Gladwell and Goilath: When Great Strength Becomes a Weakness

Hasn’t Malcolm Gladwell had a busy fortnight? His latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, shipped on the first of October. And the deluge of reviews washed out a flood of anti-Gladwell bile. He’s an unusually polarising author, Gladwell. And it looks like some of the criticism has stung.

The idea animating Gladwell’s David and Goliath is the old paradox that our greatest strengths can also be the source of our weakness. And that difficulties and disadvantages, from childhood poverty to dyslexia, can form the crucial ingredient in success.

But what propels the book, like all of Gladwell’s writing, is his intoxicating brand of storytelling. He is the master of mixing familiar elements with surprise counter-intuitions, and then seasoning with a sprinkling of scientific evidence. Here he ruminates on the familiar Old Testament tale from which his book derives its title:

Nobody contests that Gladwell writes compelling, readable books. Books like Blink, Outliers and The Tipping Point that make vast numbers of readers feel smarter, and spawn memetic ideas about the world and how it really works. Any non-fiction author, invited to meet the devil at the crossroads, would open negotiations with a fraction of Gladwell’s sales and influence as a target.

But that awesome strength in narrative story-telling and character-driven non-fiction turns out, in the eyes of many critics, to be Gladwell’s weakness, too. Those critics – many of them scientists, lesser-known authors, and commonly both – consider Gladwell’s too willing to compromise about the “non” in non-fiction. To critics, he seems to take a rather one-eyed view of the scientific evidence: happy to garnish his writing with citations of research that suits his argument. He’s not renowned for exploring nuance, complexity or even evidence that flat-out contradicts his thesis.

Psychologist Christopher Chabris seems to have got under Gladwell’s skin with a multi-barrel onslaught on David and Goliath.

  • First, there was the review in the Wall Street Journal, in which he argues “Malcolm Gladwell too often presents as proven laws what are just intriguing possibilities and musings about human behavior”.
  • Chabris had so much material lined up that he blogged a week later under the heading Why Malcolm Gladwell Matters (And Why That’s Unfortunate).
  • Chabris re-treaded that piece for Slate, accusing Gladwell of deliberately misrepresenting the science.

Three attacks in little over a week irritated Gladwell into a response, again at Slate (Christopher Chabris Should Calm Down). Rather than tackle Chabris’ accusations of misrepresentation on their own terms, Gladwell suggests that Chabris lacks sufficient appreciation of the narrative form.

Chabris should calm down. I was simply saying that all writing about social science need not be presented with the formality and precision of the academic world. There is a place for storytelling, in all of its messiness. My point was that the people who read my books appreciate this. They are perfectly aware of the strengths and weakness of the narrative form. They know what a story can and can’t do, and they understand that narratives sometimes begin in one place and end in another.

Gladwell points out that Chabris has been gunning for him since about the time Chabris and Donald Simons published The Invisible Gorilla: How our Intuitions Deceive Us. Beginning with a piece in which they attacked Gladwell’s Blink. He reveals evidence of a Gladwell obsession in the Chabris household, highlighting an article entitled “Malcolm Gladwell is a Bullshitter”, by Michelle N. Meyer, the wife of Professor Chabris.

Gladwell is too clever to say so directly, but I drew from his self-defence the implication that Chabris’ criticisms are those of a jealous, lesser author. Perhaps one picking a fight with a publishing Goliath in order to boost his own sales and reputation. Even Gladwell’s gracious concession to admire the science that Chabris does implies that Chabris’ strong suit is in doing the science, rather than writing about it.

It all makes for a delectable spat between authors. Not quite as pompous as the famous enmity between Richard Dawkins and the late Stephen Jay Gould (brilliantly covered by philosopher Kim Sterelny), but every bit as entertaining. I hope it will be as illuminating.

Is there a place for Malcolm Gladwell?

Gladwell’s writing isn’t much to my taste. I abandoned Outliers about three pages in, my senses flooded by lyrically-rendered minutiae of sandstone stairs and slate mines in the twin settlements of Roseto, Italy and Roseto, Pennsylvania. But I’m also happy to acknowledge that Gladwell is a master craftsman, an outlier among authors. And if I want to sell more than a few thousand copies of my next book, I realise I could do far worse than attempt to emulate what he does so well.

