interest" stuff, as far as I can tell. I would have no problem (given the right time frame) using Outliers in a classroom to stimulate discussion about the social context of success. It would be my responsibility as a teacher to point out how we could start to question his ideas, and my responsibility as a social scientist to delve into methodology, sources, and rigour in general with them.
posted by carmen at 8:11 AM on November 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


I teach in the social sciences and have had to explain to many a new graduate student why Gladwell's books are not rigorous enough for classroom use.

That is frightening, and I feel sorry that you probably have to go through the same routine every 4 months. I like Gladwell's writing for how he presents interesting anecdotes. His Ted Talk on spaghetti sauce was fun. But for any real use his books appear to be on the same level as Wikipedia. Maybe they are good as a starting point, but you better not cite it as your source.
posted by Gary at 8:45 AM on November 6, 2009


> Seriously, languagehat, just *try* reading one of his books and *then* start making easy dismissals of Gladwell's critics.

I like Gladwell's writing, and have ever since reading "Black Like Them" in 1996—i.e., well before he got famous. Yes, he's lost something off his fastball in recent years, but he's still an enjoyable writer with a lot of interesting ideas. If you don't enjoy his writing, that's certainly your privilege, but yes, I dismiss with incredible ease anyone who equates "This isn't my cup of tea" with "This is facile, glib, horrible, writing that only a fool could like" (which is the default attitude of the Gladwell-hating population). It's sort of like Starbucks: don't care for their coffee? Great, all the more for me. Think anyone who likes Starbucks is a capitalist lackey with no taste? You're a fool and I will pay no attention to anything you have to say. (Note: "You" refers to the imaginary Starbucks hater, not to anyone here.)

Also, I was not saying anyone who hates Gladwell also hates Hancock. Jesus.
posted by languagehat at 9:03 AM on November 6, 2009 [6 favorites]


Anyone who hates Gladwell also hates Jesus? That's going a little far.
posted by brain_drain at 9:44 AM on November 6, 2009


HAMBURGER
posted by brain_drain at 9:46 AM on November 6, 2009


I'd read it before but, man, is that Taibbi takedown of Friedman a thing of beauty.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:55 AM on November 6, 2009


which is the default attitude of the Gladwell-hating population

Bullshit. It's certainly not the default attitude of the Gladwell-critical population, including the author of the link that started this thread and many of us who find Gladwell's books so poorly thought out they're ridiculous. The one doing the loose equating here is you, and it's rather surprising given your strong opinions on so many things that you're suddenly unable to allow for the fact that others might have a strong negative opinion about something without also making the statement "only a fool could like this" - a statement I fail to see anywhere above. Making broad assertions about the motives of folks who disagree with you on the basis of little or no evidence is really surprising coming from you.
posted by mediareport at 10:13 AM on November 6, 2009


So a slight, nerdy, unassuming smart guy has become not only a best-selling author, but also a household name and social butterfly despite his nerdiness (indeed, because of it), and he likely has more romantic opportunities than he can possibly handle.

But I'm sure none of the anti-Gladwell sentiment is motivated by envy.


OH MY GOD YOU'VE RUMBLED ME! Because that's exactly why I don't enjoy his writing--I'm just jealous of all the pussy he gets.

is not jealous of all the pussy he gets because I am amply supplied in that department myself
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:39 AM on November 6, 2009


Academic articles can be a hard read when you are used to reading for fun. However, reading for fun is not the point of academic articles.

But Gladwell isn't writing academic articles


I was referring to the attitude of my graduate students with that original statement.

But here is someone who can sum up one of my problems with Gladwell's books better than I can. Here is Mefi's Own TM Anil Dash on the subject as well.

there is no pretence by him or his publishers that he is anything other than a journalist writing "human interest" stuff

Except that he is not branded as a storyteller or journalist by his publisher. He is described as a science writer, an shady sort of term that suggests that there is a methodology behind his anecdotes when, in fact, there is no such thing.

But I'm sure none of the anti-Gladwell sentiment is motivated by envy.

I'm not envious of Gladwell. Dear God, I WANT someone with academic chops to be able to write in a way that is accessible to the layperson. (Oh please, please, please!) I'm the first person in the room to admit that I'm not a writer and never want to be. But I appreciate great writing and great science.

