Malcolm Gladwell Gets Gushy With Glenn Beck

I find this clip amazing and unsettling. I’ve not read David and Goliath, the book they discuss here. But according to reviews and Gladwell’s own description, it follows the template of his prior books, which mine social science and psychology to create seemingly counterintuitive just-so stories about how people behave and society works. There’s often a moral component to these workes, stronger in some stories than in others. Many readers — and many high-paying lecture audiences — eat these stories up, and even change their behavior (or at least mean to). Most don’t recognize how poorly Gladwell uses the science.

My objection to Gladwell’s technique all along has been that he builds those stories atop cherry-picked, sometimes unreplicated science. And make no mistake: Gladwell does not use science to ‘augment’ his fables, as he claims; he uses science as the foundation for his stories and arguments, drawing on science’s credibility while deploying it in non-credible ways. Many reviewers share my concern; see the snip of Steven Pinker’s review in the link below, for instance, or Christopher Chabris’s devastating takedown in Slate.

This bugged me plenty before. Now it bugs me worse. For if, as Gladwell suggests in this interview, his book is really about the power of faith rather than the power of science (its opposite in many ways), but he is building his argument atop science, while mentioning little if anything about his faith in the book (see update below), then he may be using science not just to sell feel-good fables about behavior and society, but to sell masked religious stories as well. I don’t mind people telling religious stories. I very much mind people telling religious stories disguised as scientific stories. Having not read David and Goliath, I can’t say with certainty that Gladwell is doing that here. But I’m disturbed at his suggestion in this interview that he’s doing so, and at the prospect of how he may exercise this agenda in future writings.

In any case, this is one of the weirdest bro-hugs I’ve seen in quite some time.


Update: Isaac Chotiner, for a nice piece about this Gladwell-Beck interview, actually phoned Gladwell to ask him about faith’s non-explicit presence in the book, and received an email afterwards. Here’s the relevant passage:

What most interested me was Gladwell’s claim about the book’s religious content. On this subject, Gladwell seconded what he had said to Beck, essentially arguing that different people read the book in different ways. “It’s a very interesting experience—I was in Salt Lake City…and everyone read the book that way,” Gladwell told me. “I must have done six interviews and all they talked about was the faith part. I think it depends where you stand.” He added, in a phrase that one could hear Beck uttering, that “people on the coast” seemed to be ignoring the faith-based aspects of the book….

Gladwell’s book has an index: Neither “faith” nor “God” nor “religion” appear in it. Faith is not mentioned on the cover flap. It’s true that some of the stories he tells involve religious people, but he shies away from religious language and lays almost no stress on the religious dimensions of the various tales.

When I pressed him to identify the spiritual aspects of the book, he more than once mentioned the epigraph, which is a quote from the first Book of Samuel. (There is also the title, of course.) When I pressed for more, he said there was not a “specific passage of the book,” but that the idea of faith coursed through it. He used none of the language that he used with Beck, where he stated, “Sometimes people of faith don’t understand how powerful their faith makes them.”

Chotiner’s piece is well worth the short trip over.


Also: Marc Abrahams, editor of the improbably named Annals of Improbable Research (type that carefully, folks) and ringmaster for the IgNobel Prizes, tweeted that the Gladwell-Beck conversation above reminds him —  ignoble suggestion, this — of the Weird Sisters from Macbeth. Here is that scene as directed by Roman Polanski. Personally I think the sisters here don’t very closely resemble Gladwell or Beck. But the look on Macbeth’s face as he listens to them? Mine, as I listened to Gladwell and Beck, probably held one alike.

Links in this story:

Malcolm Gladwell finds his faith, by Jerry Coyne

Malcolm Gladwell critique: David and Goliath misrepresents the science, by Christopher Chabris

Malcolm Gladwell Visits Glenn Beck, Finds Religion | New Republic, by Isaac Chotiner

And elsewhere here at Neuron Culture:

Bad Gladwell, Dead Bodies Beautiful and Sad, and Other Juicy Links

Is this where Gladwell wanders astray?

Malcolm Gladwell: Twitter, You’re No Martin Luther King

A highly interesting review of Gladwell’s “Outliers”


1 Comment

  1. My first encounter with a compelling critique of Gladwell was in 2008, in a Slate article by Jack Shafer on The Fibbing Point.

    More recently, I was following Carl Zimmer’s tweets (and responses) regarding David and Goliath, and stumbled across a collection of other amazing and unsettling claims regarding Gladwell:

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