Malcolm Gladwell's New Book Falls Victim to the Big Idea

Malcolm Gladwell - Getty - H 2016
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'Talking to Strangers', the celebrated New Yorker writer's first book in six years, is stuffed full of the facts and factoids the author is famed for but it doesn't trade in the business of truth, writes the Hollywood Reporter's executive editor Stephen Galloway.

At the beginning of Malcolm Gladwell’s massive bestseller Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, the New Yorker writer, podcaster and intellectuals’ pinata tells a riveting story.

“In September of 1983,” he recounts, “an art dealer by the name of Gianfranco Becchina approached the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. He had in his possession, he said, a marble statue dating from the sixth century BC. It was what is known as a kouros — a sculpture of a nude male youth standing with his left leg forward and his arms at his sides. There are only about two hundred kouroi in existence, and most have been recovered badly damaged or in fragments from grave sites or archeological digs. But this one was almost perfectly preserved.”

Over the following pages, Gladwell describes what happened next as the Getty began an investigation, comparing the kouros to others that had been found, looking into its provenance, examining a sample of the marble with a high-resolution stereomicroscope — everything needed to prove the piece was legitimate. In 1986, the museum agreed to buy the kouros — for $10 million, it was reported later. There was just one problem: the kouros was a fake.

How do we know? Because a handful of experts intuitively sensed something wasn’t right. When Georgios Dontas, head of the Athens Archeological Society, saw it, Gladwell tells us, he “felt a wave of ‘intuitive repulsion.’” Further analysis proved him correct: letters tracing the sculpture back to a Swiss doctor turned out to be fraudulent and the seemingly ancient marble could have been aged merely by using potato mold. In just a few seconds, in other words, Dontas guessed right what all the research had gotten wrong, understood “more about the essence of the statue than the team at the Getty was able to understand after fourteen months.”

That’s proof positive, says Gladwell, of his book’s main point: that “decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.”

The author’s skill in weaving that argument around innumerable odd and intriguing yarns made his 2005 work a sensation, even if many people, then and since, have questioned its validity. Now comes a new book that essentially demolishes its argument, with this intriguing twist: it’s written by Gladwell himself.

In Talking to Strangers, his first full-length work in six years, he warns of the risks of snap judgments. Misjudgments, misinterpretations and mis-translations abound in the tales he picks, from that of the white cop who arrested Sandra Bland (an African-American who was then found hanged in jail), to the one about a CIA agent who was also a Cuban mole, to my favorite: the story of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s first meeting with Hitler in September 1938.

As always, with his narrative gift and eye for the telling detail, Gladwell peppers his work with unforgettable facts, or at least factoids (who knew that Churchill and Hitler “twice made plans to meet for tea, but Hitler stood him up on both occasions”?), before reaching his conclusion: that Chamberlain hopelessly mis-read the Nazi leader and walked away from their meeting convinced Germany wanted peace.

“Chamberlain was acting on the same assumption that we all follow in making sense of strangers,” he writes. “[We] look people in the eye, observe their demeanor and behavior, and draw conclusions.” Chamberlain’s intuition “didn’t help him see Hitler more clearly. It did the opposite.”
In other words, he blinked and got it wrong.

Now I’m all in favor of seeing multiple points of view, of having point and counterpoint. But isn’t this the most egregious case of bad blink in history? Forget about ancient Greek sculptures; the Chamberlain tale puts a bullet through the heart of Gladwell’s thesis. And yet he never acknowledges it, never even pays lip-service to the notion that perhaps, just perhaps, his earlier book wasn’t spot-on.

Sure, in Blink he flicks at the idea that, powerful as intuition might be, “it is easy to disrupt this gift.” But that’s not the impression readers walk away with, any more than they’ll walk away from Talking to Strangers with the impression that one’s immediate instinct is usually right

There’s something specious here, an intellectual sleight-of-hand, as if this second book is made up of the parts Gladwell deliberately didn’t include in his earlier one for fear his thesis would topple over. It’s fine for a writer to change his mind, but to knowingly push a falsehood, to advocate a theory while aware it’s full of holes, isn’t that some sort of fraud?

Gladwell has fallen victim to the most dangerous of temptations: the big idea. Big ideas simplify, clarify, reduce. They move through time and space with shocking ease, often irrespective of whether they’re right. They shape people and eras, mass movements and massive events. But they’re as frequently false as they’re real.

The truth is complicated and often contradictory; it winds around life in a thick skein, hard to unravel, often tangling itself up in knots. The job of the journalist is to help untangle it without ever breaking the thread. But I’m not sure that’s Gladwell game. He has immense gifts — a probing, original, questioning mind, an ability to dig up information others haven’t considered and tie it to a broader point. He has a narrative skill nonpareil. But that doesn’t mean he’s in the business of the truth.

A half-truth, the economist Stephen Leacock once warned, is like a half-brick: it carries further. Gladwell knows that better than anyone, and he also knows a half-truth is a whole lie.

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