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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Gladwellian Pop versus Academic Scholarship (or, who is the David and who the Goliath?)

The internet has been bubbling with fascinating debates about the value and merits of Gladwell’s latest book David and Goliath (as a side, I have title envy – one of my subtitles in Chapter 9 of Talent Wants to Be Free is David and Goliath in a Competitive World and in presentations about my whistleblowing scholarship I have a slide titled David v. Goliath. So before the Gladwell book came out I was thinking about using that title for a next project.).

There are different heated strands in the debates to be had about the new Gladwell book, some of them about the conservative tilt in telling heroic stories of overcoming poverty against all odds and reframing of all social challenges as an individual’s opportunity to excel. The Guardian has an awesome parody of
the book that gives you a taste of how absurd and irritating such a zealous message, about overcoming adversity on your own, can get.

But I wanted to raise here a different aspect of the debate which possibly relates to our navel gazing conversations about our role as scholars and researchers. My stance is that there is important and wide room for both serious academic and pop non-fiction, as long as we can tell the difference. Psychologist Dan Gilbert who does both the serious and the pop tweeted yesterday, “Gladwell-hating scientists are like pop-hating classical snobs. Lighten up: it’s just for dancing! MG is the best ambassador we ever had.” There is a lot of benefit from freakonomics style books getting a broad lay audience interested in research and scholarly ideas. The danger lies in not being able to tell the difference, which might be what some commentators are worried about.

I think though many of the haters, to use Gilbert’s phrase, are more along the lines of mainstream haters, the way we commonly use the term - they get a kick out of snobbery or they are simply jealous of Gladwellian popularity. What do you think?

Posted by Orly Lobel on October 30, 2013 at 07:27 PM | Permalink


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Dan, I agree with that. the pop-science can never fully capture the complexities of the research but there are clearly important boundaries and a responsibility to report accurately. And these are indeed good examples of doing it well.

Posted by: orly lobel | Nov 1, 2013 11:01:05 AM

It is not about being a snob .. it is about being accurate about the true state of the science in a given area.

This has been going on for quite a while with Gladwell ...

For example, Duncan Watts thankfully stood up for network science / complex systems in this and related outlets ...

His voice was quite important in debunking "the tipping point"

I am all for popular science -- just so long as it does not do violence to the actual underlying work.

It is easy to be negative so let me just note there are good examples of how it ought to be done.
Here are just a couple:

Posted by: Dan Katz | Nov 1, 2013 9:29:02 AM

I'm astonished that Dan Gilbert could be so stupid, since he's actually done some serious work. But it is an unfortunate diversion from the real issue to invite fact-free specultation about the motives of everyone who has ever criticized Gladwell. The important point, which even his defenders don't really dispute, is that he's an unreliable simplifier, who sometimes misrepresents the research he purports to be relying on, and does so in a way that is quite pernicious. Here is a very good discussion of his latest crap:

Posted by: Brian | Oct 31, 2013 10:48:54 AM

David, a quick check of SSRN suggests that Orly's scholarship has been downloaded more than 10,000 times on that site alone. If no one is reading, how is all that downloading happening?

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Oct 30, 2013 9:16:02 PM

A lot of the reactions I've read to Gladwell are from people worried that readers won't be able to tell the difference between lay discussions and science. The knock is that Gladwell is telling stories, but the resonance and persuasiveness of those stories comes from their purported scientific support. If that support is not there--or worse no one can tell--it becomes distorting of public understanding.

A good example is here: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/10/malcolm_gladwell_critique_david_and_goliath_misrepresents_the_science.html

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 30, 2013 8:28:57 PM

Law professors envious of someone whose scholarship actually gets read? That's unpossible. If you believe that, you'd also believe that a law professor could actually be publicly envious that someone else had used the ubiquitous phrase "David & Goliath."

Posted by: David | Oct 30, 2013 8:01:19 PM

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