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Malcolm Gladwell Is America’s Best-Paid Fairy-Tale Writer

The heavily-footnoted uplift of 'David and Goliath'

Amy Sussman/Getty Images

“If my books appear oversimplified, then you shouldn’t read them.” Malcolm Gladwell’s invitation to avoid reading his books, made recently in an interview in The Guardian, has a certain charm. He conveys the impression of a writer who, aware of critics who accuse him of cherry-picking the results of complex academic research to support simple-minded stories, defiantly insists on his right to do something different—to write in what he has described, in a riposte to one of his critics, as “the genre of what might be called ‘intellectual adventure stories.’ ” If his books do not display the intellectual rigor that is supposed to attach to academic writings, Gladwell seems to be suggesting, it is because they serve a different purpose. Interweaving academic research with real-life stories, Gladwell aims—as he puts it—“to get people to look at the world a little differently.” Using the power of a storyteller, he is bringing “the amazing worlds of psychology and sociology to a broader audience,” an exercise that is capable of producing nothing less than a shift in the worldview of his readers.

No one can doubt Gladwell’s ability to reach large audiences. The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers were all tremendous best-sellers, leading some to conclude that Gladwell has invented a new genre of popular writing. In David and Goliath, Gladwell again applies the formula that has been so successful in the past. Deploying a mixture of affecting narratives of struggle against the odds with carefully chosen academic papers, he contends that the powerless are more powerful than those who appear to wield much of the power in the world. To many, this may appear counterintuitive, he suggests; but by marshaling a variety of historical examples ranging from the American struggle for civil rights to the Troubles in Northern Ireland, leavened with homely tales of the trials and triumphs of basketball teams and fortified with forays into sociology and psychology, Gladwell thinks that he can persuade the reader to accept the difficult truth that the weak are not as weak as the reader imagines. If they play their cards right, they can prevail against the strong.

Why this should be thought a difficult view to accept is unclear. There is nothing remotely challenging, for most of Gladwell’s readers, in this story; it is the sort of uplift in which they already believe. The dominant narrative for the last three centuries has been one in which the power of elites and rulers is progressively overcome by the moral force of the common man and woman who sticks up for what is right. Far from being a forbidden truth, this is what everyone thinks. Here we can glimpse one of the secrets of Gladwell’s success. Pretending to present daringly counterintuitive views to his readers, he actually strengthens the hold on them of a view of things that they have long taken for granted. This is, perhaps, the essence of the genre that Gladwell has pioneered: while reinforcing beliefs that everyone avows, he evokes in the reader a satisfying sensation of intellectual non-conformity.

One of the features of Gladwell’s genre is a repeated effort to back the stories he tells with evidence from academic sources—a move that has attracted some of the most virulent attacks on his work. Yet Gladwell has more in common with his academic critics than either he or they realize, or care to admit. Academic writing is rarely a pursuit of unpopular truths; much of the time it is an attempt to bolster prevailing orthodoxies and shore up widely felt but ill-founded hopes. There are many examples of academics who have distorted fact or disregarded evidence in order to tell an edifying tale that accords with respectable hopes.

Consider the celebrated Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb. When they published Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? in 1935, they were not applying rigorous methods of sociological research; they were reiterating the idle prejudices and fantasies that shaped opinion throughout much of the Western world at the time. When, in later editions of the book published in 1941 and 1944, they removed the question mark from its title, they were displaying a confidence that reflected the pro-Soviet mood that prevailed in Britain during World War II and its immediate aftermath, rather than any new findings. Nor were the Webbs at all unusual in forming their theories on the basis of political fads and ephemeral moods. From the 1950s and 1960s onward, a school of sociology developed that promoted “convergence theory”—the notion that the former Soviet Union, along with other advanced industrial societies, would eventually adopt the core institutions of Western liberal democracy. (Francis Fukuyama’s “end-of-history” thesis was an apocalyptic version of this theory.) There was never compelling evidence of any strong trend to this effect, and the upshot in Russia has been altogether different. Of course this has not prevented similar theories being invoked today and applied to China and the Middle East. Appealing to the desire for security from conflict and the urge to believe that our place in the world is underwritten by history, the fantasy that societies everywhere are slowly becoming more like our own shapes the social sciences as much as it has ever done.

