For decades, I have wondered about the Malcolm Gladwell phenomenon. His nonfiction books sell like hot cakes, his appearances fetch enormous fees, and people claim he is a genius. Yet, when I read his books with the eye of a scientist, I find them full of hyperbole.
After trying for years, I finally slogged through the Tipping Point and Blinkrecently. Now, more than ever, I feel that the Gladwell myth is exactly that, a myth. His position as a staff writer for the New Yorker has undoubtedly given him credibility and a prestigious platform. But is his success well-deserved?
In Blink, the author postulates that intuitive judgments about people or situations are often better than detailed analysis. On the surface, this sounds like an attractive hypothesis. But then he elaborates with examples that, with the help of a Niagara of words, he tries to fit into his theory. His first example is the purchase of an ancient Greek statue by the Getty museum. Expert analyses led the curators to believe that the work was authentic, yet, on the basis of a visual inspection, other experts concluded that it was a fraud.
Does this example prove Gladwell’s point? Not quite, because the Getty still ended up using chemical and physical analyses to reach its final conclusion.
Sometimes Gladwell reverses course, as in the example of the infamous shooting of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in 1999. In that case, the cops allegedly inferred that a black man could not be standing outside his apartment late at night unless he was armed, and killed him. You would think that this example disproves Gladwell’s theory that intuition is superior to analysis but he gets around the problem by theorizing that darkness compromised the cops’ “mind reading” abilities. He claims that in crisis situations, we suffer from “temporary autism” and postulates that we can hone our “mind reading” powers by overcoming our prejudices. Is your head reeling already?
Gladwell coins new expressions like “thin-slicing,” which, roughly translated, means the ability to discern a situation based on bits of information. “Listening with your eyes,” and “rapid cognition” are also some jargon terms that he manufactures. The trouble is that each of these processes uses a slightly different skill.
For example, Gladwell quotes a Chicago cardiologist, who, based on only four diagnostic factors, successfully predicted his patients’ heart attacks. But, obviously, this was not a case of “mind reading” or “listening with your eyes.” The four factors were developed after years of painstaking collection of data, which was then “thin sliced.” So what is Gladwell’s point?
That sometimes intuition works and sometimes it doesn’t or has to be supported or contradicted by data or other skills? What else is new?
Social scientists and psychologists have long challenged Gladwell’s theories and conclusions. But to no avail. His books keep on selling.
In The Tipping Point, the author explains how fads work. He quotes, at length, the example of Hush Puppies shoes, which, according to him, became popular because two hipsters walked around New York wearing them. He calls such people “connectors.” He then coins other terms such as “stickiness” of certain phenomenon and the “power of context.”
To prove his theory of “connectors,” Gladwell uses the famous experiment of “six degrees of separation,” developed in 1967 by Stanley Milgram, who set out to prove that it took only six acquaintances to pass a letter between two randomly selected people. What most readers don’t know is that the experiment has long been debunked. Yet, the Tipping Point was a huge success, perhaps because corporations, wanting to use Gladwell’s theories for marketing and advertising purposes, invited him to speechify.
Ever since the first skeptical review of the Tipping Point in the New York Times, scientists intellectuals, and journalists have pointed out the thin premises based on which Gladwell over-reaches his conclusions. David Brooks, in a Timesreview of Blink in 2005 quipped that while the “thin-slicing” part of his brain was enamored of Gladwell’s theories, the “thick-slicing” part wanted more than entertaining anecdotes; he wanted a comprehensive theory of the whole. And he wanted to know more about how our brains performed these miracles. Other reviewers have pointed out that Gladwell makes the common mistake of confusing correlation with causation.
Reaction to Gladwell’s latest books, Outliers and David and Goliath, have finally reached a crescendo of negativity, so much so that one critic quaintly observed that we may finally be at a tipping point of a realistic assessment of the author’s works.
Why then do his books keep selling? Another critic explained it this way. “Malcolm Gladwell’s books sell because he makes dumb people feel smart.”
I could not agree more. After all, Gladwell himself said, “If my books appear to a reader to be oversimplified, then he/she is not the audience!” What Gladwell is saying is that anyone equipped to properly review the author’s work should not read it.
Most writers want just the opposite from their readers.
Sarita Sarvate (www.saritasarvate.com) has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.