Malcolm-Gladwell-pic-smallJohn Gray, emeritus professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, writing in New Republic:

What is striking about Gladwell’s work is not its distance from academic theorizing but the uncritical reverence that he displays toward the academic mind. He describes himself as a storyteller, but for him the story is never enough; it must be supported, and thereby legitimated, by prestigious academic studies and copious references. He is a high priest in the cult of “studies.” He feels on safe ground only when he is able to render his story into the supposed exactitude of quantitative social science. . . .

Perhaps this deference to academic authority reveals an underlying lack of intellectual self-confidence in the famously breezy writer. More likely it reflects his unthinking adherence to the idea that science can enable us somehow to transcend the dilemmas of morality and history. For it is not simply that Gladwell appeals to psychology and sociology as sources of intellectual authority. Along with many of those who promote them today, he believes that these disciplines can provide practical guidance—not just policy proposals, but wisdom for living. Psychology and sociology can turn the sayings and parables of less enlightened times into an expanding body of knowledge. Quantitative reason can take over from the fumbling human imagination.

Further:

Gladwell may seem to have devised a new variety of inspirational nonfiction, but it is one that has some clear precedents. He is finally in the self-help racket, and his books belong in the genre of which Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People, from 1936, is the best-known example. There is a never-ending flow of manuals of optimism, offering untold wealth, sexual success, and enduring fame to those who read them and imbibe the lessons they contain. If Gladwell’s writings seem more serious-minded than most of those manuals, it is because his comforting tales of self-improvement and overcoming evil are given a thin gloss of scientific authority. It is this combination, together with the conceit of presenting counterintuitive truths, that makes his work so popular.

Uncharitably, some critics have suggested that this is a genre that risks becoming stale. But the mix of moralism and scientism is an ever-winning formula, as Gladwell’s career demonstrates. Speaking to a time that prides itself on optimism and secretly suspects that nothing works, his books are analgesics for those who seek temporary relief from abiding anxiety. There is more of reality and wisdom in a Chinese fortune cookie than can be found anywhere in Gladwell’s pages. But then, it is not reality or wisdom that his readers are looking for.

You can read the whole thing here.

For those who have read Gladwell’s work: What do you think? Fair or unfair?

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8 thoughts on “Malcolm Gladwell: A Mix of Moralism and Scientism?”

  1. Scott Alexander says:

    Challies just wrote a post on Gladwell’s new book. I’d be interested to hear what he has to say.

    http://www.challies.com/book-reviews/david-and-goliath

  2. Aaron says:

    I haven’t read the newest Gladwell yet. . . but, I’d say “unfair”. I don’t think Gladwell seeks as much as Gray accuses him of seeking. There is a healthy reluctance, deference, and self-depreciation in his writings that aren’t characteristic of the “self help” genre he’s being lumped into here. Gladwell is giving the larger public social science trends they didn’t know they had. . . and showing common dynamics of our modern life that we didn’t know where common.

    1. Aaron says:

      *were common.

  3. Val says:

    Anyone ever research Gladwell’s bio? He has reinvented himself so many times and his theories are so bizarre. I don’t know why he has the ear of the church.

  4. Andrew Faris says:

    JT,

    If people accept Gladwell’s ideas uncritically, then this is a helpful reminder not to do so. But it seems to me that what Gladwell (and the Freakonomics guys) do best is to read and distill academic research with application to how things are.

    The counter-intuitive part is the key to making it all work, as the David & Goliath example illustrates clearly (perhaps David actually wasn’t disadvantaged after all!) I, for one, love hearing that things are not always as simple as they seem, and that we ought to look more closely at things that otherwise seem clear and obvious.

    To me, Gray reminds me of the old-school guys that have been the whipping boys of the modern “Moneyball” approach to baseball. “Don’t tell me what your data and statistics say! I know how this game works!” Anyone who has followed the stat-driven approach to baseball knows now that there have been a lot of theories that the stat-heads thought were right that turned out to be totally wrong despite being supported by their numbers. Nonetheless, embracing statistical study (without abandoning a critical eye) has been central to winning baseball games since its founding.

    Gladwell (et. al.) is not right about everything he says. Of course not. Academic data and studies probably cloud his vision in some cases, or else he interprets them wrongly. But we shouldn’t throw out the whole approach wholesale. We should evaluate each individual claim, knowing that economics, sociology, psychology, and other academic disciplines have much to teach us about how people behave, whether or not that claim seems counter-intuitive.

    An all-out, “Gladwell is right” or “Gladwell is wrong” approach is probably not ultimately helpful.

    Andrew Faris
    God-Centered Youth Ministry

  5. craig says:

    “There is more of reality and wisdom in a Chinese fortune cookie than can be found anywhere in Gladwell’s pages.”
    Not sure that statement is totally fair

  6. Roger Ball says:

    Gladwell may be getting a bad rap.

    Here’s a quote from Why We Read What We Read by Lisa Adams and John Heath concerning the self-help genre: “ . . . And perhaps this points to a more radical conclusion: that we are choosing to read these particular books because we are reading for the wrong reasons. Are books capable of doing all we are demanding of them these days? Is reading actually supposed to make us slimmer, richer, more content–indeed, happier? Or does it serve a more limited but deeper purpose–to expand our sensibilities, for example, or to sharpen our vision, challenge our preconceptions, and deepen our empathy for the human condition?”

    Gladwell’s own philosophy appears to support this. Here’s a quote from What the Dog Saw and Other adventures: “Nothing frustrates me more than someone who reads something of mine or anyone else’s and says, angrily, ‘I don’t buy it.’ Why are they angry? Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head—even if in the end you conclude that someone else’s head is not a place you’d really like to be.”

  7. Mark says:

    Isn’t it “Malcolm”, not “Malcom.”

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Justin Taylor


Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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