Illustration by Rickey Beckett

What is striking about Gladwell’s work is not its distance from academic theorizing but the uncritical reverence that he displays toward the academic mind. He describes himself as a storyteller, but for him the story is never enough; it must be supported, and thereby legitimated, by prestigious academic studies and copious references. He is a high priest in the cult of “studies.” He feels on safe ground only when he is able to render his story into the supposed exactitude of quantitative social science. “How often do you think the bigger side wins?” he asks rhetorically. The reader does not have to wait long for an answer: “When the political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft did the calculation a few years ago, what he came up with was 71.5 percent. Just under a third of the time, the weaker country wins.“

Perhaps this deference to academic authority reveals an underlying lack of intellectual self-confidence in the famously breezy writer. More likely it reflects his unthinking adherence to the idea that science can enable us somehow to transcend the dilemmas of morality and history. For it is not simply that Gladwell appeals to psychology and sociology as sources of intellectual authority. Along with many of those who promote them today, he believes that these disciplines can provide practical guidance—not just policy proposals, but wisdom for living. Psychology and sociology can turn the sayings and parables of less enlightened times into an expanding body of knowledge. Quantitative reason can take over from the fumbling human imagination.

Gladwell is only one among a great many writers at the present time who promote this exaggerated or misplaced faith in science. From those who assure us that the world is becoming ever more peaceful to those who look to grand theories of psychology for solutions to Washington gridlock, the idea that scientific method can be a guide to the perplexed is one of the delusions of the age. More than any tendency to over-simplification, it is Gladwell’s enthusiastic embrace of this delusion that makes his style of writing so tendentious. Scientism has many sources, but central among them is a refusal to accept that intractable difficulty is normal in human affairs. Many human conflicts, even ones that are properly understood, do not fall into the category of soluble problems. No new discoveries in sociology or psychology can enable such conflicts to be wholly overcome; deeply rooted in history, they can only be coped with more or less resolutely and intelligently. Acknowledging this humbling truth is the beginning of wisdom, and of the long haul to something like peace.

The recurring conflict in Northern Ireland is an instructive example. Devoting a chapter to the subject, Gladwell tells the story of the Troubles as a mix of intellectual obtuseness and brutal neocolonial oppression. “In Northern Ireland,” he writes, “the British made a simple mistake. They fell into the trap of believing that because they had resources, weapons, soldiers, and experience that dwarfed those of the insurgent elements they were trying to contain, it did not matter what the people of Northern Ireland thought of them.” As will be clear to anyone with a smattering of historical knowledge of the region, Gladwell’s casual reference to “the people of Northern Ireland” betrays a fundamental lack of understanding. The root of the difficulties of the province is in the fact that it is home for not one people but two: two highly distinct, often antagonistic communities, divided and separated from one another for centuries by different histories and rival allegiances. While initial mistakes by British forces made the situation thornier than it need have been, any resolution was bound to be arduous, messy, and partial.

Telling the story as it appeared to a young newlywed Catholic woman and her family, Gladwell presents the Troubles as being the consequence of British policies. It was not the burden of history, but only the use of force by a British commander in June 1970 that set the region on course for decades of conflict: “what should have been a difficult few months turned into thirty years of bloodshed and mayhem.” (Oddly, Gladwell fails to discuss the much more serious error committed on “Bloody Sunday,” January 30, 1972, when British forces shot and killed a number of unarmed demonstrators in the Bogside area of Derry.) One might imagine, on the basis of Gladwell’s account, that the majority of the casualties of the Troubles were killed by British forces. In fact, around 60 percent of the more than 3,500 people killed between 1969 and 2001 were killed by Republican forces, 30 percent by Ulster loyalists, and 10 percent by British troops. Within this overall figure, British forces and local security services suffered more than 1,100 deaths. If the British were Goliath in this conflict, they suffered a good many wounds in its course.

Gladwell’s account does more than oversimplify. It is a kind of moral cartoon, a rendition of events in which there are no difficulties that cannot be overcome by reasonable men and women of goodwill. He tells us nothing of the lengthy and tortuous path that led to the relative peace that prevails in Northern Ireland today. If only he had been around to have a quiet word with British commanders, Gladwell seems to be suggesting, and share a few academic papers with them, none of the horrors that unfolded need ever have happened.

