Monday, October 28, 2013

Malcolm Gladwell: Does he know what he's talking about?

I've not read his latest book, David and Goliath (I've only read several chapters of The Tipping Point and a New Yorker article or three). Apparently it's promoting the idea that superficially undesirable disadvantages are, on deeper consideration, advantages. The third chapter is devoted to dyslexia. Mark Seiderberg has a guest post at Language Log in which he argues that Gladwell has not done a very good job in his reporting. Gladwell seals the rhetorical deal by offering two case histories of men whom Gladwell believes to be dyslexic, but he doesn't really know:
The personal narratives in this chapter leave the following impression. Two rich and powerful Master of the Universe types relate self-invented, self-serving life stories to a close but credulous listener, a great writer who can embellish them even further in a book that will be read by millions. The writer either doesn’t have the curiosity to verify whether any of the key assertions are true or doesn’t want to ruin a great story.

It seems obvious that some professions tend to attract some types of people, and that different cognitive capacities and personality traits can be beneficial in different contexts. You could look it up. Some professions are surely better suited to people with impairments than others. For many years deaf people were overrepresented in the typesetting industry, for example. Some people’s impairments motivate them to excel and to do so by developing other skills. We admire people who succeed despite apparent handicaps.

Gladwell's novel contribution was to use superachievers to connect dyslexia with "desirable difficulty." With Boies and the Goldman Sachs guy, the role of their putative dyslexia in their professional success is unknown: the experiment can’t be run again with the relevant control conditions. Gladwell is still dealing with outliers, the subject of his last book. Outlier data can be highly informative but not the basis for generalizing, in this case to the mass of individuals who have to live with dyslexia and find ways to cope with it.

My great concern is that the desirable difficulty concept will combine in malevolent ways with the brush-offs that dyslexics already encounter, particularly “They grow out of it.” Both concepts encourage parents and educators to wait and see. That is dangerous advice, because with dyslexia, as with many other developmental disorders for which treatment is available, early identification and intervention offer the best hope of success. Though not at the level of David Boies, to be sure.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks. Would have missed that. Malcolm Gladwell may deal in popular fantasy (not read him so should reserve some judgement) but a relief to see someone pointing straight towards the issues very clearly and identifying the real concerns of everyone involved in this.