Book Review - Malcolm Gladwell's critics need the faith of David

Publishing industry Goliath's epic battles with detractors throw monkey wrench in his own pop theory

In the introduction to his latest volume of counterintuitive reasoning, Malcolm Gladwell describes David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants as "a book about what happens when ordinary people confront giants." He spends the next 270 pages attempting to methodically convince readers why underdogs, contrary to popular belief, often have the advantage in such battles. Of course, that logic does not seem to apply when Gladwell is cast as Goliath.

So many have slung mud in his direction in recent years that it's hard not to pile on. Take that crazy hair for starters: Is it more Phil Spector-on-trial-for-murder or Sideshow Bob-from-"The Simpsons"? Then there are the questionable ethics: A journalist making $80,000, according to ''New York magazine, for a corporate speaking gig? That just sounds like a conflict of interest. And don't forget the formulaic writing style: Is there any contemporary writer guiltier of overusing the royal "we"? Apparently, we think not.
Critics gonna critique, as the saying goes. And the substance of Gladwell's critiques is that he relies too heavily on oversimplified social theory sewn together with compelling anecdotes and unquantifiable optimism. Though his detractors continue to grow, they still pale in comparison to the legion of readers who have snatched up a combined total of 5 million copies of his previous releases. The New Yorker scribe and best-selling author's continued obsession with psychosocial phenomena has turned him into a pop phenomenon in his own right — and an apparent exception to his latest rule.

In his new book, Gladwell reinterprets the boy-soldier David, with his speed and agility, as the predicted winner over the lumbering giant Goliath in the age-old tale. He illustrates the advantages of the seemingly disadvantaged in a modern context by using the stories of such underdogs as Vivek Ranadivé, an Indian-born software magnate in Silicon Valley who coaches his daughter's outclassed basketball team to a state championship by turning their offensive weaknesses into defensive strengths.

When publisher Little, Brown and Company released David and Goliath last October, the publicity rollout included a "60 Minutes" profile by Anderson Cooper. The televised version was mostly glowing. But in an extra online clip, Gladwell responded with self-deprecation to criticism that he fails to credit the work of social scientists whose theories he borrows and popularizes for non-academics.

"I'm perhaps as befuddled at my success as my critics are. So, in that respect I see eye to eye with them," he told Cooper.

But he penned a harsher response to the research psychologist who questioned in the Wall Street Journal and Slate "whether Gladwell is accurately conveying the science" behind his "big ideas."

"Chris Chabris Should Calm Down," Gladwell titled the piece, which also ran on Slate. Using his narrative skills and a little Internet research — which uncovered another scathing blog post by Chabris' wife Michelle Meyer — Gladwell threw a personal jab to mock the couple's impassioned crusade against him.

"'Gladwell is a bullshitter,' the blog post concludes," noted Gladwell. "I clearly drive her crazy, too. These are not tranquil times in the Meyer-Chabris household."

Perhaps part of the reason for the vehement backlash against Gladwell is because his oversimplified laws of human nature, be they rooted in science or storytelling, simply don't work for everyone. It's the reason why he's more likely to garner comparisons to such self-help gurus as Dale Carnegie than psychologists like Richard Nisbett, whom he credited in a New York Times Book Review interview as "the most influential thinker" in his life.

As his latest book title suggests, his underdog theory is based in faith as much as fact. Raised a Christian Mennonite evangelical in rural Ontario, the biracial son of a Jamaican mother and English father admits to returning to his own faith while writing David and Goliath.

"I realized what I had missed," he [http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/06/books/review/malcolm-gladwell-by-the-book.html|told Religious News Service last October. "It was a slow realization of something incredibly powerful and beautiful in the faith that I grew up with that I was missing. Here I was writing about people of extraordinary circumstances and it slowly dawned on me that I can have that too."
Maybe Gladwell's would-be Davids could also use a little faith to bring the Goliath of the publishing world down to size. If they're successful, it might even earn them a chapter in his next best-seller.]


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