Malcolm Gladwell is wrong: The counterintuitive idea shouldn't always become conventional wisdom

A modern secular prophet, his parables have inspired a swathe of lesser holy me

Share
Related Topics

Everyone knows the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. There’s this monstrously vain Emperor who’s told by a couple of weavers that they will make him a suit from a material so refined that only the truly intelligent will be able to see it. Accordingly, the Emperor parades through the city in the nude, and everyone compliments him on his beautiful clothing, until a naïve child points out that he’s not wearing any.

That’s the traditional version, anyway. Put the same material in the hands of the writer Malcom Gladwell, though, and you might reach a different conclusion. Borrow his enthusiasm for a pithy name and call it Gladwellian Revisionism, the ingenious and addictive argumentative strategy that he has popularised in his books, whereby the counterintuitive idea becomes the new received wisdom. In such a telling, the Emperor might be reconfigured as a creative thinker – a man who understands that the precise constituents of your outfit matter considerably less than the story you are able to tell about them. The gullible public are optimists with a touching faith in the intelligence of their peers. And the child? Well, the child is just a cynic.

Another way of seeing Gladwell is as a modern secular prophet. “Millions of readers have been waiting for the next Malcolm Gladwell book,” his website says about his new title, David and Goliath. “That wait is over.” The stunning success of his parables has inspired a swathe of lesser holy men to follow in his wake. Ideas are the creed. The TED talk is the aspiring first sermon. Those who gain a following aspire to one day publish a book with a folksily gnomic name and the words “how” and “why” in the subtitle. Eventually, it is to be hoped, one of these seers may hit upon a Freakonomics of everything: a story so pithy, so compelling, so slap-your-forehead obvious when you think about it that it explains the whole universe in terms comprehensible to the average reasonably literate reader of The New Yorker.

This story will be hard to find. And that’s the trouble with Gladwellian Revisionism: if you observe the world and then go looking for the fiction that explains it, you are liable to discover that the analogy is incomplete. This applies just as much when you turn the tale on its head as when you tell it straight. Much easier, then, to do it the other way round: pick your story, and then see if you can make reality align with it.

David and Goliath is a case in point. Indeed, its title and key concept – that underdogs  actually have surprising advantages over favourites – are so perfectly Gladwellian that they almost slip into parody. (One wonders whether his publisher assembled a list of parables and suggested that he choose one.) Sure enough, in an extract published at the weekend, we get the familiar Bible story, followed by the phrase: “the problem with that version of events is that almost everything about it is wrong”. Then there’s an explanation of why the odds were actually in the little guy’s favour, leading into the real world pay-off: an account of why  orphanhood and dyslexia might be what he calls “desirable difficulty” – problems fostering the sort of  creativity that leads to success.

It’s such a nice idea – heartwarming, inspirational, surprising, but coherent. The problem with this version of events is that some things about it are wrong. Yes, sometimes difficulties turn out to be “desirable”, but sometimes the same difficulties turn out to be really bad news, and it seems like it’s quite hard to tell which it’s going to be until you see how someone’s life turns out. Gladwell himself acknowledges this, pointing out that losing a parent in childhood also makes a person two to three times more likely to go to prison. Somehow, though, this gets lost in the wash.

In a Guardian interview yesterday, Gladwell argued that it is important to be provocative “when the majority has taken a position that’s ill thought-through” – that is, being interestingly wrong can be a useful way of clarifying what we really believe. And he has framed his book less as an explanation of why tough circumstances mean you’re likely to be successful than as a more modest argument that they don’t mean you’re bound to fail. These are fair points as far as they go. But they evade the central problem: when you tell people stories that you promise will explain the world, you can’t blame them for taking them at face value. Stories are vastly more powerful means of communication than datasets. Unfortunately, they also impose a narrative logic on the world that isn’t really there.

If it were simply a matter of literary criticism, it wouldn’t matter all that much. But this  argumentative mode is nurturing simplistic thought in all kinds of areas, and when a  government can find a receptive audience for its exciting stories about how a Big Society can nudge us into happiness, it’s perhaps time to think a little harder. In the end, this is not the fault of Gladwell, a brilliant and persuasive  writer just trying to make a compelling  argument. It’s not the naked Emperor’s  behaviour, after all, that makes the people in the crowd so easily convinced. Perhaps he’s vain and brilliant at the same time. Or perhaps it’s more complicated than that.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform