The pseudo-profundity of Malcolm Gladwell

The essayist's mania for teachable narrative goes hand in hand with a revealingly indifferent attitude to truth.

Malcolm Gladwell is sometimes criticised on the basis that, although he has a reputation as a thinker, all he does is précis other people’s research. That’s not fair. Popularising academic ideas with style for a broad audience is hardly an ignoble pursuit. The real problem with Gladwell goes far deeper. It is the method that he has helped make ubiquitous in modern non-fiction trade publishing.
 
“Through these stories,” he explains in the introduction to his latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants (Allen Lane, £16.99), “I want to explore two ideas.” The method of “exploring” ideas through stories is now the preferred mode of, or replacement for, serious thought and argument. Unfortunately, it can lead an incautious writer into a conceptual shambles.
 
Gladwell is a brilliant salesman for a certain kind of cognitive drug. He tells his readers that everything they thought they knew about a subject is wrong, and then delivers what is presented as a counterintuitive discovery but is actually a bromide of familiar clichés. The reader is thus led on a pleasant quasi-intellectual tour, to be reassured at the end that a flavour of folksy wisdom was right all along. Little things really can make a big difference; trusting your gut can be better than overthinking; successful people work hard.
 
The art here lies in making the platitudinous conclusion seem like a revelatory place to end up, after one has enjoyed the colourful “stories” about carefully described plucky individuals with certain hairstyles and particular kinds of trousers. (Actual quote: “He is a tall young man with carefully combed dark-brown hair and neatly pressed khakis.”) Such books must thus be constructed with a certain suspenseful cunning. Gladwell likes first to tell an apparently convincing story and then declare that it’s not true, like a magician pulling an empty hat out of a rabbit. Thus does his book begin, relaying the standard version of David and Goliath – plucky shepherd defeating fearsome giant with fortunately slung pebble – and then announcing that “almost everything about it is wrong”.
 
In ancient times, Gladwell writes, the slingshot was a potent weapon and bound to defeat an infantryman such as Goliath, who moved slowly because of all his armour and might even have been suffering from the hereditary disease acromegaly. What made him look strong was what made him weak. The problem with our current way of thinking – for if there were no problems with our way of thinking, Gladwell would surely invent some – is that “we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong”.
 
Do we? Well, if you ever suspected that the weak should play to their own strengths rather than the strengths of their adversaries, you are way ahead of him. You will not be surprised by his subsequent lengthy discussions of “asymmetrical” tactics in warfare or how peaceful protest that provokes overreaction by the authorities can be excellent PR. But banal nostrums about physical conflict cannot be the whole story, for such books must act as keys to all mythologies. So, Gladwell promises that our alleged misunderstanding has “consequences for everything from the way we educate our children to the way we fight crime and disorder”. Consequences for everything! That is the hard sell, the first free rock of intellectual crack.
 
The examples of “everything” include basketball coaching, policing, university science, Martin Luther King, and the Impressionists. (The waft of luxury art-history tourism in the Impressionists sequence is only the most obvious example of how Gladwell is now the non-fiction equivalent of Dan Brown.) The promise that such heterogeneous matter can be governed by one or two big ideas and understood through them constitutes the main attraction of the Gladwellian literary genre. Armed with these “ideas”, you won’t have to think for yourself ever again.
 
One early story Gladwell tells is about classroom sizes. A large class is usually thought to be a “disadvantage” (the abstract equivalent of a “giant”) for pupils, and smaller class sizes are assumed to be better. Surveying studies, Gladwell observes that though really big classes are a problem, there is a happy medium, and smaller classes don’t necessarily lead to better outcomes. This, he explains, is because teachers don’t usually adjust their teaching style to smaller class sizes; instead, they just work less. So, the “disadvantage” of moderately big classes isn’t one after all. 
 
A bizarre coda to this story shows the weaselly potential of Gladwell’s method. Up the road from the state school where he has been talking to a nice teacher, there is a private school, which boasts that its average class size is 12. Oh dear, thinks Gladwell. “Why does a school like [this] do something that so plainly makes its students worse off?” The odd thing is that he simply doesn’t know whether the students there are worse off, because he doesn’t know whether the staff teach in a way that suits their small classes. If they do, then the students won’t be worse off at all. So does Gladwell talk to anyone at the school to find out? He does not. Perhaps he fears ruining the story.
 
Another yarn focuses on a doctor called Jay Freireich, who spearheaded advances in treating childhood leukaemia in the 1950s. Gladwell tells a fascinating, bloody and frightening tale with great verve. Freireich was a maverick who gave sick children untested treatments because they were otherwise certain to die quickly. To understand where this fits into Gladwell’s David and Goliath pattern, we must take a historical detour to the Blitz. (Another important feature of a Gladwellian text is the relentless montage.) Famously, the Blitz did not destroy the morale of Londoners. Why not? Gladwell cites a study. People who suffered “near misses”, when a bomb landed very close to them, were traumatised. But a lot more people experienced “remote misses”, when a bomb landed far off, and this usually gave them a sense of invulnerability. Back to Freireich. His father died when he was very young and his childhood was generally unpleasant. Gladwell assumes that Freireich experienced his horrible youth as a “remote miss” and that this explains his heroism as an adult. “Freireich had the courage to think the unthinkable,” Gladwell orates. “He experimented on children. He took them through pain no human being should ever have to go through. And he did it in no small part because he understood from his own childhood experience that it is possible to emerge from even the darkest hell healed and restored.”
 
