READING BETWEEN THE LINES: David and Malcolm

A Canadian who has not been caught on video smoking from a crack cocaine pipe.
A Canadian who has not been caught on video smoking from a crack cocaine pipe. // Creative Commons

Critics love to hate Malcolm Gladwell. Pretty much immediately after his newest book, “David and Goliath: Misfits, Underdogs, and the Art of Battling Giants,” hit the shelves, the vultures began to swarm. New York Times columnist Joe Nocera wrote, “Maybe what ‘David and Goliath’ really illustrates is that it’s time for Malcolm Gladwell to find a new shtick.” Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times noted that the rather condescending Gladwell constantly uses rhetorical questions “as if addressed to an audience of dim schoolchildren.” Christopher Chabris, in the Wall Street Journal, called Gladwell himself a Goliath and suggested that Gladwell “acknowledge when he is speculating or working with thin evidentiary soup.”

It would be easy to dismiss the reviewers as jealous, which they almost certainly are. Gladwell’s name is not just magic — any book of his will inevitably sell millions of copies — but rather, he has an uncommon ability to keep readers interested, tell a good story and sell a weird idea. Yet the critics aren’t entirely wrong — so much of Gladwell’s books don’t hold up against scrutiny, and many of his cute little vignettes represent a genuine misunderstanding of the subject at hand.

This doesn’t really matter. In spite of his grating style, in spite of his lack of expert credentials, in spite of his occasionally blatantly false statements, Gladwell is one of the most successful journalists in the world. And “David and Goliath” exemplifies the reason why.

Love it or hate it, “David and Goliath” is sure to get you talking. Gladwell asserts, “The same qualities that appear to give [the Goliaths of the world] strength are often the sources of great weakness…” Davids, meanwhile, can capitalize on their weaknesses — many of which actually produce greatness. It’s an evocative thesis, and, as a handful of reviewers has pointed out, a decidedly American one — we love us an underdog.

Gladwell’s weird and eclectic interests shine through in “David and Goliath,” which contains chapters ranging from those about middle-school girls’ basketball to big business to ancient history. Fascinatingly, Gladwell starts with the literal David and Goliath (of the Bible); in his patent patient tone, Gladwell explains why the very qualities that make us see David as the underdog allowed him to triumph. According to the tenets of ancient warfare, Gladwell asserts, David’s slingshot was at an advantage compared with Goliath’s bulky armor. Further, Gladwell diagnoses Goliath with acromegaly, a rare condition that attacks the pituitary gland and makes the sufferer’s body grow large, while causing vision problems. Blind and unable to move, of course Goliath lost!

Wow, who woulda thunk it? Not I, and I’m not sure I believe it now. But it’s an interesting idea.

This pattern continues. Gladwell discusses why dyslexic people may actually be at an advantage — the struggles they have gone through necessitate that they think outside the box and work harder. “You wouldn’t wish dyslexia on your child. Or would you?” Gladwell asks about two dozen times, constantly underscoring his point. He uses the examples of super-lawyer David Boies, as well as Gary Cohn, president of Goldman Sachs, and a few others. In another chapter, also about why difficult childhoods can be advantageous, Gladwell posits that Emil Freireich, one of the pioneers in the treatment of childhood leukemia, succeeded because of (rather than in spite of) his terrible and abusive childhood.

These examples, strange and callous though they may seem, are, again, thought provoking.

It’s worth noting that much of Gladwell’s evidence doesn’t pass the smell test. His position on dyslexia is supported by a handful of anecdotes and a tiny study asserting that dyslexics are overrepresented among entrepreneurs; he mentions but does not dwell on the fact that dyslexics are also overrepresented in prisons, and he doesn’t address at all the virtual absence of empirical evidence to support his claim.

Much of his other evidence is based on faulty assumptions. His chapter on why you should choose a state school over an Ivy League school is predicated on the false premise that “a science degree is just about the most valuable asset a young person can have in the modern economy.” Thus, because you may be more likely to get a science degree at a less rigorous school, you’d be better off going to one. This ignores the plethora of advantages conferred on students at top schools. (He also thinks Martin Luther King, Jr., was some sort of unimpeachable god. He even suggests that crime can be single-handedly prevented by police kindness, which is a beautiful idea, but one that ignores the larger societal flaws causing crime. But I digress.)

Gladwell is a weird guy, and so much of his book is flawed. Yet I assert that this doesn’t matter. Malcolm Gladwell is responsible for popularizing so many important ideas — the 10,000 hours rule, the 80–20 rule, to name just two. In a larger sense, he has given millions the fodder to question whether all is truly as it seems. Gladwell’s books get us talking, which is more than I can say about nearly any of his academic and professional critics. They’re not just jealous; they ignore that his books stimulate important discussions and really get us thinking.

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