Malcolm Gladwell: Sundered of all pretensions, and that much more scary for it
Malcolm Gladwell was born in 1963, in England. He moved to Canada as a child, and still identifies as a Canadian author. His new book, “David and Goliath,” “is a very Canadian sort of book,” he says. The theme of his book is that underdogs — Davids — win over powerful opponents — Goliaths — more often than people think. “David and Goliath,” Gladwell says, is “Canadian in its suspicion of bigness and wealth and power.”
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Christopher Chabris is a psychology professor at Union College in New York. In 2013, he studied Gladwell’s newest book in order to write a review for the Wall Street Journal. Here’s what Chabris found: In Gladwell’s previous book people like attorney David Boies were said to be successful because of their environment (his parents were teachers) and because of hours of work (he debated in college). Now, Boies’ success happens for a simpler, more uplifting reason: Because he was dyslexic. Gladwell calls dyslexia a “desirable difficulty.”
But there was a problem. There wasn’t actually any rigorous evidence for the hypothesis that dyslexia is advantageous. Indeed, there seemed to actually be proof that it’s a hindrance to success. The more Chabris read, the more he found bad science used to justify unsupportable claims. One study Gladwell cites had a small sample size, and a follow-up study with a larger one didn’t replicate its results, something Gladwell doesn’t mention.
So the book is bad, right? Wrong. “In ‘David and Goliath’ readers will travel with colorful characters who overcame great difficulties and learn fascinating facts about the Battle of Britain, cancer medicine and the struggle for civil rights,” Chabris says. “This is an entertaining book.”
And Gladwell knew it would be all along. Chabris, like many of us, thought that Gladwell used shoddy research and studies with results that couldn’t be reproduced to make grand pronouncements about human nature and society because he didn’t know better. But the more Chabris looked into it, the more research he did, the more evidence he found that everything he had originally assumed about Gladwell was wrong.
“I had thought Gladwell was inadvertently misunderstanding the science he was writing about and making sincere mistakes in the service of coming up with ever more “Gladwellian” insights to serve his audience,” he says. “But according to his own account, he knows exactly what he is doing, and not only that, he thinks it is the right thing to do.” (“Hack list #10: Malcolm Gladwell,” Alex Parene, Salon.com)
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When important public figures these days seem to begin first, by making themselves seem chaste or small, I wonder if this is because they're about to be involved in pleasures truly sickly, but will be absolved for it by having cast off from themselves all pretensions. Gladwell is a small Canadian; Chris Hedges announces how he was once an enfranchised NYT jerk; and Dave Eggers makes clear that he was once the snarkiest asshole there ever was, as he now — as if the least pretentious and most innocent of boys — opens each and every one of the shortstory submissions sent to him as if to be greeted by something vastly greater than he.
I think that Gladwell can almost imagine a smart, not-so-ready-to-be fooled, skeptical person reading his work, and wanting to address him over this and that that doesn't really seem to square up. And he would look down to this person, pause, and smile, knowing that each moment he draws out is keeping him/her fixed in a narrative that is being over-run by people who bought the whole damn thing wholesale.
This intelligent, skeptical person, would begin to feel crowded, out of place, and Gladwell would experience a highly pleasurable tremor, informing him this person realizes that there are very few people actually like him/her still left in the world, and that they might not be able to trust their ability not to be lured out into some place where they'll find themselves highly vulnerable.
This guy's one of the glaze-eyed, positivist sharks, owning our world now in full confidence. The skeptic crab or lobster, loses the moment s/he makes himself known.
@EmporiumHuh? Have you ever seen Gladwell do an interview? He is one of the least aggressive or condescending journalists I can think of, and these days when his work is discussed publicly it is usually to highlight problems in his research. Do you have an actual example in mind of an upstanding skeptic being shamed into submission by an army of unthinking pro-Gladwell zombies, or are you possibly projecting your own insecurities
@atiyah @Emporium He's sundered himself of all pretension; he's quite willing to be an agent of forces stronger than himself. This egolessness means feeling an approval that would sustain him against all those who still think the fundamental concern of our age is get facts right. It isn't. It's to get lost in a fugue state of reality-distanced narratives — like the Depression one of those who work hard will be rewarded — that resists all counter facts. Facts will only get attention when they illuminate a reality that empowers our myths.
If you sense you might be on the wrong side of this, as I do, yeah, that nice, placid, modest Cdn man — who's on the empowered right side, and at some level knows it profoundly — can be very friggin' scary.
@Emporium This guy's one of the glaze-eyed, positivist sharks, owning our world now in full confidence. The skeptic crab or lobster, loses the moment s/he makes himself known.
Emporium / Patrick McEvoy-Halston