Christopher Chabris on why it matters that Malcolm Gladwell's work is 'truthy,' at best


Gladwell’s books – the Harlequin Romances of research.


Gladwell’s a lovable rogue who wriggles out of scrutiny in the same way as David McCandless says his beautiful “visualisations” are just art, really, and because art doesn’t have any rules, neither does he… really depsite them dealing with the illustration of complex data. Or something, I forget the details.

I like to cut them some slack as they’re just trying to make a living by selling us silly ideas that we want to believe in. “Gladwell proves that not only do many successful people have dyslexia, but that they have become successful in large part because of having to deal with their difficulty.” Nice! Makes me feel good. It’s probably bullshit, but so what?

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“Adversity makes people succeed!” is great for those who want to believe that adversity, bad luck, discrimination, violence, disability and so on don’t put people in vulnerable positions, poverty, or worse.


It’s important to remember that Gladwell went into journalism only because he couldn’t get a foothold in advertising, and one of his earlier jobs involved writing for a Moonie rag, Insight on the News. He’s finally managed to find a product that he’s extremely successful at selling: himself as contrarian deep thinker.

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Works for Malcom Gladwell, courtesy of Scary Go Round.

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People make up educational, government, and corporate policy based on this bullshit. So yea, it matters that’s not the truth.

Well it is true that Chinese people are good at math. That’s a fact and everyone knows it.

I’d hesitate to claim that government policy is based on Malcolm Gladwell books.

Some quotes from a relevant critique of Gladwell

Who are those people? They are the readers who will take Gladwell’s laws, rules, and causal theories seriously; they will tweet them to the world, preach them to their underlings and colleagues, write them up in their own books and articles (David Brooks relied on Gladwell’s claims more than once in his last book), and let them infiltrate their own decision-making processes. These are the people who will learn to trust their guts (Blink), search out and lavish attention and money on fictitious “influencers” (The Tipping Point), celebrate neurological problems rather than treat them (David and Goliath), and fail to pay attention to talent and potential because they think personal triumph results just from luck and hard work (Outliers).


What Malcom Gladwell says matters because, whether academics like it or not, he is incredibly influential.


I know Gladwell has influence for multiple reasons. One is that even highly-educated people in leadership positions in academia—a field where I have experience—are sometimes more familiar with and more likely to cite Gladwell’s writings than those of the top scholars in their own fields, even when those top scholars have put their ideas into trade-book form like Gladwell does.

Given his popularity it’s not a stretch to assume lots of politicians make decisions influenced by their reading of Malcolm Gladwell or summaries of his work.

To put it another way, because of his popularity and therefore influence he’s effectively another Jenny McCarthy in disguise. Spreading his unfounded conclusions and influencing people’s thinking with no grounding in reality.

Here’s the rest if you’re curious

Not to what you claimed. Put the bit where it talks about people making up educational, government, and corporate policy based on this bullshit in bold instead. Infiltrates your decision making process and actually involved in actual decisions are two different things. I don’t think Gladwell would bother to point out the distinction but we should.

This is what we’re accusing Gladwell of doing: taking a source and running with it for dramatic effect. We’ve gone from people pay attention to Gladwell to so it’s not a stretch to assume the government use his stuff for making policy. It’s a massive stretch with no evidence supporting it.

I guess I’m too dumb to see your point. My point is people with influence … um, have influence. Complaining about Malcolm Gladwell spreading lies is similar to complaining about Fox News spreading lies. If I understand your argument neither of them matters because we have no proof anyone is influenced by either Malcolm Gladwell’s millions of books sold nor Fox News broadcasts seen by millions of people. Ok, if you say so. I happen to think it’s self evident Malcolm Gladwell has influence based solely on his popularity.

I agree that Gladwell is eminently worthy of critique, but that’s unfair. The anti-vax stuff McCarthy espouses causes serious harm to society.

Agreed Jenny McCarthy is worse. Don’t agree that it’s different at a basic level.

People making decisions based on false beliefs is like people trying to get intelligent design added to science classes. If Malcolm Gladwell was just some crackpot that no one listened to (like me :wink: ) then that would be one thing but he influences the thinking of tons of people. Those people make decisions based on their influences.

See quote above “celebrate neurological problems rather than treat them (David and Goliath)” Sounds like people being potentially harmed to me.

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