But I share with Chabris and the sizable anti-Gladwell mob a frustration that Gladwell’s writing over-smooths the messy, difficult world we all seek to understand. And it under-sells the two-steps-forward-one-step-back complexity of real science.

The wonderful term ‘over-smooth’ comes from Andrew Gelman, in the best article I have yet seen on the Gladwell-Chabris spat:

Here’s the problem. What Chabris is saying (I think)—and, in any case, what I’m saying—is that the messiness of reality is a key way that stories work in conveying information and overturning our preconceptions.

When I wrote that some of Gladwell’s stories are over-smoothed, my problem was not that Gladwell was not academic, or that he had too much messy reality in his books. Rather, my problem (and, I think, Chabris’s as well) was that Gladwell’s stories were not messy enough! Fables are fun, but the real world can be much more interesting.

In the end, I’m pleased that authors like Gladwell write, and enjoy a wide readership. Their books stimulate plenty of genuine thought, and they build third-culture links between artful storytelling and real science.

They certainly trump the vast majority of books shelved under non-fiction in the book stores I visit. Most of which range from useless to downright harmful: any kind of management handbook, the vast majority of diet books and nearly all relationship claptrap. And that’s before we encounter the stuff that only gets filed under non-fiction through mischievous irony: The Secret, any book with Mars and Venus in the title, and the entire oeuvre of Deepak Chopra.

I’m glad people are reading Gladwell, rather than complete rubbish. But readers are smart and they deserve a chance to read the most genuine and honest attempts to interpret the world as it actually is. Gladwell, himself, describes his work as a ‘gateway drug’ – an entree to the real popular science. I’d love to know if Gladwellian non-fiction that dominates New York Times bestseller lists, all character-driven and bristling with narrative style, actually builds the market for more serious, less over-smoothed authors. I tend to side with authors who think a dollar spent on a Gladwell book is a dollar not spent on theirs.

Just as I’m glad there are people who read Gladwell instead of garbage, I’m equally grateful to folks like Chabris and Gelman who yap at the heels of authors and keep them honest. Non-fiction authors have a duty to try not to be wrong.

But one of my own guiding principles is a quote from the great ecologist Bob MacArthur:

There are many worse things than being wrong. One is to be trivial.

Like him or not, Malcolm Gladwell is decidedly non-trivial. But, as Gelman suggests, he could do us all a favour by loosening up:

Try resisting the urge to tie every story into a bow. Let some of the loose ends hang out. I think that’s what Chabris is trying to say.


Like, love or loathe Gladwell? Let me know why in the comments or on Twitter (@Brooks_Rob)

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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Religiosity more about reproduction than cooperation

The Bahubali monolith of Shravanabelagola in Karnataka, India. A holy site of Jainism. Probably the most impressive religious monument I have ever seen. Wikimedia commons.
The Bahubali monolith of Shravanabelagola in Karnataka, India. A holy site of Jainism. Probably the most impressive religious monument I have ever seen. Wikimedia commons.

Why do religious beliefs vary so broadly? I’m not talking here about the near-cosmic diversity in the content of religious belief, number and identity of deities, or types of practice. Rather, I’d like to consider why some individuals seem fervently devout while others seem devoid of any superstition.

This question informs the bigger issues of how religions arise and spread, wax and wane, and what effects they have on contemporary society. One popular idea holds that religious belief enhances trust and cooperation within societies. Congregations often take an interest in the welfare of their members, and of others outside the flock. And religious texts contain injunctions in favour of neighbourly love and against homicide, theft and greed.

For many, belief in an all-seeing deity acts to deter bad behaviour. Many genuinely struggle to understand how atheists might be “good without gods”. I wrote last year about a study showing that being reminded of secular police presence can erode much of the mistrust the devoutly religious feel against atheists. When the cops are on the job, believers lighten up.

If the chief function of religion is to establish and enforce cooperative behaviour, then perhaps religions flourished by building healthy, cooperative and fair societies? These societies, in turn, succeeded commercially and in competition with their neighbours. Leaving those neighbouring societies to adopt the successful religion or something similar, or to wither and succumb.

As prominent Evolutionary Psychologist and co-author of a new study (more on that later), Robert Kurzban writes:

Of course a link exists between religion and cooperation, if only insofar as members of organized Western religions really do tend to cooperate with their co-religionists. Members of religious organization cooperate in any number of ways, of course, from bake sales to fund renovations of the nave to cooperative child care to going on Crusades.

