Marble Falls Along with millions of other people, I read with some interest Malcolm Gladwell’s early books The Tipping Point and Blink. I’ve certainly read his pieces in The New Yorker, where he is one of their staff writers, and now seems to mostly publish pieces as trial runs for future books, where he is market testing to see if they might strike a chord. I’ve resisted the other books, because the more I’ve read his work, the less I’ve trusted his conclusions based on increasingly sweeping generalizations piled on the thinnest base of facts.
Nonetheless, desperate to find something on Libby, the free audiobook source at my local library, I figured that, while driving, I could weather six or eight hours listening to his 2019 book, Talking with Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know. I didn’t hate it. There were some insights there if you were willing to keep your pan in the stream as you sluiced through all of the rock looking for some flakes of gold.
More interestingly to me, as I listened, was being finally able to settle on an analysis for both why Gladwell’s work is so popular, and why I’ve become so uncomfortable and, frankly, suspicious of his conclusions. Recently, hearing Anna Tsing’s Mushrooms at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, which I unequivocally would recommend, I’ve shared that she made a simple, but profound, point when complaining about the way environmental scientists reject and discredit the work of ecologists, saying in effect that they have “built a wall separating concept and story.” Listening, it came to me that, simply put, Gladwell’s whole journalistic enterprise and business model is totally demolishing any wall between concept and story. Instead, he settles on a concept whether it is the “tipping point” or the “10,000 hours rule” or the “truth-default” among others in Talking with Strangers and then attaches as many stories, related or in some cases seemingly random, to them to convince the reader of the value of the original concept.
It’s ironic. Gladwell’s cautions about how we judge people, make snap judgements, often incorrectly, tend to believe, rather than be skeptical, as the case he wants to make on the concept. He may be less interested in whether or not the reader-listener applies these same warnings to him and his work in absorbing his books and their arguments. He wants us to suck in the simple concepts and yield to stories, that often in and of themselves, given his writing skill, are fascinating, even if they are often insufficient evidence for his arguments. When we apply that test to his work, we’re going to end up not willing to trust the cases he is making.
I get it. He’s got to make a living too, and this is now his business model from magazine articles to books to podcasts and speaking gigs, and it’s working well for him. Doing pop-sociology and pop-psychology isn’t easy, and he’s found a market for it. I’m not saying he’s just a snake oil salesman. He believes his shtick. In fact, my conclusion isn’t so different than his own admission when he says to Jaffe, Eric. “Malcolm in the Middle” Archived 22 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine, psychologicalscience.org, March 2006 that “I have two parallel things I’m interested in. One is, I’m interested in collecting interesting stories, and the other is I’m interested in collecting interesting research. What I’m looking for is cases where they overlap”
Why is this important? Well, because he’s very popular and some readers actually follow his work and take it as advice. Some of his arguments, like those about policing, have real consequences and can lead to support of abuses like “stop and frisk”, which he seems to justify in Talking to Strangers. It’s a nice package, reads smoothly, and sounds good, but it’s brain candy, that might seem solid for a minute, but then melts away. Reading or listening to Gladwell, requires taking him with a big dollop of salt, so press pause for a minute, process it fully, and you may find that not enough of the dots connect to convert these bits and pieces into anything close to a guide for life and the way we need to live it.