The uncanny valley of Malcom Gladwell

Gladwell is a fun writer, and I like how he plays with ideas. To my taste, though, he lives in an uncanny valley between nonfiction and fiction, or maybe I should say between science and storytelling. I’d enjoy him more, and feel better about his influence, if he’d take the David Sedaris route and go all the way toward storytelling (with the clear understanding that he’s telling us things because they sound good or they make a good story, not because they’re true), or conversely become a real science writer and evaluate science and data claims critically. Instead he’s kind of in between, bouncing back and forth between stories and science, and that makes uncomfortable.

Here’s an example, from a recent review by Andrew Ferguson, “Malcolm Gladwell Reaches His Tipping Point.” I haven’t read Gladwell’s new book, so I can’t really evaluate most of these criticisms, but of course I’m sympathetic to Ferguson’s general point. Key quote:

Gladwell’s many critics often accuse him of oversimplification. Just as often, though, he acts as a great mystifier, imposing complexity on the everyday stuff of life, elevating minor wrinkles into profound conundrums. This, not coincidentally, is the method of pop social science, on whose rickety findings Gladwell has built his reputation as a public intellectual.

In addition, Ferguson has a specific story regarding some suspiciously specific speculation (the claim that “of every occupational category, [poets] have far and away the highest suicide rates—as much as five times higher than the general population.”) which reminds me of some other such items we’ve discussed over the years, including:

– That data scientist’s unnamed smallish town where 75 people per year died “because of the lack of information flow between the hospital’s emergency room and the nearby mental health clinic.”

– That billionaire’s graph purporting to show “percentage of slaves or serfs in the world.”

– Those psychologists’ claim that women were three times more likely to wear red or pink during certain times of the month.

– That claim from “positive psychology” of the “critical positivity ratio” of 2.9013.

– That psychologist’s claim that he could predict divorces with 83 percent accuracy, after meeting with a couple for just 15 minutes.

And lots more.

There’s something hypnotizing about those numbers. Too good to check, I guess.