But scholars differ on the importance of cooperation. Where some studies support a link between religiosity and cooperative morality, many others fail to find such links. Perhaps other functions of religion act in equally, or more important ways?

Perhaps religion flourishes by influencing reproduction? Religious teachings often concern themselves – sometimes creepily so – with matters of sex, reproduction, parenting and family life. One need only keep half an eye on the U.S. Republican Party to see what I mean by ‘creepy’. But were aren’t immune to reproduction-fixated politicians here, are we Reverend Nile?

Perhaps religion functions to enhance reproductive success? The Abrahamic religions and some animistic African practises, for example, obsess about the certainty with which a father can know that the children his wives bear also inherit his DNA.

Religious doctrine about marriage, contraception, fertility and gender roles might serve to support parents, or at least to enhance fertility. Since the dawn of agriculture, which also spurred the rise of major religions, families and societies that have grown fast have tended to supplant their slower-growing neighbours. Religious practices that supported their flock to ‘go forth and multiply’ would have outpaced their less reproductively-obsessed competitors.

In 2008, Jason Weeden, Adam B. Cohen and Douglas Kenrick suggested that religious attendance in the U.S.A. is a form of reproductive support. In a sample of over 20,000 people, religious attendance trumped other moral issues, as well as well-known demographic correlates such as age and gender, as predictors of religiosity. They suggested that individual commitment to investing in having and raising children (as opposed to enjoying a freer and more varied sex life and family arrangements) spurs greater in religious attendance. And attendance promotes marriage, monogamy and high investment in child rearing on believers.

The U.S.A. is only one country, however, and a rather odd one at that. Two recent international studies have extended tests of the links between religion, cooperative morality and reproductive morality to much larger and more diverse samples of people.

First, in 2011, Quentin Atkinson and Pierrick Bourrat showed that00089-9/abstract) cooperative morals such as ‘Avoiding a fare on public transport’, ‘Cheating on taxes if you have a chance’ or ‘Married men/women having an affair’ correlated with religious devotion in a sample of over 200,000 adults from 87 countries (from the immense ‘World Values Survey’ database).

They found that:

  • Those who believed in deities were less likely to rate moral transgressions as justifiable than non-believers.
  • Those who believed in heaven / hell also held stronger beliefs about the unjustifiability of moral transgressions.
  • Believers in a personal God rated moral transgressions as less justifiable than those whose belief centred on a deity as a Spirit or Life Force.

They interpreted this finding as support for the idea that religions enhance cooperation by imposing an idea of ‘supernatural monitoring’ and ‘fear of supernatural punishment’.

Christianity, like many religions, has long had an intimate relationship with sex, virginity, conception and family life. Paolo de Matteis – The Annunciation (1712)
Christianity, like many religions, has long had an intimate relationship with sex, virginity, conception and family life. Paolo de Matteis – The Annunciation (1712)

The brand-new paper, by Jason Weeden (again) and Kurzban used the same World Values Survey data, but split the moral transgressions into those that concerned cooperation (e.g., fare evasion, tax evasion, receiving stolen goods) and those that concerned sex and reproduction (e.g. affairs, abortion, contraception, premarital sex).

How subjects answered questions about transgressing cooperative morals still correlated with religiosity, but the correlation between religiosity and ‘reproductive morals’ was about four times as strong and far more consistent across countries. But tellingly, when both cooperative and reproductive attitudes were put into the same statistical model, the effect of the cooperative attitudes disappeared while the effect of reproductive attitudes remained intact. It seems that the forms of morality most directly related to religiosity concern reproduction rather than cooperation.

So, belief in all-knowing deities with the power to condemn you to hell seems to shape people’s attitudes to abortion and extra-marital activity. But it doesn’t make you less likely to fiddle your taxes or drive when you’ve had a drink too many.

This study adds to the emerging picture that religious institutions, practices and doctrines take their shape from human nature. That makes it no concidence that young people often stray from the flock during periods of sexual experimentation and promiscuity, and that many return when they start families. Savvy pastoralists know this, providing creches, mothers’ groups and Sunday schools, making it easy for young families to attend services.

And so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that theocrats so often bang a ‘Family First’ drum.

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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