I won't argue, however, that I am as annoyed with his readers as I am with his writing and his publishers. These days, many people are too keen to take what is written within the pages of a book as absolute truth without question, just like there are many television viewers who are quick to embrace anything presented on their favorite TV news channel as truth without question. Editorials are not NEWS. Opinion is not FACT. Anecdotes are not DATA. Unfortunately, there seem to be fewer and fewer people who are interested in the difference and even fewer who are willing to engage in the type of questioning needed to uncover what is really being said.
posted by jeanmari at 10:57 AM on November 6, 2009


Sorry, I couldn't resist this new twist on an old meme:

Matt Haughey: a household name and social butterfly despite his nerdiness (indeed, because of it), [who] likely has more romantic opportunities than he can possibly handle.
posted by jeanmari at 11:00 AM on November 6, 2009


"only a fool could like this" - a statement I fail to see anywhere above

"I even remember exactly where and when I was as I realized what a con artist he was"
"He's an overeducated idiot who writes for other overeducated idiots"
"Malcolm Gladwell caters to an audience who's head is so far up its own arse it has zero chance of seeing daylight ever again"

They may be overeducated idiots with their heads up their asses who are being conned, but at least they're not fools.
posted by Copronymus at 11:53 AM on November 6, 2009


jeanmari, I looked up his publisher's website and they describe him as "a staff writer for The New Yorker. He was formerly a business and science reporter at the Washington Post."

That's it for the author bio, and it is my impression that they are not promoting him as a social scientist elsewhere. I have been peripherally aware of him as a journalist and author for years, and I never heard him referred to as a social scientist nor have I heard anyone claim his writing is derived from his own original research or that it is based on academic credentials in social science. If a graduate student had that impression, I don't see how they could sustain it once they actually read his work. Such an event seems to be more an indictment of undergraduate education than of Gladwell's writing per se.

I mean, I'm not going to sit here and argue that Gladwell is the great disseminator of social science in our time. I guess I just don't get the deep animosity that he seems to receive. Then again, if I reread Outliers with adequate sleep and not on the high of returning home, perhaps I would get it. And maybe if I had to deal with students passing off poorly researched crap because they are relying on him (which is where my deep, abiding hatred of Guns, Germs, and Steel comes from) I would be right there with you.

Still, I'd rather have a light and fluffy Gladwell for the plane ride home than most academic writing. There is a time for deep reading and analysis, and then there is a time for slightly silly, light and fluffy riffing on academic writing. Or, at least for me there is.
posted by carmen at 11:56 AM on November 6, 2009


Let's see. Here are little snippets distributed by Gladwell's publisher about Gladwell:

Malcolm Gladwell is a former business and science writer at the Washington Post. He is currently a staff writer for The New Yorker.


What the Dog Saw is yet another example of the buoyant spirit and unflagging curiosity that have made Malcolm Gladwell our most brilliant investigator of the hidden extraordinary. (Note: Except that he's not.)

Drawing on cutting-edge neuroscience and psychology, he shows how the difference between good decision-making and bad has nothing to do with how much information we can process quickly, but on the few particular details on which we focus. (Note: Except that he doesn't show this.)

Oh! And from Gladwell himself:

"Blink is quite explicitly a political work--or, rather, a book that is interested in initiating social change," Gladwell told BIBR BIBR Bay Islands Beach Resort (Roatan, Honduras)
BIBR Backward Indicator Bit Received , after his extensive Blink book tour earlier this year. For Gladwell, if his writing "is not trying to change people's beliefs or behavior or opinions, then what is the point?"

Look, I don't expect Gladwell to have done his own ORIGINAL research. But the man writes like his cherry-picking of the facts is presenting the whole story. And if he is trying to create social change with his writing? Now I'm really annoyed.

Otherwise, Carmen, I think that you are right on. Gladwell's works are rather useful airport novels.
posted by jeanmari at 12:27 PM on November 6, 2009


Oh, come on, Herbie Hancock is totally best known for 'Rockit.' And of course it's not his best work. Towering genius crosses over to the pop charts--it's an archetypal example of the problematic nature of the phrase 'one-hit wonder.'

(While I love the albums he did with Bill Laswell, I like the Mwandishi stuff better.)
posted by box at 2:00 PM on November 6, 2009


They may be overeducated idiots with their heads up their asses who are being conned, but at least they're not fools.

I was referring to my comments above. And I stand by the statement that my opinion that Gladwell's a total con artist does not equate to calling the folks who like him fools. Unless you're trying to say that any strong negative opinion about an artist/writer's value automatically means a simultaneous judgment of that person's fans as fools, that is. Please tell me you're not trying to say that.
posted by mediareport at 3:48 PM on November 6, 2009


Wait...Malcolm Gladwell wants to use his books to influence people in some way? Or enlighten them about things they have probably never read about? Make them think about things in ways that are new to them? Dear God, lock the man up! HOW DARE HE WRITE POPULAR NONFICTION.

