From Language Log:
The Gladwell pivot
Below is a guest post by Mark Seidenberg on Malcolm Gladwell's recent book, David and Goliath, which promotes the idea that apparent disadvantages are often actually advantages, and in particular suggests that dyslexia might be be Good For You.
This piece is commentary on a chapter about dyslexia in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book. I don’t follow his work closely, and the book is being reviewed and critiqued everywhere, but I thought the chapter merited a response from somebody, like me, who studies dyslexia and works with local advocacy groups for dyslexics and their families. The chapter deserves s a line-by-line analysis; what I’ve written only mentions the main issues. The document incorporates several key points that were handed to me by Maryellen MacDonald, for which I thank her, a lot.
__________________________Language and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab
__________________________University of Wisconsin-Madison
Malcolm Gladwell, the immensely popular writer, has just released his latest best-selling book. Gladwell mainly writes about aspects of human behavior that are studied by researchers in psychology, neuroscience, sociology, and related fields. He has perfected a literary form that might be called the nonfiction short story (by analogy to Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel”). Each chapter (or New Yorker article) explores an interesting, usually counterintuitive, idea by means of an engaging narrative, woven out of several types of cloth: personal biographies, telling anecdotes, research studies, expert opinions. The stories are exceptionally well told; it is a remarkable feat to turn an issue like the impact of practice on expertise (Outliers) into a page-turner.
The gripe about Gladwell is his selective use of such information—not letting facts get in the way of a good story. A different story, certainly a more nuanced one, would result if other studies, other personal narratives, other experts had been considered. The average reader is not aware of what has been left out and thus can be easily mislead. His selective use of the research literature turns scientific findings into another form of anecdote. This is particularly bothersome to scientists whose own first commandment is something like: thou shalt address all relevant evidence, not merely the findings that support the most interesting, attention-getting hypothesis.
But so what? The man is writing popular books for a general audience, not reviews of the scientific literature. He introduces people to fascinating topics they might not otherwise have known about or considered interesting enough to merit attention. He offers novel, surprising perspectives on topics that everybody wonders about, like the bases of extraordinary success. Gladwell is like a lot of journalists and public intellectuals whose greater commitment is to what is interesting, not necessarily true. Gladwell isn’t obligated to consider competing perspectives or contradictory findings. His only obligation is to engage his readers. It’s hard to build a compelling narrative out of “on the one hand this, on the other hand that,” even if that would be the most accurate characterization of what is known about a topic. Nothing is gained if people won’t pick up the book. Such books are valuable because they’re stimulating: readers are moved to think and talk about important questions, situations, and events. There are plenty of easily accessible sources for readers who want to know more. Besides, there is always some truth to what he is saying; the evidence may be circumstantial but he doesn’t just make it up. And the books are enjoyable: vivid characters, surprising findings, and anecdotes to share around the water cooler. It’s all benign.
Gladwell gets a lot of grief, but he does his job Damnwell. Reading is good. Knowledge is good. Enjoyment is good. Take the book for what it is and have fun. Or go read a novel.
But here’s something to consider. What if in telling one of these stories, the author inadvertently made life much harder for a large group of people who are disadvantaged in some way? What if it resulted in fewer people being able to overcome that disadvantage? What if it added to the considerable burdens that such individuals and their families already experience?
Could the Gladwell treatment be harmful to children?
There. That was my attempt to execute the famous Gladwell pivot, whereby he sets up an issue one way and then flips it around. You might have missed it because I’m an amateur, but here is the point:
Chapter 3 of the new book is about developmental dyslexia. It’s titled after David Boies, one of two dyslexic superachievers who are profiled. The chapter’s setup is this: Dyslexia is a serious disability. Lots of people struggle with it. Having a brain that’s wired to make it hard to read is a big liability.
The pivot is: [It being such a debilitating condition] “You wouldn’t wish dyslexia on your child. Or would you?”
Gladwell then develops the Idea that dyslexia might be a “desirable difficulty”, a condition that is usually a liability but can also be the engine for extraordinary personal success. He says that it’s hard to believe that the condition could be considered desirable given how many people struggle with it. But Gladwell is impressed by fact that “an extraordinarily high percentage of entrepreneurs are dyslexic”. And he is impressed by people like David Boies, the most successful, accomplished person at the top of a very high legal pyramid, who identifies as dyslexic. Boies is the dream-team litigator who worked on a slew of historic cases, including the IBM and Microsoft anti-trust cases, Gore vs. Bush, and the overturning of California Prop 8....MORE