New Yorker staff writer and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell may be the closest thing we have to a public intellectual these days. A “public intellectual” can be defined as someone widely recognized as being a smart person, one who occasionally enters into public discourse but stands above the political fray, speaking with a voice of uncommon wisdom, perspective, and authority. Unlike a media pundit, a public intellectual is not an ideologue or talking head. Although the head does in fact talk and usually eloquently so, a public intellectual after his or her media forays will return like Cincinnatus to the plow—or to give what may be a more apt metaphor, back to the aerie where books are read and written, accumulating wisdom to impart for the next trip down among the less enlightened. Think of it as a semi-regular visit of conscience, Zarathustra as Über-nerd. Academic credentials are helpful but not necessary. The public intellectual will exude intelligence and insight in such a way that no credentials are even asked for. Having done his or her homework and thought so clearly, the public intellectual can be trusted. Help us, O Smart One: hold a mirror up to our foibles, reveal the errors of our foolish ways.
Occasionally we see Gladwell’s unmistakable bouncy hair coming over the hill, notice a new book in his hand, and are glad for it—since Gladwell, ever the journalist, is also a highly skilled storyteller. His books are clever and fun to read. In all his writings, he seems uniquely able to make us feel like we learned something valuable, although occasionally in a “oh yeah, that’s sort of obvious” kind of way. With most if not all his books, the basic approach is to turn common sense on its head, through an eclectic, tightly woven tapestry of intriguing examples, drawn from different walks of life, various time periods, and so on. For instance, with Blink (2005), the main thesis is that sometimes people are better off not thinking, especially if one happens to be an expert with countless hours of experience. But it is true for seemingly anyone: “thin-slicing” or “fast and frugal heuristics” (say in the diagnosis of heart ailments, selecting potential mates, or even playing the stock market) can be much more effective than labored deliberation. TMI! Take that, knowledge! In his most recent work, David and Goliath, Gladwell, aside from the title pair, presents us with the following: the tale of the first Impressionist artists; successful dyslexic lawyers; the Troubles in Northern Ireland; optimal grade school classroom size; the London Blitz; mediocre Ivy Leaguers; police juvenile outreach programs in Brooklyn; a cantankerous pioneering Leukemia doctor; the difficulties of being a wealthy parent; Civil Rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963; the California Three Strikes law; defiant Huguenots in Vichy France; and the overachieving, scrappy young girls basketball team coached by Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé. Gladwell in his works can fashion an insightful, instructive, and often inspiring pastiche; one might call it a glitteringly beautiful mosaic when it all comes together, or even a symphony. But while an interdisciplinary range creates the illusion of breadth, the two are not necessarily the same. Often the discussions, wide-ranging as they are, can still feel superficial, too “perfect” for making his point. Deft as Gladwell is, he may just be the ultimate cherry-picker.
There is no groundbreaking lesson in David and Goliath. In a nutshell, the argument is that what we think to be disadvantages (such as David being a puny rock slinger versus the big brute Goliath) in truth are actually advantages. What all the examples employed in Gladwell’s narrative have in common is adversity. Facing difficult odds enables most individuals to be more flexible and to take the kind of chances that lead to innovative success; it becomes a virtue that those in “the Establishment” lack. Deprivation is good. Uh…duh? Nietzsche did note so memorably over a century ago that “Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” That is, before what didn’t kill Nietzsche made him as crazy as a syphilitic loon.
Gladwell skates very close to what is known as the post hoc ergo proper hoc fallacy (“after this, therefore because of this”)—the mistake of thinking that because one thing followed another in time it happened because of it. What seems to be a “because” may in fact be a “despite,” or often just a coincidence. Consider the following (my own example, not Gladwell’s): Four of the previous seven Presidents of the United States have been left-handed, a staggering disproportion compared to the left-handed population of the country. Can we then declare that these men rose to prominence because of this fact? Can we even say that left-handedness stood as a crucial obstacle in their lives that contributed to their resolve and strength of character? It may just be a coincidence, or an example of the law of averages correcting itself after years and years of righties. It may not be an impairment or much of an impediment or even remotely significant. Truthfully, it could be anything; the point is that we cannot leap to any of these conclusions regarding cause and effect. We could make the same argument about lefty failures—e.g., select the screw-ups in a sample and attribute their shortcomings in life to left-handedness. Plus how is it possible to isolate this one factor in a complex world where so many forces contribute to a person’s achievements or lack thereof? Many other common causes are possible, environmental and otherwise. In David and Goliath, for instance, Gladwell notes how a number of dyslexics have overcome their learning disabilities to achieve success in their professions, etc., presenting this as a “because,” and he barely acknowledges the many who do not. Or to use more Nietzschean language, not enough daylight is shed in the course of Gladwell’s argument on those who are not made stronger but are instead weakened by misfortune and broken on the wheel of fate. We laud Gladwell for his skill at creative non-fiction but would expect better thinking from such a smarty pants posturing himself as an enlightened voice. Convenient as it may be for book sales, it’s not very solid logic or science.
To further illustrate, there is a laughable part of David and Goliath that can’t be ignored. In all seriousness, Gladwell throws around the idea that David defeated Goliath because of—based on the Biblical descriptions of the fight and the musings of Jewish historians—the Philistine warrior’s likely pituitary gland ailments, hyperthyroidism, and near-sightedness. There is no irony on those pages from what I can tell; Gladwell is being sincere. In response, I would like to present my theory that Big Bird’s obvious gigantism and jaundice led to his famously cheery disposition, and that little green men from outer space have bulimia and OCD, hence their distinct body shape and tendency to probe.
I don’t want Malcolm Gladwell to stop slinging, but he needs to put a little more thought into his offerings…instead of just tossing off another cutesy-pie book like D & G. There is always a spot waiting for him on the bestseller list, but as a writer and thinker it seems like he has grander targets in mind.
Reviewed by Royce Grubic