The interesting thing about this – apart from it being the kind of gruesomely emetic, cliché-rammed prose that would not be out of place in the trashiest kind of spiritualist self-help book – is that, although Gladwell has interviewed Freireich, he is unable to quote his subject saying anything of the sort. Freireich says he regularly took painful bone marrow samples from the sick children, because “we needed to know if their bone marrow had recovered”. Nothing about feeling great because he had survived the death of his dad; just the single-minded epistemological need of the driven scientist.
 
Nor is Gladwell afraid to tackle the “giant” of dyslexia, which might be a “desirable difficulty” in its own right. How come? Why, because lots of “successful entrepreneurs” and “famous innovators” are dyslexic. Coincidence? “There are two possible interpretations for this remarkable fact. One is that this remarkable group of people triumphed in spite of their disability,” Gladwell remarks, and then hastens to dispose of this boringly un-Gladwellian explanation. “The second, more intriguing possibility is that they succeeded, in part, because of their disorder.”
 
The easiest way to support that “intriguing possibility” would be to cite statistics showing that, proportionally, more people with dyslexia enjoy worldly success than people without. But the data-happy writer doesn’t do that. Perhaps the answer doesn’t fit. Instead, Gladwell offers anecdotes. Here is “one of the most famous trial lawyers in the world”, David Boies. Because he is dyslexic, Boies couldn’t read much at law school, but he became very good at listening to people. People who can thus overcome dyslexia, Gladwell concludes, turn out to be “better off than they would have been otherwise”.
 
Not even Gladwell can run the experiment in which Boies repeats his childhood without dyslexia, to see if he still becomes a high profile lawyer, or maybe a bestselling author of high-concept non-fiction books. So the claim that Boies wouldn’t have done as well if he hadn’t been dyslexic is just cheaply comforting counterfactual speculation, to swallow which one must also assent to the bizarre assumption that no lawyer who can read well is also a very good listener.
 
Somewhat unhelpfully for the credibility of his own style of argument, Gladwell later reveals: “There are a remarkable number of dyslexics in prison.” In a parallel universe, another Malcolm Gladwell is using exactly the same pseudo-reasoning to argue that being dyslexic turns you into a criminal.
 
He is forced into such inconsistency and contortion throughout because there wouldn’t have been a Gladwellian book to write if he had just accepted the proverbial truth that, when life gives people lemons, some are able to make lemonade. (Strikingly, Gladwell the serial study-citer makes no reference to the substantial psychological literature on “resilience”.) Any teenager could also sum up much of David and Goliath by quoting the not-entirely-obscure maxim of a long deceased German: “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” 
 
Gladwell’s mania for teachable narrative goes hand in hand with a revealingly indifferent attitude to truth. The most blatant and unintentionally hilarious example of this comes at the book’s finale, when he tells the inspiring story of André Trocmé, pastor of the French village of Le Chambon-sur- Lignon, who defied the occupying Nazis and refused to give up the town’s Jews.
 
How did Trocmé get away with it? Gladwell acknowledges one explanation: “Philip Hallie, who wrote the definitive history of Le Chambon, argues that the town was protected at the end of the war by Major Julius Schmahling, a senior Gestapo official in the region.”
 
Sadly, this explanation does not deliver the right kind of heart-warming moral. “But the best answer,” he concludes blithely, “is the one David and Goliath has tried to make plain – that wiping out a town or a people or a movement is never as simple as it looks. The powerful are not as powerful as they seem – nor the weak as weak.”
 
This idea is definitely satisfying in stories. (I pictured Obi-Wan Kenobi telling Darth Vader: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”) In life, however, the Nazis did not have much trouble wiping out the Jewish populations of other towns. But this is rather a depressing thought. Gladwell therefore jettisons the opinion of the scholar he says wrote the “definitive history” and decides instead that “the best answer” is the one he just made up to fit in with his uplifting scheme.
 
Malcolm Gladwell has thus done everyone a service by illustrating all too clearly the baleful drawbacks of “exploring ideas through stories”. In doing so, you might, like him, become incapable of understanding the stories in any other way than through the lens of your prefabricated idea. And so, because your idea is never allowed to be challenged by opposing evidence, it will languish forlornly, like Malcolm Gladwell’s, at the level of vapid homily.
 
Steven Poole’s latest book is “You Aren’t What You Eat” (Union Books, £7.99) 
Malcolm Gladwell. Portrait by David Yellen

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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