Criticism of Gladwell Reaches Tipping Point

Criticism of Malcolm Gladwell, the bestselling New Yorker writer, seems to be reaching – yes! – a tipping point. The critiques have come from a variety of angles – literary critics lambast his glibness; The Daily Beast doesn’t like his dating habits; The Nation doesn’t like, well, anything about him. The New Republic’s Issac Chotiner summarizes his disdain with a review of Gladwell’s appearance last week on Charlie Rose’s interview show. Other guests on the show were Steven Levitt and Steven Dubner, authors of SuperFreakonomics. Chotiner concluded that Gladwell, Levitt and Dubner were all inept. “I felt like I was being sold a bill of goods by people who did not know what they were talking about.”

Steven Pinker leveled much the same charge in a cover piece for Sunday’s New York Times Book Review that allowed as how Gladwell’s most recent book, a collection of his New Yorker writing called What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures, was hit and miss and too bold in its claims.

Most of this criticism can be summarized by saying Gladwell often overstates his case and lacks the rigor to support it (except, of course, the love life criticism, which maintains he is too rigorous about romance, and too successful, as well).

The answer to this charge is: Of course Gladwell lacks rigor – he’s a feature writer, not a brain scientist. Why some people – including the corporate titans who pay Gladwell’s speaking fees – seem confused about this I haven’t a clue. I can’t also help but wonder what would prompt the Times to haul out the heavy gun that is Pinker to shoot down a collection of magazine miscellany. I should add here that my hatred of Gladwell is boundless, at least the equal of any critic, but I, a much more rigorous (and therefore slower and much poorer) writer, at least know its source – pure unadulterated jealousy.

Gladwell’s earlier books The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers have been publishing phenomena. Tipping Point alone has been on bestseller lists for five years. Gladwell in many ways is the social science equivalent of the New York Times foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman, another favorite target of critics whose books sell huge numbers. Both are popularizers, in some sense hucksters, adept at phrase-making and simplifying (and often over-simplifying) complex subjects. A key difference, however, is that when Friedman is wrong, he helps start wars. When Gladwell makes a mistake, he dilutes public understanding of science – not a good thing, surely, but he’s a feature writer; that’s what they do.

There is plenty of reason to criticize Malcolm Gladwell, but you get the sense that his chief flaw is being popular.

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Terry McDermott spent thirty years at eight newspapers, most recently at the Los Angeles Times, where he reported from more than twenty countries. He is the author of the upcoming The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.