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

Archie Bland
Monday 30 September 2013 18:48
One way of seeing Gladwell is as a modern secular prophet
One way of seeing Gladwell is as a modern secular prophet

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.

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