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Malcolm Gladwell Has a Theory for Everything—Except Inscrutability

The pop-sci writer’s new ‘David and Goliath’ peddles counterintuitive stories but lacks a soul

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My wise father told me long ago that you can keep giving the same sermon so long as you change the stories. Stories, he said, are what people remember.

Malcolm Gladwell tells a good story. In David and Goliath, the New Yorker writer and best-selling author of Blink and The Tipping Point tells many of them, in fact. The stories range across different disciplines and feature interesting characters.

But there is an addendum to my father’s bromide: If you change the stories while pretending they all make the same point, when in fact they make different and even contradictory points, you risk undermining the whole sermon—and maybe even call into question your role at the pulpit.

***

A book titled David and Goliath should be about the triumph of the underdog. Except in the original story from the biblical book of Samuel, as Gladwell rightly points out, the moral is not so simple. Small though David may have been, discerning readers have always understood that in his cunning way, he actually had an advantage. While Goliath lumbered along, a colossus in armor, David brandished a long-range weapon. A sword is not much good against a well-aimed projectile. Given the accuracy (which Gladwell documents) of a “professional slinger,” Goliath never stood a chance.

At this point, we might assume that this book is about how apparently intimidating or obvious advantages do not always prove to be so. And that is sort of the announced theme: “There is a powerful lesson in that for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and strong are not always what they seem.”

Except that is not the theme, or at least not consistently, of Gladwell’s latest. For we go on to hear stories about the myth that classroom size is a crucial determinant in education; the tragic story and mistaken theory behind three-strikes rules; how the Impressionists teach us that it is better at times to be a big fish in a small pond than a little fish in a big pond (OK, you might have known that without the Impressionists, but it is a good story); how police in Brownsville bringing at-risk families Thanksgiving turkeys did more for effective policing than heavy-handed tactics; and the ways in which maverick researchers indifferent to the scorn of others figured out how to give chemotherapy cocktails that successfully treated leukemia. Each of these stories and several more are engaging, with colorful personalities and fluid writing. Gladwell is the impresario of the anecdote. He arranges and presents them brilliantly.

And yet in a book with many emphatic assertions, there does not seem to be a point. I suspect the real theme of the book is the victory of the counterintuitive. David and Goliath is a parade of the presentational slight-of-hand that is very popular these days: You might think this but (flourish of anecdote, social science data, and a chart) this is the real truth. (Slate has made the move a trademark of its content.) Gladwell’s subtitle, “Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants,” gives the game away—this book is, in the end, about every struggle that seems lost that people actually win, or every tactic that seems doomed that in the end succeeds.

Which is a pity, because there is a deeper point to the David and Goliath story that points to a problem with the Gladwell school of omni-explanation. Ultimately the story is about the very thing that is inadmissible in the pop social science/statistics universe—inscrutability.

Why does David show up at the field to challenge the giant? His father has sent him there to check on his brothers. Saul, who is the failing king, is without resource. No fighter would take his chance against the Philistine champion. There is in David’s challenge—as in the mythical echo of King Arthur pulling the sword from the stone—an affirmation that this battle is in accord with the unfathomable designs of God.

The relentless demystification of human behavior represented by Gladwell’s book carries with it this danger: that we feel ourselves on the verge of figuring it all out. Which we’re not.

***

The final story Gladwell tells is the well-known one of the WWII heroics in the village of Le Chambon. He tries to explain both why the villagers hid their Jews and why the Nazis, who apparently knew of the hiding, did not simply come in and raze the village. Here one feels the startling inadequacy of the explanation, so much so that the chapter feels unfinished, because Le Chambon represents the full mystery of human goodness, which can be explored or explained but never truly understood. There are no categories for transcendent goodness or miraculous deliverance.

One would not expect to open a book by Malcolm Gladwell and read of sin and redemption. But closing this mélange of tale and fact one cannot help but feel how impoverished our view is if it excludes a theological view of man. This need not necessarily mean a specifically religious view, but one that understands that cruelty is not environmental deprivation alone and righteousness is not simply an evolutionary strategy. The sunlit plane of social science is now and again ill-suited to the darkness of life.

There is a Hebrew phrase, haikar haser min hasefer—the essence is missing from the book. Somehow in this book that looks so engagingly at so many sides of human nature, it felt as though the essence was missing.

When David triumphed over Goliath the Jewish tradition understands the message to be God’s for the small nation of Israel: Though you seem weak I will be with you. You will suffer and you may never understand, but in the end you will endure. That is the kind of story of which my father would have approved—one that can be told in many different guises, time and time again.

***

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Malcolm Gladwell Has a Theory for Everything—Except Inscrutability

The pop-sci writer’s new ‘David and Goliath’ peddles counterintuitive stories but lacks a soul

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