Neuron Culture

I’ve had mixed reactions to Gladwell’s writing over the years: I always enjoy reading it, but in Blink, especially, when he was writing about an area I knew more about than in his other books, I was troubled not just by what seemed an avoidance of neuroscientific explanations of attention and decision-making, but by an argument that seemed to come down to “The best way to make decisions is the quick gut method, except when it’s not.” I was also troubled by … well, I couldn’t put my finger on it. But Joseph Epstein has:

Too frequently one reads Gladwell’s anecdotes, case studies, potted social-science research and thinks: interesting if true. Yet one feels naggingly doubtful about its truth quotient. So much Gladwell writes that is true seems not new, and so much he writes that is new seems untrue. Preponderantly, what he reports feels more like half- and quarter-truths, because they do not pass the final truth test about human nature: They rarely, that is, honor the complexity of life.

This was certainly the case with Blink, as shows glaringly if you consider it side by side with Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide, which covers the same basic topic — how we make decisions — in a way that’s just as fascinating, just as anecdote-rich, but much more cognizant of the breadth and course of the science on the subject.

It’s not just that Lehrer’s book comes later and is more up-to-date. It’s that he looks at the science harder and more fully. Someone observed of Gladwell — I can’t recall the writer or the publication — that he seems avoidant of science that is at all technical, lest it gum up the fine simplicity of his sentences and smooth flow of his prose. I think there’s something to that, and it explains why he came up with a relatively facile answer to the question of how to make good decisions (in a blink, except when that doesn’t work) rather than showing, as Lehrer did, not only that the best mode depends on the situation but that the art of deciding well is the art of recognizing which decision-making strategies and tactics will work best in a given situation.

There are strong lessons about science writing here, or about writing well on any complex subject.


Comments

  1. #2 David
    March 23, 2009

    Well said, and I’m glad you said it. I’ve been concerned (particularly after “Blink”) that Gladwell has established a precedent for ‘soft shoeing’ science. I enjoy his writing, but it’s formulaic, almost as if designed to be quoted in business seminars and sprinkled throughout Forbes articles.

    When I read Robert Burton’s “On Being Certain”, in which Burton sternly takes Gladwell to task on his shallow treatment of neuroscience in “Blink”, it was if someone shook me a few times to open my eyes. I realized that Gladwell is such a stylish writer that he casts a sort of spell on readers that allows him to gloss over the deeper aspects of a subject with charming anecdotes and well-placed prose. Hey, for a four-hour plane ride, nothing’s better than that sort of writing — but when it comes to really understanding a topic, Gladwell is at best a starting point. The problem is, most who read him will assume that he’s covered the topic to its fullest extent (such is the ‘spell’ of his prose) and it’s not until (and if) you come upon a Lehrer or other more trenchant writer that you realize how much of the topic has not only not been covered by Gladwell, but in a sense has been mischaracterized.

    That’s part of why I enjoy the science blogging community so much; there’s no shortage of thinkers here who always want to know more, and are not satisfied with approaches that make for good business fodder but don’t nearly do justice to the underlying science.

  2. #3 Comrade PhysioProf
    March 23, 2009

    I would say that Jonah and Gladwell have two different purposes to their writing. Jonah is a scholarly writer seeking to accurately portray current thinking about the areas he addresses. Gladwell is more of a polemicist, seeking to seed the public intellectual sphere with ideas that he likes. They are both very good writers, and both very good at achieving their respective rhetorical goals.

  3. #4 Jennifer Ouellette
    March 23, 2009

    I agree in principle (I found BLINK entertaining but disquieting), with one caveat: are you writing for the standard “science savvy” book reading public, or a truly general audience? I love Lehrer’s sharp yet nuanced writing, but I’ll hazard a guess that, while his books sell very well (certainly better than mine!), they don’t come close to the bestselling juggernaut that is the Malcolm Gladwell enterprise. The exact things you criticize — validly so — are precisely what makes him so palatable to John and Jane Q Public. Nuance, sadly, doesn’t often sell…

  4. #5 Susan Weinschenk
    March 23, 2009

    There’s a continuum from easy, short read to in depth science. I think it’s important to have all types of books on the continuum. But I also think it’s possible to have a short easy read that is still truthful and points to science (ok, I’m saying that because that’s what I tried to do with my latest book!). Blink got me thinking several years ago, and then I used the bibliography to dive deeper. That’s useful.

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