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Why You Shouldn't Trust Malcolm Gladwell

Book-Buyer Beware

By Eric J. Hollenberg

When I tell other students here that I plan to study behavioral economics, one of the first things they say to me is, "Have you heard of Malcolm Gladwell?"  And usually I respond, "How could I not have heard of him?"  He has entrenched himself as one of the most recognizable authors in recent memory.  His popularity and perceived know-how have allowed him to command $45,000 in speaking fees per appearance, most notably at Bank of America (and if you were wondering how BOA has been doing recently...).  He was also given an award  by the American Sociological Association for his excellence in "disseminating sociological research," so academics have endorsed him as well.

Certainly, I have read many of his books at the recommendation of many peers.  Just like they said, most of his work centers around topics in social psychology, a key component in many business and economic threads.  I have found his books to be well written; mesmerizing at times, as he skillfully and effortlessly glides from topic to topic, story to story.  His writing style is unique and captivating.  Unfortunately, rather than nonfiction, professional, business-level books, I have found his writings to be full of simple stories that do nothing more than stir up a generalized interest and allow the author to engage in vague theorizing.  

Gladwell is a journalist, not an academic.  He is not formally trained in any of the sciences, nor does he pretend that he is.  His profession is story-telling. He is not in a lab conducting experiments and drawing scientific conclusions from them.  However, he does cite scientific studies and mentions various scientists' contributions, so he dresses his arguments academia's clothes.  You would be hard-pressed to find a Gladwell book that is not too far from other real academics' work in a bookstore, such as Dan Ariely or Steven Pinker (one cannot mention Gladwell without mentioning Pinker as well.  He was the first one to catch on to Gladwell over five  years ago).

But Gladwell has a different agenda in his writings. He adores addressingapparent paradoxes, and gives the reader a sense of an intellectual rebellion when he presents his ideas.  Many of which his books are based on these contradictions, like how the small guy might actually have the advantage (David and Goliath).  He empowers his readers, who think they have just struck an intellectual goldmine of useful and applicable facts. I would caution his readers to temper their enthusiasm.  For example, take his quote (first reported by Slate) on public radio’s  Brian Lehrer show, where he was actually trying to respond to his critics

“I am a story-teller, and I look to academic research … for ways of augmenting story-telling. The reason I don’t do things their way is because their way has a cost: it makes their writing inaccessible. If you are someone who has as their goal ... to reach a lay audience ... you can't do it their way.”

Presumably, by "their way," he means the way in which true academics report their findings.  He is admitting here that he does not subject any of his theories to widely-accepted tests of scientific rigor and accuracy.  In an interview with The Telegraph, Gladwell said, "The mistake is to think these books are ends in themselves. My books are gateway drugs—they lead you to the hard stuff."  Gladwell himself is discrediting his own work, essentially saying you also need a Psych 101 textbook at your side to make sure everything jives with actual fact.  If his books are not "ends in themselves," why does he go on with doing Ted talk after Ted talk, business meeting after business meeting masquerading around ideas that are truly stories that are inspired by science?  The citations and studies he uses are simply the starting point for him to draw completely different, unrelated, and non-peer reviewed conclusions.  They give his ideas unwarranted scientific legitimacy.  And that legitimacy has already crossed the societal tipping point (if I daresay).  Google Gladwell and some of his ideas, and check out what pops up.  LinkedIn business advice. A video of him giving advice to start ups Leadership lessons to local governments  He is already a trusted source of knowledge, unrightly so.  Where his work truly fails the "true" test is the predictability part.  The way he writes about the past makes some of the phenomenons he describe seem real.  In reality, he picks convenient anecdotes that fit his version of the story, and we are therefore left with nothing but coincidental events that are dressed up as social forces.  Little of Gladwell's work has any scientific value for anyone looking to come up with educated hypotheses about the future, which is a defining trait of real science.

Think of Gladwell's books as a movie with a marketing campaign that plays up the "based on a true story" element.  The studio finds an original story, then heavily dramatizes it and dresses it up until you have no idea what is true and what is not.

Have I heard of Gladwell?  Yes, of course.  And he has his place as one of the great writers in recent memory, a master of presentation and engagement.  I just wish he were not the first person everyone thinks of when one mentions behavioral economics and social science.

Eric J. Hollenberg ’17 lives in Adams House. His column will appear every two weeks this summer. 

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