February 4, 2006

All about Malcolm Gladwell.

Rachel Donadio writes:
Gladwell has become an all-out international phenomenon — and has helped create a highly contagious hybrid genre of nonfiction, one that takes a nonthreatening and counterintuitive look at pop culture and the mysteries of the everyday. In the past year, several other books in the Gladwell vein have appeared. They include the best-selling "Freakonomics," a breezy collection of case studies by Steven Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago, and the journalist Stephen Dubner (the pair write an occasional "Freakonomics" column for The Times Magazine); "The Wisdom of Crowds," a business book for thinking people in which the New Yorker writer James Surowiecki argues that groups are collectively smarter and more innovative than individuals; and "Everything Bad Is Good for You," Steven Johnson's case that pop culture is becoming increasingly sophisticated....

For all their resonance and success, Gladwell's books have also been criticized, most often for demonstrating, or encouraging, lazy thinking. In a scathing review in The New Republic, the judge and author Richard Posner found "Blink" full of banalities and contradictions, "written like a book intended for people who do not read books."
Well, what's wrong with clearly explaining ideas to people who don't want to make the effort to read more scholarly things? But it's more than just vividly written explanation. He transforms social science material into a positive message:
"I'm by nature an optimist. I can't remember the last time I wrote a story which could be described as despairing," he said. "I don't believe in character. I believe in the effect of the immediate impact of environment and situation on people's behavior."...

Although pitched as descriptive, Gladwell's books are essentially prescriptive. Trust your instincts! You too may be (or can become) a connector, maven or salesman! Gladwell's dazzling arguments ultimately offer reassurance. Indeed, he seems a contemporary incarnation of a recurring figure in the American experience, one who comes with encouraging news: You can make a difference, you have the capacity to change. Gladwell may be the Dale Carnegie, or perhaps the Norman Vincent Peale, of the iPod generation. But where Carnegie in his 1936 book, "How to Win Friends and Influence People," instructed readers how to understand their customers and flatter people into liking them, and Peale in his 1952 "Power of Positive Thinking" offered watered-down Christian palliatives, Gladwell offers optimism through demystification: to understand how things work is to have control over them.
So, to paraphrase Posner: It's written like a book intended for people who read self-help books. Do we need to start being embarrassed that we like Gladwell so much?

18 comments:

Ronald Reagan said...
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SippicanCottage said...
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Ann Althouse said...

I was going to leave that comment because it made me laugh, but it's just an off-topic distraction (and a gratuitous insult).

John Jenkins said...

I have The Tipping Point, Blink, (which I read out of order), and Freakonomics, (which I read before the other two). I'm not sure I can put them in the same category like the author.

I thought Gladwell's two books were intended to evoke the "that's interesting" message without actually proving anything. Anyone with any sense knows that the premise of Blink doesn't hold up over time (as does anyone who ever tried to understand a statute, case, or contract at a glance). But it's not intended to. Really all it argues for (I think) is that preparation and training make one a better and faster decision-maker, which is a proposition that almost no one would argue with.

The Tipping Point was the better book of his, I thought, but it didn't really explore anything that marketing people don't already know. Some people are early adopters, so people are networkers, those are the people you want to reach, etc. (I don't remember his terms for those people right off hand).

I don't think Freakonomics is even close to those two books, though. These authors used econometric tools to look at situations that economists typically don't study and tried to use them to answer some interesting questions. The difference between Freakonomics and An analysis of trans-atlantic trade in commidities or some such is more the target of the tools than the tools themselves (except that a scholarly article would include more about the methodology and all of the tables, but for a lay audience that's pointless because most of us wouldn't know what it meant anyway).

Gladwell doesn't pretend to be a scientist, he's just telling a story (though he has some "scientists" and scientists in his story). Levitt & Dubner are writing as scientists, just in a more accessible way, and over more interesting topics.

Ronald Reagan said...
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Dave said...

Dubner is not a scientist.

He's a journalist.

And I doubt most economists would refer to their work as science.

In any event, I don't understand Posner's criticism of Gladwell as writing self-help books. Not that I've read many self-help books but it seems that the level on which Tipping Point is written is more sophisticated than self-help books.

