Epstein on Gladwell: The new is not true; the true, not new.

Originally posted by David Dobbs
On March 23, 2009, at 9:34 AM

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.

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