CJR: “Criticism of Gladwell Reaches Tipping Point”


Terry McDermott blogs for the Columbia Journalism Review:

Criticism of Gladwell Reaches Tipping Point

… I should add here that my hatred of Gladwell is boundless, at least the equal of any critic, but I, a much more rigorous (and therefore slower and much poorer) writer, at least know its source – pure unadulterated jealousy.

Gladwell’s earlier books The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers have been publishing phenomena. Tipping Point alone has been on bestseller lists for five years. Gladwell in many ways is the social science equivalent of the New York Times foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman, another favorite target of critics whose books sell huge numbers. Both are popularizers, in some sense hucksters, adept at phrase-making and simplifying (and often over-simplifying) complex subjects. A key difference, however, is that when Friedman is wrong, he helps start wars. When Gladwell makes a mistake, he dilutes public understanding of science – not a good thing, surely, but he’s a feature writer; that’s what they do.

There is plenty of reason to criticize Malcolm Gladwell, but you get the sense that his chief flaw is being popular.

The comparison to Tom Friedman is a valid one.

Still, “being popular” correlates with being influential. That Malcolm is a tireless and influential proponent of wrong ideas is a problem, especially as his ideas take on (particularly in his most recent bestseller Outliers) an increasingly coherent and politicized form that reinforces and extends the dumbest tendencies in the conventional wisdom.

From the standpoint of the general welfare, there are two potential solutions for the Gladwell Problem: either Malcolm becomes less wrong or he becomes less influential. I would prefer the former solution, but Malcolm seems hellbent on the latter.