Saturday, March 17, 2012

Malcolm Gladwell

I’m reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, having sped thru Outliers. A little disappointed with him. While his subject matter interests me, and he’s capable enough as a writer, something seems to be missing.

First off, he lacks cred. He’s ‘just’ a writer. He writes for The New Yorker and was a reporter for The Washington Post. Those stand as decent publications, sure. I assumed when I first heard about him, that he was some science-y sort, “noted sociologist Malcolm Gladwell” sort of thing. With his Bob Dylan pile of curls, he looks the part of focused science guy. No, he’s more like John McPhee, checking out cool stuff, except that he writes in a more theoretical vein. McPhee takes a subject that he is not expert in and studies it from the outside. Gladwell attempts to do so from the inside. It’s a bit counterfeit.

Outliers I picked up at the library and skimmed, albeit with attention. The thesis that the Beatles succeeded because they played a lot in their early years makes some sense. I don’t think that answer covers enough of the question, however, Gladwell and his 10,000 hours. Gladwell patches sensible sounding answers onto the questions he explores, but I’m not sure he does due diligence.

He has a trick that could be patented (tho not by him) of couching his ideas in capitalized words: Outliers, The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor. Doing so boosts the resonance of his ideas, but again, it seems like he only has a surface understanding. In The Tipping Point  he quotes a number of studies. I do not get the idea that he has read all the relevant literature, just uses what he has read as salients for his theorizing.

In The Turning Point  he wins his points by making assumptions then pressing on. He pits Paul Revere versus William Dawes in terms of charisma, that Revere succeeded in rousing the countryside while Dawes did not. Is that accurate? Well, there was a 3rd rider on April 19th, a man coming home from a dalliance (I forget his name just now), who brought the warning to Concord after Revere and Dawes got captured. Gladwell makes no mention of him, so I wonder if he trumps things up.

Gladwell offers the studies he mentions as confirming proof without weighing the validity of them. Makes me leery. He’s a fun read, just not trustworthy.

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