In Northern Ireland and elsewhere, he is in over his head. The yarns that Gladwell tells bear little resemblance to the tangled realities. This lack of reality, however, is what makes his books sell. It is not that the stories he tells are false. Rather, they belong in a category that is neither true nor false—a species of inspirational nonfiction in which fidelity to reality is of secondary importance, if not a hindrance. Gladwell’s trick is to have made edification seem like empirical research. When, toward the end of David and Goliath, he tells us of a French village that refused to hand over its Jews to the Nazis, his story is indeed inspiring—or it would be, if it really were the simple tale of heroic resistance that he presents it as being.

But it is not that at all. In a throwaway passage, Gladwell tells us himself that the village was in fact being protected by a Gestapo official, who gave the mayor prior warning of raids, and by sympathetic elements in the local Vichy police. By 1943, when the episode occurred, the war on Germany’s eastern front was not going well, and there must have been many in the Gestapo and the Vichy regime who suspected that the tide was turning against them. So this is not just a story of altruism and the impotence of villains. But for Gladwell these complicating facts are irrelevant. What the episode shows, he concludes, is that “wiping out a town or a people or a movement is never as simple as it looks. The powerful are not as powerful as they look—nor the weak as weak.” Determined to extract a consoling lesson, he passes over the perilous contingencies that shaped the actual course of events. Yet the people of the Czech village of Lidice, which was razed to the ground, its inhabitants executed or sent to concentration camps by the Nazis in 1942 in reprisal for the assassination of Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich, were not so fortunate.

The inveterate simplicity of Gladwell’s stories comes not only from a resistance to complexity, but also from a denial of tragedy. This neglect of tragic choices is not just a defect in presentation, though it helps to confer upon his books their peculiar inimitable blandness. Suppressing tragedy is also a refusal to think honestly about power. Václav Havel, who became president of his country after the collapse of the communist tyranny against which he had fought, spoke of “the power of the powerless,” but unlike Gladwell—who nowhere mentions the Czech dissident, perhaps because he was not a social scientist—Havel never underplayed the power of the powerful. He knew that Goliath was genuine and dangerous, not a timorous midget in disguise. In contrast, Gladwell would have us believe that power is a kind of illusion or confidence trick, a misinterpretation. This is a desperately dangerous view to apply in practice. For Tibetans facing becoming a minority in their own country, for Christians in Egypt and Syria, for Bahá′í in Iran, and for other imperiled groups, the power of the powerful could be potentially fatal.

Reading Gladwell’s blithe assurances about happy endings for the vulnerable, one is reminded of Martin Buber’s rejoinder to Gandhi, who had urged Jews in Germany to practice non-violence against the Third Reich of the sort he was using against the British in India. “A diabolic universal steam-roller,” Buber explained, “cannot thus be withstood.” Earlier in the letter, Buber asked Gandhi: “Do you know or do you not know, Mahatma, what a concentration camp is like and what goes on there? Do you know of the torments of the concentration camp, of its methods of slow and quick slaughter?” The Mahatma did not want to know. It seems that many of Gladwell’s readers, in their less extreme circumstances, adopt a similar attitude toward the world. Unwilling to confront the raw facts of power, they prefer to inhabit a fantasy world in which it can be cleverly conjured away.

Gladwell may seem to have devised a new variety of inspirational nonfiction, but it is one that has some clear precedents. He is finally in the self-help racket, and his books belong in the genre of which Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People, from 1936, is the best-known example. There is a never-ending flow of manuals of optimism, offering untold wealth, sexual success, and enduring fame to those who read them and imbibe the lessons they contain. If Gladwell’s writings seem more serious-minded than most of those manuals, it is because his comforting tales of self-improvement and overcoming evil are given a thin gloss of scientific authority. It is this combination, together with the conceit of presenting counterintuitive truths, that makes his work so popular.

Uncharitably, some critics have suggested that this is a genre that risks becoming stale. But the mix of moralism and scientism is an ever-winning formula, as Gladwell’s career demonstrates. Speaking to a time that prides itself on optimism and secretly suspects that nothing works, his books are analgesics for those who seek temporary relief from abiding anxiety. There is more of reality and wisdom in a Chinese fortune cookie than can be found anywhere in Gladwell’s pages. But then, it is not reality or wisdom that his readers are looking for.

John Gray is emeritus professor of European thought at the London School of Economics and the author of The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).