So What Makes Malcolm Gladwell Such an Expert?
Gladwell is seen as an expert, but, by his own criteria, doesn't qualify.
Posted Jun 17, 2014
I have to admit that I used to be a fan of Malcolm Gladwell. I read his frequent articles in The New Yorker and several of his early books. I was initially seduced by his apparent breadth of knowledge, cerebral dexterity, and inviting writing style. But the more of his work I read, the more skeptical I became and the more intellectually manipulated I felt. Once I switched hats from enthralled follower to the social scientist that I am, the bloom fell off the rose, as it were, as my feelings shifted from admiration to resentment at having fallen for his smoke-and-mirrors act.
I’m not the first person to be critical of Malcolm Gladwell. In fact, if you type “hate Malcolm Gladwell” in your search engine, you get around 255,000 results. There were rather scathing critiques of him in The Nation in 2009 and in Slate in 2013. David Epstein, the author of The Sports Gene, shot full of holes Gladwell’s now famous “10 years, 10,000 hours to become an expert” theory (here’s another great rebuttal), though Gladwell attempted to deflect Epstein’s argument by saying that Epstein simply misunderstood what Gladwell was saying.
Gladwell certainly has attained fame and fortune from his writings. In fact, he has created an entire genre of non-fiction (usually involving one-word titles); “That book is downright Gladwellian!” How to describe this genre? Think of it as a recipe:
- Start with an appealing social scientific theory that hasn’t found its way out of the ivory tower of academia (e.g., his “10 years” thesis comes from Dr. Anders Ericsson’s work on deliberate practice and what it takes to become an expert);
- Add a novel and often-times contrarian take on some piece of conventional wisdom (e.g., success is due to innate talent);
- Sprinkle in scientific language to give his writing gravitas;
- Cherry pick, generalize, and misconstrue research findings to support his notions and give them an air of scientific credibility; and
- Mix with compelling and poignant anecdotes that tug on our inspirational and aspirational heart strings and further bolster his thesis.
Like others who have criticized Gladwell, you could easily attribute my post to jealousy of his success while I toil away in the muddy trenches of book authorship and public speaking. I’m not going to argue against this charge. What’s the point? My defensiveness will simply confirm to some my obvious envy.
But to offset those attacks, I want to give credit where credit is due. Gladwell is obviously an intelligent fellow and a talented (or is it well-practiced?) journalist. I admire his ability to tell a story and engage his reading audience. He also seems to be a genuinely nice person. Plus, you’ve got to love his hair (a key part of his brand, to be sure). I don’t begrudge him his journalistic successes. However, I do have a beef with how he portrays himself that earns him prodigious speaking fees and extraordinarily large advances for his subsequent books.
Which leads me to my criticism of him and my question about him: So what makes Malcolm Gladwell such an expert? I don’t understand why he is paid what I’m sure are very large sums to share “his” ideas (I use quotes because his ideas are rarely his own) with large and adoring audiences, often from the corporate world (referred to as the Dilbert Circuit) that sees an essential application of every one of his ideas for increased satisfaction, productivity, and profitability. Presumably, Gladwell is hired to give these speeches and share his knowledge, insights, and wisdom with his audience because he is considered an expert on the topic. Here’s the problem though: he’s not an expert. And herein lies his hypocrisy (and more).
Gladwell has argued, famously by now and as I have already described, that to become an expert, one must engage in deliberate practice for at least 10 years and 10,000 hours. Yet, apparently, that rule doesn’t apply to him; he believes himself an expert after just a few months of perusing the theory and research of others in preparation for his next bestseller. Steven Pinker, the noted cognitive scientist and Harvard professor (and himself a bestselling author), calls this the “Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.” (Apparently, after interviewing a mathematician, Gladwell wrote about an igon value rather than, correctly, an eigenvalue). Why doesn’t Gladwell live by his own dictates? What’s good for the goose, as they say, is obviously not good for the gander.
After considerable evidence demonstrating that the ten-years theory doesn’t hold up in physical activities such as sports or music, Gladwell changed his tune a bit stating that, “In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals. Nobody walks into an operating room, straight out of a surgical rotation, and does world-class neurosurgery.” And you can’t just read a bunch of research and interview some experts and become an actual expert yourself. This statement should further indict Gladwell for his double standard.
Gladwell has professed that he doesn’t present himself as an expert, but rather as a storyteller: “I am a story-teller, and I look to academic research […] for ways of augmenting story-telling.” Yet, there is little doubt that people view him as an expert. As the cognitive psychologist Christopher Chabris has noted, based on an informal Internet search, the masses see Gladwell as more influential than Steven Pinker (and, presumably, other legitimate authorities). In other words, Gladwell’s followers (of his books, articles, and speeches), which number in the many millions, believe him to be more of an expert than genuine experts like Pinker. Gladwell has been elevated to the status of preeminent expert, a position, based on his own arguments, he definitively does not deserve.
If Gladwell wants to sell himself as a teller of tales, a synthesizer of others’ ideas, or as someone who brings the undiscovered treasures of the social sciences to laypeople, more power to him. But he drapes himself in the garb of an expert, portraying himself as a “thought leader,” someone who possesses not just information, but also deep knowledge, insight, wisdom about the world. The truth is, though, that he is not. The travesty is that millions of people believe what he says as fact despite the reality that, upon close scrutiny, many of his statements of “fact” fall apart under the weight of the actual evidence. As such, Malcolm Gladwell is not only guilty of hypocrisy, but also perhaps of deceit and fraud.