While we're at it, I hope none of you guys are using tags or taxonomy terms. Or using search engines, ie Google. Because you're probably doing it wrong and as a professional librarian I OBJECT.
posted by Hildegarde at 6:01 PM on November 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wait...Malcolm Gladwell FoxNews wants to use his books television to influence people in some way? Or enlighten them about things they have probably never read heard about? Make them think about things in ways that are new to them? Dear God, lock the man them all up! HOW DARE HE WRITE POPULAR NONFICTION they produce hours of popular editorial slant masquerading as balanced facts instead of opinion and anecdotes!

Fixed that for you.
posted by jeanmari at 6:25 PM on November 6, 2009


Not that I believe that Gladwell is as dangerous as Fox News.

But, come on. Could he be just as popular if he actually had some SUBSTANCE BEHIND HIS ASSUMPTIONS AND GENERALIZATIONS? I think he could because he chooses interesting subjects. He just doesn't present them as opinion, when sometimes he should. Therefore, he is sometimes very close to writing popular FICTION with a grain of NONFICTION, and that is disturbing to me because his books ARE marketed as non-fiction.

I have the same problem with Michael Moore's documentaries, though the discrepancies in those get mainstream media attention.
posted by jeanmari at 6:31 PM on November 6, 2009


I don't believe I've seen a single work of social science that isn't as much fiction as non-fiction. And history backs me up on that one. So do historians: Natalie Zemon Davis, a giant in her field, has been exploring the use of fiction to demonstrate historical cicumstance.

He's no Karen Armstrong, but I've seen far worse in the realm of pop culture nonfiction. but if you object so strongly, write an essay picking his essays apart piece by piece. He doesn't appear to be reporting his own work, after all; surely you can easily debunk it.
posted by Hildegarde at 7:08 PM on November 6, 2009


So, your argument is that it is okay because other people have done it? Do tell.
posted by jeanmari at 4:41 AM on November 7, 2009


To me it seems that Gladwell is ultimately trying to scratch away at the mysteries of randomness and trying to find some kind of order, but in a haphazard and contradictory way. One of his problems is that he uses too much intuition and not enough research. I just read "The Drunkards Walk", by Leonard Mlodinow, which touches on some of the same themes as Gladwell does, but with very thorough logic and solid mathematical reasoning.

And what's with the ALL CAPS upstream?
posted by blue shadows at 12:32 AM on November 8, 2009


And what's with the ALL CAPS upstream?

Don't you GET IT? People are VERY ANGRY that Malcolm Gladwell has achieved FINANCIAL AND LITERARY SUCCESS writing POPULAR NONFICTION BOOKS which touch on topics that they themselves TAKE VERY VERY SERIOUSLY.

VERY. VERY. SERIOUSLY.
posted by dersins at 11:16 PM on November 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


No, we're angry at Malcolm Gladwell for writing in a lazy and sloppy manner about topics that we take VERY VERY SERIOUSLY!
posted by jeanmari at 1:07 PM on November 9, 2009


And trust me, if this graduate student paper I just finished grading was published somewhere online? I would complain about that in ALL CAPS, TOO!! Cite some sources and stop making generalizations, people! So damn lazy, whether you are doing it for cash or a grade.
posted by jeanmari at 1:12 PM on November 9, 2009


And what's with the ALL CAPS upstream?

HODGMANIA.
posted by sparkletone at 7:40 PM on November 15, 2009


His books read to me like topical smalltalk at a good party. Handful of drinks in, the conversation turns to topics wide and diverse, and people make bold pronouncements that seem reasonable, and in the haze of alcohol, ring true and profound. Ergo, I love his stuff.
posted by potch at 9:38 PM on November 15, 2009


"Burhanistan: "Didn't we hate on this guy last week?"

No, that was the Freakonomics dudes.
posted by mwhybark at 4:05 PM on November 15 [+] [!] "

"No, it wasn't last week, it was ten days ago
...
posted by Kiablokirk at 4:46 PM on November 15 [1 favorite has favorites +] [!]

Yes, we did this last week.
posted by jeanmari at 4:47 PM on November 15 [+] [!]"


I post corrected.
posted by mwhybark at 11:28 PM on November 15, 2009


I've read The Tipping Point and Blink and fail to understand the enmity towards Gladwell. . .but are the ideas of Mavens, Connectors, and Salemen completely vacuous? Are concepts like the broken window theory and the volunteer's dilemma not important for everyone to know?
But are the ideas of Mavens, Connectors, and Salemen completely vacuous?

Yes, they are completely vacuous.


Are concepts like the broken window theory and the volunteer's dilemma not important for everyone to know?

No, they are not important for everyone to know.

This is why Gladwell sucks.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:59 PM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


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