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The uncanny valley of Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell is a fun writer, and I like how he plays with ideas. To my taste, though, he lives in an uncanny valley between nonfiction and fiction, or maybe I should say between science and storytelling. I’d enjoy him more, and feel better about his influence, if he’d take the David Sedaris route and go all the way toward storytelling (with the clear understanding that he’s telling us things because they sound good or they make a good story, not because they’re true), or conversely become a real science writer and evaluate science and data claims critically. Instead he’s kind of in between, bouncing back and forth between stories and science, and that makes uncomfortable.

Here’s an example, from a recent review by Andrew Ferguson, “Malcolm Gladwell Reaches His Tipping Point.” I haven’t read Gladwell’s new book, so I can’t really evaluate most of these criticisms, but of course I’m sympathetic to Ferguson’s general point. Key quote:

Gladwell’s many critics often accuse him of oversimplification. Just as often, though, he acts as a great mystifier, imposing complexity on the everyday stuff of life, elevating minor wrinkles into profound conundrums. This, not coincidentally, is the method of pop social science, on whose rickety findings Gladwell has built his reputation as a public intellectual.

In addition, Ferguson has a specific story regarding some suspiciously specific speculation (the claim that “of every occupational category, [poets] have far and away the highest suicide rates—as much as five times higher than the general population.”) which reminds me of some other such items we’ve discussed over the years, including:

– That data scientist’s unnamed smallish town where 75 people per year died “because of the lack of information flow between the hospital’s emergency room and the nearby mental health clinic.”

– That billionaire’s graph purporting to show “percentage of slaves or serfs in the world.”

– Those psychologists’ claim that women were three times more likely to wear red or pink during certain times of the month.

– That claim from “positive psychology” of the “critical positivity ratio” of 2.9013.

– That psychologist’s claim that he could predict divorces with 83 percent accuracy, after meeting with a couple for just 15 minutes.

And lots more.

There’s something hypnotizing about those numbers. Too good to check, I guess.


  1. Mic says:

    I would trade my writing skills with Gladwell’s. But I would not exchange my critical thinking with his.

  2. Z says:

    “Instead he’s kind of in between, bouncing back and forth between stories and science, and that makes me uncomfortable.”

    If he stuck to one or the other you might be more comfortable but he’d be much less successful. I think this is almost the entire source of his popular appeal.

  3. NoUseForAName says:

    I wonder if “and lots more” includes examples that do not stem from psychology? Otherwise, it appears Andrew has once again pulled out his favorite punching bag.

    • DC says:

      have you read Gladwell’s work? there’s a lot in there about psychology. as someone with a PhD in psychology, this seems quite fair to me.

      • NoUseForAName says:

        Yes, and note that I did not disagree with Andrew’s critique of Gladwell. I also read the article Andrew references, as I was looking for a review of it myself.

        No, I was referring to psychology serving as Aunt Sally on this blog. That doesn’t mean I disagree with Andrew’s statistical critiques, just that psychology is too often his target.

  4. Malcolm says:

    As a fellow follower of St Columba, I feel confident that Mr Gladwell would like his second ‘l’ back!

  5. I like that counterpoint to the charges of “oversimplification”. I think Christopher Hitchens has said that a (dishonest) intellectual tends to present the complex as though it’s simple and the simple as though it’s complex. It’s an easy rhetorical move: “It’s really quite simple…” or “It’s more complicated than you think…” followed by some confident sounding words. But neither simplicity nor complexity are virtues of writing in and of themselves. It always depends on what you’re writing about. The relevant virtue is precision.

    Or, as Andrew might say, it comes down to measurement.

  6. Kaiser says:

    I read a galley of his new book Talking to Strangers, and wasn’t going to comment on it until I saw this post. Some of Gladwell’s earlier books are good assignments for students – with the single homework question: “what would the statistician think?”
    There is neither data nor science in the new book. Gladwell considers it his duty to tell us what he thinks about recent social interest stories, such as Amanda Knox, Bernie Madoff, and Jerry Sandusky.

  7. Steve Sailer says:

    Now that Gladwell is out of fashion, I’m inclined to say that the Gladwell Glass is more than half full. As Mic says above, his weakness is his lack of critical thinking skills about ideas he falls in love with. He’s not adept at running reality checks on them.

    On the other hand, besides the bad ideas, he has promoted a lot of good ideas, far more than most journalists.

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