That said, I do think there's something to the criticism that Gladwell elides many important details. But I'm not an expert in anything Gladwell has written about and I don't pretend to be. I think Gladwell is writing to the educated masses, and he realizes that it is a valuable market in which to establish a niche.

To Gladwell's mind (and his bank account's balance) Posner's criticisms are really irrelevant. What matters is that people keep reading his books.

Ronald Reagan said...
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Jen Bradford said...

Although pitched as descriptive, Gladwell's books are essentially prescriptive. Trust your instincts! You too may be (or can become) a connector, maven or salesman!

This description of Gladwell's message is odd. I didn't hear "trust your instincts!" so much as the idea that they could be as valid as a carefully reasoned decision, and sometimes more so. Equally, in the case of Americans falling for a shell of a political candidate because he "seemed" like a worthy guy, or when acknowledging embedded racism or sexism, they can lead people badly astray.

Any investigation of our spider sense is pretty interesting to most people. I don't see why anyone should be embarrassed to be thinking or reading about it.

John Jenkins said...

Yes Dave, Dubner is a journalist, which doesn't preclude what I wrote, or even affect its meaning. Whether one refers to what one does as science is immaterial to whether it is. They observe data, use econometric methods to parse the data, and draw conclusions. That's science.

Jen, I think Gladwell oversells the "spidey sense." For obvious reasons (it's a small book, after all), he cherry-picks his stories. I think the complaint, if there is one, is that he makes it look like you should trust the "spidey sense" a lot more, which is probably not so. (I am reminded of the recent metric revolution in baseball).

I read the book as entirely descriptive, however; mainly because he had drawn on so few examples that drawing any general conclusion would be foolhardy. I don't know how a reasonable reader could find it prescriptive at all, especially given Dave's point about Gladwell obviously eliding over lots of details.

LetMeSpellItOutForYou said...

I've been leery of Gladwell ever since reading the '96 New Yorker article The Tipping Point was based on. His point was the free-fall in serious crime during the 90's wasn't necessarily due to changes in policing or in building more jails. Instead, he likened crime to a medical epidemic that disappears suddenly and unpredictably only after it has run its course, seemingly impervious to direct treatment.

But while interesting food for thought, it's ultimately superficial. Unlike epidemiologists, Gladwell offers no idea how to distinguish a "tipping point" situation from a stable state. He introduces the idea and does a good job distinguishing it from common wisdom, but doesn't get around to demonstrating its usefulness. The same is true of his recent book devoted to the idea that first impressions are more accurate than more extensive reasoning. Posner's absolutely right: sometimes they are, and sometimes (as in racial prejudice) they most certainly aren't.

I regard Gladwell as a hand-waver rather than a serious thinker, and I blame him in particular for the overuse of the word "viral" in recent years. (The enormous jew-fro certainly doesn't help, only serving to distract. Makes me think of Phil Spector.)

Jen Bradford said...

I still don't understand where people are getting the idea that Gladwell thinks we should run with instinct versus analysis. If I read a thesis, it was that our instincts may be primitive-stupid, or primitive-smart. It's interesting to read cases when they are primitive-smart. So?

p.s. is it a "Jew-fro" if your Mom is Jamaican? What are you being distracted from?

Ronald Reagan said...
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Ronald Reagan said...
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Ronald Reagan said...
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Elizabeth said...

Do we need to start being embarrassed that we like Gladwell so much?

I recall reports that the British publisher of the Harry Potter books came out with a distinct set for adults who were reading them on the train to and from work, and were embarrassed by the covers that clearly showed them to be kids' books. I decided then not to be embarrassed by anything I choose to read. That may just be part of getting older and crankier.

Wade_Garrett said...

The Gipper's really on a roll tonight.

LetMeSpellItOutForYou said...

Jen, point taken on the 'fro. It is odd too attend a conference talk by Harpo Marx, though.

Sean said...

The Tipping Point reminded me of M. Jourdain, in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, who is so delighted to learn that all his life he has been speaking prose. In Gladwell's case, he seemed to be a writerly type who suddenly discovered, as an adult, the rather elementary mathematical point that the product of two simple curves can have rather different inflection points and maxima than either of the original curves. What was especially funny to me was that he claimed that his analysis was much too sophisticated for Republicans: the Republican traders on Wall Street, who can do differential equations that no New Yorker writer could understand, probably didn't find his results as mind-shattering as he thought.