David and Goliath

I’m currently about half way through Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath. The core of his thinking appears to be that where we often see the underdog as having disadvantage against the overdog, actually what are often regarded as advantages can be anything but. It’s thought provoking, and as ever with Gladwell incredibly well written. He’s a journalist who can tell a hell of a story.

That seems to be raising ire amongst some, particularly in the academic community. See this from Paul Raeburn at MIT – Why we should stop believing Malcolm Gladwell.

For me, the views against Gladwell – namely that he picks and chooses his academic sources to substantiate his arguments – picks up on a crucial difference between truth and fact. Truth isn’t necessarily grounded in fact: take Aesop’s Fables, for example. Or, except for the most religiously devout, The Bible. Storytelling is part of being human. And understanding “facts” is far more subjective than many would at first think anyway.

Even in science, it’s often a death of a generation that is needed before challenging views of truth and fact will be accepted: Copernicus’s heliocentric model of the solar system was derided by his contemporary peers and it wasn’t until a new generation of scientists matured that his views became widely held by others. The Earth being at the centre of the “solar” system was both truth and fact until that generational change had happened, and then it was neither.

I also wonder if academics who deride writers like Gladwell as being mere “popular” science have a sense of jealousy that he is able to achieve success and real acceptance of his ideas when they struggle to adapt their world and culture to a broader audience? It’s great to have the greatest academic insight ever, but if you can’t articulate it to people outside of your specialism, and you don’t win a Nobel Prize, what does that insight achieve? And you shouldn’t think that people who don’t follow a pure academic model are the only people who can have insight that is valuable to the world.

One thought on “The Malcolm Gladwell Effect

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