My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Malcolm loaded his gun. He took aim and fired. Nine shots rang out and echoed through the valley. After the smoke cleared, he walked forward to see the damage he had done. There were nine bullet holes in the bright, red side of a barn, and they formed the shape of a great big, inverted-U curve. Like this: ∩.
Then Malcolm picked up a paintbrush from a can of white paint that was sitting by the barn, and around each bullet hole, he drew a circle, around a circle, around a circle. With another brush, in the middle of each circle, he painted a yellow bullseye. “Done,” he said. “Nine perfect shots!”
Painting a bullseye around a shot already fired is called the “Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy,” and critics accuse author Malcolm Gladwell of doing this in his book “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.”
Gladwell is famous for translating the social sciences into adventure tales, but Christopher Chabris, and other critics, make Gladwell infamous, saying that he overstates claims. They say he may hit the bullseye with his essay and storytelling skills, but not with his science. I want to disagree with the critics, but up to a point, they have a point.
Gladwell is one of the top writers of non-fiction in the English speaking world, so why do critics shred up the top guy in The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, and two times in the New York Times? If you search, you may have trouble finding a positive review of David and Goliath.
But people love Malcolm Gladwell because he doesn’t just popularize social science. He sets it in memorable and compelling narratives (stories) that come to life. He makes social science feel like a series of conflicts that we experience, showing us subtle and deeper shades of meaning in life.
Contrast this with many academics. They lard their prose with obese nominalizations, with 15-word subjects of sentences, with no actors who act, and with no story to compel the mind. If we read them, it’s hard work, not just because the content is demanding, but also because the prose is poorly written.
But Gladwell writes to put the reader in a state of flow. He takes the dry data and logic chopping of academic discourse and spins it into a story that we can’t put down. And just what is the story of David and Goliath? The strong have weaknesses that come from their strengths, and the weak can become strong because of their weaknesses. Power can produce vulnerabilities, and weakness can contain the seeds of strength.
For example, Gladwell summarizes research that says there are a high percentage of dyslexics who are successful in business, and he concludes that they succeeded not because dyslexia is good, but because it was an obstacle that made them work harder.
This seems true enough, but Gladwell also says that there are an overwhelming number of dyslexics in prison. This does not refute his argument, but it places a condition around it, and so on this point, Gladwell shows he is careful enough to hedge his claim.
In fact, he never tries to convince us through emotion, but he may need to state his claims more in the language of probabilities and tendencies. This is important because readers may get lost in the stories he tells and forget that stories do not always represent the overall pattern of reality.
Of course Gladwell tells these stories because he wants to show that they do represent the patterns in the real world. Take the pattern of the inverted-U curve. Being bigger, smaller, richer, or stronger is only better up to a certain point. For example, Gladwell says, “Wealth contains the seeds of its own destruction.”
With hard work, a man may become rich, but once he is rich, he will have trouble teaching his children the value of money, so parenting becomes harder after a certain point. This is true. Just look at Paris Hilton! She is an inverted-U curve.
This is my example, not Gladwell’s, and Paris Hilton may look like a social parasite living for a party (that represents a pattern), but in reality she, or someone just like her, may be a wonderful person who makes tremendous contributions to society. My speculation and subsequent generalization about her may be wrong.
And generalizing is the problem. David and Goliath is filled with factual and historical storytelling that is informative and inspiring. However, Gladwell must often speculate and generalize when he makes conclusions from these stories or when he extrapolates data from research into these stories.
But how do we know when speculation becomes over-speculation? How do we know when it is hedged, balanced, and constrained enough by data? How do we know when the patterns are real? For most of us, these questions may be too difficult to answer.
This is Steven Pinker’s main problem with Gladwell’s previous work. The writing is brilliant, but we should “watch out” for the over generalizations, which may be misleading or wrong. Gladwell says that his readers know better, but we may actually need a social scientist to research whether we know better or not!
Certainly, through Gladwell’s books, we are faced with the problem of knowledge. He does not appear to be a post-modernist who denies the possibility of knowing anything real (as Chabris wrongly suggests). Gladwell is surely a realist, who believes in a real world that we can know about.
However, Gladwell might do better to become more of a critical realist who believes that we can know about a real world, but who also realizes that knowledge is conditioned by filters. We filter knowledge of reality through our cultural and historical place in the world, through the limitations of cognition and language. We know the real world as but a reflection.
After all Gladwell’s stories, we are left with questions about how to interpret the rules, laws, and patterns that purportedly emerge from the stories (and data). At worst, we may be mislead by our lack of knowledge and critical thinking skills. But at best, I think we can rest assured that these stories are indeed true, at least partly and sometimes so.