Malcolm Gladwell Is Interesting But Wrong

David and GoliathMalcolm Gladwell is a very interesting writer. He’s published a series of provocative best sellers. And NPR just loves him. I like him too. It’s important to have people like him around. But it’s just as important to remember that he is almost always wrong.

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to Marketplace and there was an interview with Gladwell about his new book David and Goliath. The idea of the book is that hardships often make us better. I agree with that in a moral sense; I think I am a much better person because of the things that have not worked out in my life; I’m glad that I’ am a better person than I once was.

The problem is that Gladwell seems to apply this idea to a very typical notion of success in life. He pays specially attention to dyslexia. This is an issue that I care about a great deal because I suffer from both auditory and visual dyslexia and it has been a real pain throughout my life. What’s more, I do not think that suffering from it has helped me. Yes, as a result of the difficulty I had reading when I was younger, I exercised my analytic abilities to simply figure stuff out rather learning it from books. And glad I am that I had those analytical skills! But I don’t for an instant think those skills came about because of my dyslexia. If I hadn’t had dyslexia, I would simply have had strong analytical and reading skills. What joy!

But Gladwell does think that Dyslexia helps. In the interview, he talks about the great lawyer David Boies. According to Gladwell, Boies’ dyslexia helped him, “He learned how to listen, and he also developed an extraordinary memory.” This is what Boies himself thinks. I don’t accept it. No one wants to admit that their disabilities harm them, but they absolutely do. Boies is brilliant and dyslexic, but he would have been brilliant and not dyslexic.

The truth is that it’s kind of stupid to talk about disabilities in this way. We all have them. We all work in such a way to maximize our strength and minimize our weaknesses. And I’m very pleased with my intellectual skill set. I have a number of friends who read very quickly and I’m jealous of that. But there’s no way I would trade away my dyslexia for a weaker mathematical intuition. And I wouldn’t trade away my empathy for more self-confidence, even though that would doubtless lead to better worldly success.

I got to thinking about Gladwell this morning when I came upon an interesting article at The Economist, Trouble at the Lab. It’s about how we tend to think that science is a gradual process of self-correction, but to a large extent it is a process of going a long way down blind alleys before realizing that we have to back up and take another road. It is very much in the tradition of Thomas Kuhn. But this passage really struck me:

“I SEE a train wreck looming,” warned Daniel Kahneman, an eminent psychologist, in an open letter last year. The premonition concerned research on a phenomenon known as “priming.” Priming studies suggest that decisions can be influenced by apparently irrelevant actions or events that took place just before the cusp of choice. They have been a boom area in psychology over the past decade, and some of their insights have already made it out of the lab and into the toolkits of policy wonks keen on “nudging” the populace.

Dr Kahneman and a growing number of his colleagues fear that a lot of this priming research is poorly founded. Over the past few years various researchers have made systematic attempts to replicate some of the more widely cited priming experiments. Many of these replications have failed. In April, for instance, a paper in PLoS ONE, a journal, reported that nine separate experiments had not managed to reproduce the results of a famous study from 1998 purporting to show that thinking about a professor before taking an intelligence test leads to a higher score than imagining a football hooligan.

I bring it up because this bit of research about priming is one of Gladwell’s favorites, although he usually tells it about a Trivial Pursuits game rather than an intelligence test. And it gets to the base of what Gladwell is all about: finding the cool, counter-intuitive take on the way things are. And as I said, people like him are really important. But don’t mistake his interesting ideas as anything more than that. If Gladwell pushes an idea that turns out to be right, it will be pure chance.

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