Malcolm Gladwell Spars With Scientist Detractors Over 'David and Goliath'

on October 17 2013 10:39 PM
Malcolm Gladwell speaking in 2008. Wikimedia Commons/Kris Krug

Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book might be burning up the best seller charts, but its reception among some scientists and science writers has been lukewarm, at best.

Gladwell’s new tome, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants,” explores the supposedly surprising array of advantages that the “weak” face when doing battle with the “strong,” and more largely, about how experiencing trials and tribulations prepares people for greatness. The New Yorker scribe examines various tableaux of plucky Davids triumphing over adversity, including: how some people might have benefited from dyslexia; how the Impressionist painters established themselves in the Paris art scene; and whether it’s better for a university student to be a big fish in a small state-school pond or to try and tough it out in the rough seas of the Ivy League.

Union College psychologist Christopher Chabris recently excoriated the book in a review for the Wall Street Journal. Chabris has previously criticized Gladwell for cherry-picking studies to fit his line of thinking and ignoring the evidence that goes against his narrative grain, and he continues to beat this particular drum. He highlights this problem with one particular experiment Gladwell references, which showed that people scored better on a mathematical reasoning problem if it was harder to read (in this case, printed in light-gray italic text). The study, Chabris points out, involved just 40 people, all Princeton students -- already a group self-selected to be problem-solvers.

“Such matters wouldn't matter if the experiment had been repeated with larger samples that are more representative of the general public and had yielded the same results,” Chabris wrote. “But 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.”

Chabris’ ire for the book spilled out beyond the Journal into additional posts on his own website and on Slate, sparking an authorial reply. Gladwell defended his use of the psychology study in question, acknowledged the limitations of using narrative to tie together various ideas from academia, but the meat of his defense was a populist appeal:

“The kinds of people who read books in America seem to have no problem with my writing,” he says. “But I am clearly a bee in the bonnet of some of the kinds of people who review books in America.”

Even more high-profile scientists have taken a whack at the fuzzy-haired writer.

“Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring,” Pinker wrote in his New York Times review of Gladwell’s 2009 collection, “What The Dog Saw.” “The problem with Gladwell’s generalizations about prediction is that he never zeroes in on the essence of a statistical problem and instead overinterprets some of its trappings.”

Columbia University statistics professor Andrew Gelman focuses a critical lens on Gladwell’s work as well, but leavens his criticism with praise. Gelman says that some of Gladwell’s stories are “oversmoothed,” but even the overblown anecdotes can function like a “stone soup,” getting other people to thinking about a topic. (Not that this is especially high praise; in this analogy, Gladwell is a stone in a pot of boiling water, while other writers are the ingredients and seasoning of the actual soup.)

Still, Gelman says his problem with some of Gladwell’s stories is not that he is “not academic, or that he had too much messy reality in his books." Rather, Gelman's problem is "that Gladwell’s stories were not messy enough! Fables are fun, but the real world can be much more interesting.”

And keep in mind that sometimes the fables themselves are pretty messy -- while David might have looked like an underdog in his fight with Goliath, he had a pretty weighty partner in his corner. (See 1 Samuel 17: 37: "The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”)

"I have long been an admirer of Gladwell's; I wish I could put stories together the way he does," science writer Paul Raeburn wrote on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. "But I'm now afraid to read him. My work, my intellectual life, and even my social and emotional experiences with my family are based on knowing what's really going on -- not Gladwell's made-up ideas of how things should be."

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