the observatory

The Gladwellian ‘debate’

Why are we still listening to Malcolm Gladwell's cherry-picked gospel?
October 10, 2013

In the 13-years since The Tipping Point shot Malcolm Gladwell onto the map and America’s bookshelves, his brand of counter-intuitive wisdom has occupied a strange and relatively stable corner of pop culture. Even though his schtick is supposed to be drawing unseen connections in scientific literature and translating the academy for the masses, social scientists mostly loathe the writing wunderkind and his self-serving approximations of their research. Still, every few years comes another Gladwell book and every few years it ricochets, relatively unscathed, into the bestseller charts. It’s easy to see why. Like a porous pastry, Gladwell’s books are easily digestible, and they’re affixed with the gold star of The New Yorker. They’re filled with seductive cocktail party tidbits that make his readers feel smart, the bearers of privileged information.

But in the weeks since the release of his latest sugar-bomb, David and Goliath, a book explaining the unusual success of underdogs, Gladwell has faced unusually firm critics. Skeptical critiques of David and Goliath have run in the Atlantic,Slate, The New Statesman, and even a parody–David and Goliath in 600 words–from the Guardian. On Tuesday at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, Paul Raeburn summed up the perfect storm of criticism with a question: Should we stop believing in Malcolm Gladwell?

According to Christopher Chabris, the answer is: yes. Chabris, a psychologist and neurologist, wrote a 2,500-word Wall Street Journal review that cycles through the regular arguments against Gladwell’s manipulative logic–namely, the writer’s penchant for reporting correlations as causations–a move he uses so regularly he’s made it iconic. (“I’ve long wanted to write a parody Gladwell about how having a meth addiction or getting pregnant when you’re in high school makes you an awesome retail worker,” a former colleague wrote when I brought up Gladwell. “Could illegitimate children be the hidden success factor in low-wage jobs?!”)

The critique gets juicier when Chabris begins ripping into Gladwell’s sources, study by study. Like 2007 paper that Gladwell reports shows a group of subjects reading with 29-percent greater accuracy when confronted with an italic font–convenient proof for his hypothesis that challenging situations promote excellence. According to Chabris, it’s more complicated: “The study involved just 40 people, or 20 per typeface,” he writes, “a very small sample on which to hang a big argument.” Moreover, Chabris points out, the recounting fails to give basic context of the rest of the field:

Mr. Gladwell doesn’t tell readers that when other researchers tried just that, testing nearly 300 people at a Canadian public university, they could not replicate the original effect. Perhaps he didn’t know about this, but anyone who has followed recent developments in social science should know that small studies with startling effects must be viewed skeptically until their results are verified on a broader scale.

Chabris sums up Gladwell with a well-argued and cutting conclusion: “He excels at telling just-so stories and cherry-picking science to back them.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Though the debate’s reached fever pitch this time, the allegations against Gladwell aren’t particularly new. In 2008, CJR contributor Daniel Luzer interrogated a Gladwell trope on teaching reform that ran in The New Yorker in advance of the release of the book Outliers. In the essay, Gladwell compares hiring teachers to recruiting a football team: a task with no reliable predictor, and thus doomed to fail in certain instances.

The problem, as Luzer points out, is there is a reliable predictor, it just doesn’t fit into Gladwell’s argument:

The Lewin Career Forecast is a tool that predicts professional success based on a collegiate quarterback’s completion percentage and games started–and does so rather well. Gladwell makes much of the 1999 NFL draft, in which five quarterbacks selected in the first round ultimately enjoyed varying degrees of professional success. He uses this as an example of how choosing a good quarterback is a crapshoot. But the two great busts from that draft–Akili Smith and Cade McNown–fare poorly in the Lewin Forecast; the two relative successes–Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper–fare well.

Then there’s Steven Pinker’s stealthy unpacking of Outliers, which ran in The New York Times in 2009. From Pinker’s roster of criticisms: “He is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong…he never zeroes in on the essence of a statistical problem and instead over interprets some of its trappings.” Even the vocabulary repeats: Gladwell’s “cherry-picked anecdotes,” had Pinker “gnawing on [his] Kindle.” It’s worth reading Pinker’s full critique; it’s full of faults that media critics would rip apart if found in a lesser (or simply less prominent) writer. Perhaps the question should be: Why do we continue to believe in Malcolm Gladwell?

Most likely it’s because we conflate the sheer deliciousness of his prose with the integrity of his reporting. “Are reviewers just jealous?” asked The Atlantic Wire in 2009, noting that “Gladwell’s harshest critics often pair their disapproval with the reluctant, if not painful, admission that they admire his work.” (The “too good to fail” argument also harkens to Jonah Lehrer, another science writer who made seductive counterfactual arguments and was placed above the scientists who criticized his work. Until he failed. Wildly.) After his Wall Street Journal review, Chabris faced similarly harsh accusations, which he recounted in a followup to his WSJ piece in Slate:

Some people tagged me as a jealous hater. One even implied that as a cognitive scientist (rather than a neuroscientist) I somehow lacked the capacity or credibility to criticize anyone’s logic or adherence to evidence. A more serious response, of which I saw several instances, came from people who said in essence “Why do you take Gladwell so seriously–it’s obvious he is just an entertainer.”

The problem with the “he’s just an entertainer” argument, as Chabris points out, is Gladwell’s sprawling reach. Chabris typed in Gladwell’s name into Google with the phrases “proved” and “showed,” and recovered 24,500 entries; a similar search of Pinker’s name retrieved 634.

Clearly it’s more difficult to craft a compelling narrative if held to the facts and figures as they appear in carefully caveated academic literature and in the world. But good storytelling isn’t an excuse to abandon the basic tenants of nonfiction writing–especially for a journalist with such an extraordinary following. If we hold our ordinary writers to such standards, shouldn’t we hold our best to them–especially when they act as gateways for millions to the world of social science?

But, in a way, Gladwell’s counting on his exceptionalism: If more writers were allowed to play as fast and loose in their reporting, we might have more Gladwellian-style narratives. And if Gladwell’s taught us anything it’s that the unexpected can be a dangerously seductive draw.

Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis.