Malcolm Gladwell Misses the Boat (Again)

A lot of people have been talking about Malcolm Gladwell‘s books lately in the blogosphere. Based on multiple recommendations, I’ve recently finished both The Tipping Point and Blink. He’s an exceptional writer. It’s rare to find intellectual nonfiction of this sort–i.e. books about ideas–that’s as much of a page turner as a good mystery novel. I devoured both books very quickly.

Sadly I don’t think I can trust them. His skill as a writer masks some serious flaws as a thinker and a researcher. In both books, I found major factual and logical errors in the sections that touched on areas that I knew quite well. For instance his recollection of the state of life in New York City in the 1980s in The Tipping Point is seriously out of kilter. I don’t think the facts come close to making the point he’s trying to pull out of them. Now I don’t have the personal experience with his other topics that I do with New York City, but when I catch things I know aren’t true in the parts I do know, I have to wonder about the rest of the material.

He’s recently published an article about stereotypes in the New Yorker. I don’t think I disagree with his conclusions, but the way he gets to them is typically flawed. In particular, read the sections of the article about pit bulls. See if you can spot the problem with his argument.

Here’s a hint: it involves careful selection of facts. His argument is good as far as it goes, and his conclusion may be more accurate than not; but when drawing his conclusions he neglects to address one crucial fact from earlier in the article that would strongly suggest the opposite conclusion. Read the article. It isn’t hard to spot.

4 Responses to “Malcolm Gladwell Misses the Boat (Again)”

  1. left 2 reader Says:

    OK – I give up… What’s the one crucial fact that he neglects to address in the conclusion?

  2. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    Read the second paragraph of Gladwell’s article again. He explains in detail exactly what it is that makes a pit bull different and more dangerous than other potentially dangerous breeds such as Dobermans and Rottweillers. Then at the end of the article he completely ignores this, and claims the problem is not the breed, and that pit bulls should be treated the same as other breeds.

    He’s probably right that “unneutered, ill-trained, charged-up dogs, with a history of aggression and an irresponsible owner” are problems regardless of breed. (though that’s not always the case. See for example, this account of a pit bull owned by an apparently responsible, dog-savvy woman who was not deliberately seeking an aggressive dog nonetheless injuring a child.) However, pit bulls with these characteristics are more dangerous than other breeds with the same issues.

  3. Matthew Jones Says:

    Totally agree. He has a habit of writing articles which challenge conventional thinking and sometimes he is a complete snot about it. He wrote about the history of seat belts and air bags and in the process trashed Ralph Nadar, which I think is pretty rich. In this case I think it’s unfair to go back forty years and criticize Nadar for not having esp. I think any fair analysis would see his work as pretty forward thinking and with a good grasp of human nature. In another he seemed to be making excuses for drug industry policies.

    What is sad is that when someone writes really well as Malcolm does then his ideas are given more credence, even though in many cases he is merely presenting his, often biased, opinion as some sort of stipulated truth.

    This brings to mind another case, the Joel on Software blog. Again he writes really well and therefore he makes for really interesting reading. However very often he presents himself as some expert when again what we are really getting is his biased opinion. You notice subtle but unsubstantiated critisizms, of Java for example (i.e. Java is bad for xxx and I’ll get to that in another blog sometime), and vulgar self promotion.

    I really envy the New Yorker writers as they write so beatifully.

  4. Matt Reynolds Says:

    I noticed the same thing, in a different way, in Tipping Point when he starts talking about vectors and the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

    It went something like :
    1) Ideas are like viruses, and ideas have vectors to spread them
    2) Some guy recently figured out that a particular disease commonly became harmful when HIV/AIDS was present in the human body
    3) This same disease showed up in Europe a few times and didn’t spread
    4) Obviously HIV/AIDS was present in Europe a long time ago, but didn’t spread because of a lack of vectors back in Europe

    The connections, when I look at them harder, seem to fall apart.

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