Pop Science, or What's Wrong With Malcolm Gladwell?
I react with scorn when I see Malcolm Gladwell on someone’s bookshelf, or when his work is recommended to me.
This is not totally fair: I too was a Gladwellian, in the dawn of the world (high school) before I came to a man’s understanding of social science and its limitations.
My scorn, then, comes from a shame in having been so duped, in having believed in the wrong thing, the fear that I haven’t fully purged his wrongness from my mind.
But, when pressed, I will admit that he has a place in this ecosystem of ours, even if I wish he did it better.
I’m having trouble writing in specifics about his work because it’s been so long since I actually engaged with it. What I remember is that he takes interesting anecdotes and “explains” them with social science, often using a “one weird trick” kind of inversion where everything falls into place once you drop the “conventional wisdom” strawman. Finally he weaves together these anecdotes and explanations into some grander theory that ends up as the subtitle of the book: that “Little Things Can Make a Big Difference”, or “The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”.
Gladwell should be treated as an extremely biased guide through potentially valuable terrain.
Imagine yourself a prospector in the old West, fresh off the mule ride from San Francisco into the mountains. You want to get a lay of the land from someone who knows the place, can help orient you, even show you what kinds of cliffs might hide the ore you seek. All kinds of unsavory characters might apply. Many will have useful knowledge to share, can point to towards the rivers where gold has been found. But they also might sell you tools you don’t need, rob you blind, or worse.
For a young person, Gladwell can open you up to interesting questions and the seductive idea that social science can be used to address them. But his false certainty, cherry-picking anecdotes, and grandiose attempts to wrap things up into neat conclusions, can mislead you forever. But I cannot recommend him for adults.
Gladwell is not a popularizer or simplifier. When we teach physics we first teach the Newtonian world, then introduce the idea that it’s all wrong, just a simplification, and we need relativity to get the right answers. This is not what he’s doing. His answers are not useful abstractions, or helpful simplifications. They are usually his own theories, or highly distorted in ways that no practical professional would use: unlike mechanical engineers who can safely stay Newtonian.