I’m feeling really ambiguous about Malcolm Gladwell lately. In some ways, it’s related to how GOOD his writing is. He spins a great story. They’re the kind of stories that I immediately want to share with friends at dinner parties. They all have the sort of idea of challenging a perceived notion, backing it up with an engaging interview with someone to prove the point, and a somewhat grandiose but repeatable and understandable argument.
I devoured all of his articles up online on the New Yorker and was particularly taken with his first book, The Tipping Point. The thing is that he’s so popular that his arguments are taken not as interesting theories but as fact. The title of this book was so catchy, I’m pretty sure the use of the word ‘outlier’ jumped exponentially after the book was published. Only a few weeks ago, I read a reference to the argument in this book about 10,000 hours needed to master a subject. I think this idea described in this book has been visible and discussed ever since Outlier’s publication in 1998.
He also has the ability with his writing (as mentioned in a blurb on the back cover from The Times) to make it feel like you’re the smart one making the discovery, rather than being lectured to or talked down. So, while the various ideas in the book make me want to run out and tell everyone what I’ve learned, I worry whether they are accurate or not.
His very first argument, that success in the Canadian Junior Hockey League relates to your birthday as much as anything, says that the league will be filled with young men born in the first quarter of the year (with January being the most advantageous). Coincidentally, the nephew of a friend is playing in the WHL, a junior league, and excelling. I looked up his birthday online… and it’s September. Of course, he’s not saying that it’s impossible for someone born in September to succeed in hockey; yet, there’s something in the tone and drive of narrative which seems to lack ambiguity or alternative possibilities.
Another idea about rice cultivation leading to a cultural history of hard work includes a footnote to support his argument, which I’ve written about on my blog, which is presented as fact – but with a little research, it sounds like this idea – that a particular group of people (the Sze Yap, my ancestors) were from an area with less-fertile land and were lower achieving academically – is really very tenuous.
Then again, it’s not his role to argue against himself; I guess it’s the role of active thinkers to not take his arguments as fact, and do some of our own research to see what measures up or not.