The Controversy Over Malcolm Gladwell’s New Book

The Controversy Over Malcolm Gladwell’s New Book October 16, 2013

Malcolm Gladwell’s new Book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants is at #2 on the New York Times Bestseller list for non-fiction. It’s strange that Gladwell comes in at number two behind Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus. I’m not sure I’m all that comfortable with either of those figures shaping the future of religious thought… nevertheless.

Gladwell’s writing has been somewhat influential in ministry circles. His narrative approach is highly adaptable and appealing especially to those of us who like to traffic in stories. He’s written some huge books – Outliers, The Tipping Point, and Blink to name just a few, and has an enormous following among church and ministry leaders, and recently headlined at the Catalyst leadership conference.

Gladwell also has his fair share of detractors. Christopher Chabris recently wrote a scathing indictment of Gladwell’s entire corpus for Slate. After cataloging the myriad ways in which one can approach Gladwell’s writing (is it entertainment? Is it a popular version of hard social sciences?) Chabris’ main criticism is that Gladwell admits that he tells the story first, and uses data to support that story. Chabris says that Gladwell ends up distorting the data, causing it to fit the narrative he’s already constructed. Never mind that it’s no surprise that all human beings tend to select data that supports the narratives to which we have already subscribed, the heart of Chabris’ critique is that he doesn’t like the data. I won’t rehearse his whole argument; you can read it for yourself.

Chabris seems to have a serious burr under his saddle. It seems clear that at least part of the reason for this is that he co-authored a book called The Invisible Gorilla: Why Our Intuitions Deceive Us, which argues exactly the opposite of what Gladwell argues in his book Blink. Anyone want to guess which one was the bigger selling book? Perhaps that is why some say Chabris is motivated by professional jealousy, but it looks to me like they have two different approaches to a similar issue. You can even say that it comes down to the long held rivalry between Psychology (Chabris’ field), and sociology (where Gladwell mines for data). Animals who are closest on the food chain are always the most bitter enemies.

Gladwell wrote a response to Chabris’ article and it appeared in Slate as well. Here’s an excerpt:

The first striking thing about all three of Chabris’ reviews of David and Goliath is how much attention he pays to a study that I mention at the beginning of my chapter on dyslexia. That part of the book is concerned with the notion of “desirable difficulty,” a term that I think is a wonderful metaphor for the ways in which some dyslexics have adapted to their disability. To illustrate the metaphor, I spent two pages describing a paper published by Adam Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer a few years ago in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Chabris does not like this study. He thinks it involved too few subjects and that its findings were not replicated by a subsequent study. Alter and Oppenheimer disagree. They say that the version of desirable difficulty that they explore has been confirmed on numerous other occasions. This is the kind of intramural argument about the nature and value of evidence that social scientists have all the time. A reasonable version of Chabris’ position might look something like this: “In illustrating the metaphor of desirable difficulty, Gladwell makes reference to a peer-reviewed study that I—Christopher Chabris—do not find convincing. I believe Gladwell would have been better off choosing a different study to make his point.”

But Chabris is in no mood to be reasonable. Instead, he argues that this single instance of a study mentioned in passing to illustrate a metaphor in a chapter about something else entirely (dyslexia!) is indicative of something gravely wrong with the Gladwell intellectual project. I am guilty, he writes, of “virtual malpractice.”Malpractice! Where on earth did that word come from? I clearly drive Chabris crazy. Incidentally, around the same time I ran across Chabris’ piece in Slate, I came across another article on an academic blog that describes—in almost identically overheated language—the enormous consequences of my transgressions around things like quoting articles from the Journal of Experimental Psychology. “Gladwell is a bullshitter,” the blog post concludes. It was written by Michelle Meyer—who informs us in a footnote that she is Chabris’ wife. I clearly drive her crazy, too. These are not tranquil times in the Meyer-Chabris household.

What is most interesting me is that this is turning out to be a case of life imitating literature, only Gladwell is the Goliath. Chablis & Co. are trying to take down the giant. If that’s not good dramatic irony I don’t know what is.

The one thing I think Chabris misses that Gladwell seems to understand is the power of story. Story is always more powerful than data. Story funds an imagination for what might be, not merely a description of what is. As the father of a dyslexic, I know the power of stories that speak of “desirable difficulty” and how adapting through struggle can make us stronger in important ways. I tell these stories to my son all the time (and to myself). I also think it’s unfair to say that Gladwell’s approach is somehow prescriptive. I’ve read nearly all of his stuff, and it functions much more like narrative wisdom literature than hard sociology or psychological data. I’m never confused nor I feel deceived about what he’s doing. In any book of this type it’s easy to lean on a few examples and strain the load they bear. I have to say that I’m really thankful to Gladwell for his writing, and I think I know how to give it appropriate weight. How about you guys?

Here are a few more critical articles:

USA Today

Another Slate Article

"So two wrongs make a right?"

Why Corruption Matters
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Why Corruption Matters
"Now that's just silly. How do you propose we address latin languages that assign gender ..."

Why Do the Nations Rage?
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Why Do the Nations Rage?

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  • justinwhitaker

    Just chiming in to say I agree fully with your last paragraph. I’m a big fan of Gladwell but I don’t take his words as set in stone. They are lessons we can learn from, and very well written, to boot. Cheers (from the Buddhist channel) – jw

  • Jerry Lynch

    Jesus seems to agree: a good story really drives home far more than data. Let me tell you about the kingdom of heaven….

  • Charlie Euchner

    Don’t let Gladwell off too easily. Yes, stories are powerful. Yes, he tells them well. But he also connects stories to ideas, to an amazing world of empirical research, to theory. So he claims to go beyond storytelling to the realm of rules and laws and patterns (his words, in various places). And more than virtually any other working writer, Gladwell has the time and resources to do the job right. He owes care and diligence to the authors he’s using for his purposes. For a longer breakdown, take a look at Malcolm Gladwell’s rejection letter (