Friday, September 10, 2010

On Malcolm Gladwell

The book I am currently reading is called Six Degrees.  Published in 2003, it is written by the sociologist Duncan Watts.  It is an engrossing read, peeling back layers upon layers of an entire science I never knew existed.  Every morning, on the drive to work, turning open the book is an act of suppressed excitement.  There is an anticipation of what delightful turn this novel science might take next.  So, you might ask, if this book is all that jazz, why are you talking about Malcolm Gladwell out of nowhere?

Gladwell, you might recall, came out of almost nowhere to become an international celebrity with the publication of The Tipping Point in 2000.  Everyone from the President of the United States to that rather slow guy in your office was carrying the book around.  For a while it was pretty much the 'it' book of the times - the turn of the century book that indeed seemed to symbolize newer intellectual frontiers our race might conquer in the next hundred years.

It took me a little while to fully realize this, but Six Degrees is about the same phenomenon that The Tipping Point had taken on three years previously.  It takes on a broader canvas of network problems than the purely sociological ones that The Tipping Point took on, and it does not list the Gladwell book in its dauntingly long bibliography, but take my word for it, these books are closely related.  And with the passage of a decade since I last read The Tipping Point, it has caused me to evaluate truly what I think of Malcolm Gladwell.

Let me get the basics straight:  I like reading Gladwell.  I own all of his books, and find myself referencing his ideas remarkably often at work.  Here is the thing though - I reference his work sheepishly, almost ashamed to be linking my argument with his.  Reading Six Degrees has only made that feeling of ambivalence, that sense of sheepishness about liking Gladwell stronger.  Once you browse through the depth of insights that have been created in network theory, The Tipping Point starts striking you as singularly shallow, and rather misguided. 

Take the idea of connectors, mavens and salesmen for example.  These are the three categories of 'special' people that Gladwell identifies in the book.  In his version of the story, the specialized skills of these people are what make an idea truly cross the tipping point and become a phenomenon.  Network theory however, is littered with examples from all sorts of fields outside of sociology, in which sudden phase changes take place, tipping something over into an entirely new state almost overnight.  To take a simple breakfast example, when I heat an egg over a frying pan, it transitions over from liquid yolk and white to a solid omelette most suddenly.  The egg doesn't go from liquid to solid in a gradual manner.  It is quite abrupt.  One minute it is all liquid, and the other it is solid.  There has been a tipping point somewhere in there.  A similar thing happens with the spread of epidemics.  They are largely localized in small groups till, at some 'tipping point' they cross over and become full fledged epidemics.  There are many more examples where these came from.  And there is precious little role for 'connectors' or 'mavens' or the like in these processes.  Yet fundamentally, the network mechanics that made a disease an epidemic, or that result in your omelette not being a gooey mess are the ones that make hush puppies popular (if you remember the hush puppies example in The Tipping Point).  What dawned on me when reading Six Degrees is that there are no 'special' skills that tip a contagion over.  There is, instead, randomness.  And the more randomness there is in a network, the easier it would be for an idea to catch fire.

Gladwell, when starting his thesis, started with the famous Six Degrees of Separation study by Stanley Milgram.  In this study, Milgram gave 300 odd people letters that needed to be delivered to a stock broker in Boston, not known personally to the test group.  The subjects were supposed to send the letter to anyone they thought would be socially closer to the target, and the process continued till the letters eventually reached the target.  The result was that it took approximately six steps for letters to get to the target.  Hence 'six degrees of separation'.  Malcolm Gladwell made the curious assertion in his book that half of the letters that reached successfully came through only three of the target broker's friends.  These were, in his mind, the connectors.  Six Degrees gives you an entirely different feel for what went on.  Turns out, Milgram's study was set up ... shall we say, questionably.  The details are less important, but suffice to say that the study was biased (unintentionally) to produce the results that it actually did.  And in fact, the much publicized 'six degress' soundbite was also highly exaggerated, because an overwhelming majority of the letters never reached the target at all.  And all of this is published research.  Which gets me to Gladwell.  Gladwell's theory that there are these pre-identifiable 'special' people who possess skills that make them key to tipping things over, and that these three friends of the target were such 'connectors' seems mighty far-fetched once you go through the details of the original experiment.  Which makes one wonder - Did Gladwell read through the details of the experiment before he drew his conclusions?  Or was he happy to fit the facts around an elegant theory he had in his mind?

The crime rate in New York is another such story.  If you recall, Gladwell makes the argument that the reason the crime rate in NY city dropped so dramatically (in I think the nineties) was the zero tolerance policy the police there had towards petty crime - shoplifting, breaking window panes, graffiti.  'The power of context' Gladwell argued, went on to reduce violent crime in the city.  Steven Levitt, in Freakonomics, takes on this same crime rate data and draws a much more believable inference in my mind.  Levitt links the reduction in crime in NY (and LA and many other major cities that saw similar reductions in that time frame) to the Roe vs Wade supreme court decision.  Making abortions legal, in his view, dramatically reduced teenage childbirth and unwanted, single parent children at the margins of society.  This is what reduced crime twenty years later when that generation entered adulthood.  A much more believable theory, and more consistent with all the facts in the last (like the reduction in LA crime, where there was no 'zero tolerance' policy by the police).  Gladwell, you feel again, has crafted a theory and stuck with it, facts be damned.

Then of course, there was the Eigenvalue controversy with Outliers.  In referencing the concept in the book, Gladwell repeatedly talks of Igon values, demonstrating amply that he has little idea of exactly what the concept is, or how it applies in his current context. 

What do all these prove?  Is Malcolm Gladwell an imposter?

My view:  Gladwell is a journalist, a storyteller.  He sees stories in everyday life and makes them come real.  Does he seem to ignore relevant facts sometimes when making an argument?  Sure.  Does his research into a subject strike you at times as shallow?  Yes.  Does he cherry pick anecdotes that seem to support his stated thesis and ignore every anecdote that doesn't?  Absolutely.

In short:  Gladwell's intellectual credentials are suspect, at best.  But he is interesting.  And he gets me interested in subjects - interested enough to read more and get to understand the real dynamics behind them.  For that, I am grateful.


  1. Very nice written post, J. Thoroughly agree with all you say about Gladwell, though I think you have been too kind in the end. Well-written, well-marketed humbug, is what I feel about 'Outliers' - reads well the first time, but you notice all the flaws if you read it again.

  2. Ooops, typo in first sentence of my comment. I meant 'nicely written'.

  3. The key thing that would make mee buy the next Gladwell that comes out (inspite of this blogpost) is that he soundbites things so well. He creates anecdotes you find yourself talking about. And that is valuable in itself, is it not?

  4. IMHO, "Theory" has nothing to do with "Facts", at least initially. A theory is just that...a conjecture. Something that gets people thinking. Facts may disconfirm the theory, but that is besides the point. A good theory, according to Karl Popper, makes predictions that can be "un"supported by facts...that is, a test of good theory is whether it is falsifiable through empirical testing. That is all we can ask of theory. Good theories prevail till their creators die (see Thomas Kuhn).
    I think Gladwell's crime, if we may call it that, is inducing theory by using flimsy data. But to the extent that he gets you thinking, his theorizing has had its purpose. (Un)fortunately, as a journalist/writer he can get away with theorizing without peer review...lucky sod.

    U-C,V-C, We all See