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

Photo: Channel 4
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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.