Vivek Haldar

Malcolm Gladwell and the narrative fallacy

I admire the writing of Malcolm Gladwell because he picks eclectic topics to delve into, peppers his narrative with memorable anecdotes, and weaves it with just enough pop science to make me feel like I’m learning something new, without making it heavy enough to put down the book.

And when it’s finished, I feel somewhat tricked and uncomfortable. I can’t find one single glaring problem, but the final feeling I’m left with is that there just have to be a ton of simplifications and glossed-over complexities.

This is a problem with pop sci (or pop sociology) in general, but particularly with the specific strain as practiced by writers who themselves do not have a technical background.

In a recent Longform podcast (transcript) Gladwell says that his central concern is the richness of the story he is telling. He gushes with admiration for Michael Lewis because he can tell a story without citing papers.

My great hero as a writer is Michael Lewis. I just think Michael Lewis, believe it or not, is the most underrated writer of my generation. I think he is the one who will be read 50 years from now. And I think what he does is so extraordinary, from a kind of degree of difficulty standpoint. The Big Short is a gripping book, fascinating, utterly gripping book about derivatives. It blows me away how insanely hard that book was to do, and it’s brilliant. The Blind Side, I think, it might be the most perfect book I’ve read in 25 years. I don’t think there’s a single word in that that I would change. I just think it has everything. But he uses no science, right? Very little. It’s all story. But he does more work in his stories, makes much more profound points than I do by dragging in all these sociologists and psychologists. He’s proved to me that, if you can tell a story properly, you don’t need this kind of scaffolding. You can just tell the story. And so, I’ve been trying, not entirely successfully, but trying to move in that direction over the last couple books.

That’s the classic narrative fallacy–seeing a connecting narrative where none exists.

As I’ve said before, researchers and scientists themselves are too shy to write in this manner, but

Authors want to believe. They want to find the parts of a dense technical paper that help them build a colorful story and support a somewhat related generalization.

I’d like to think that I can understand something by reading summaries of it or narratives about it, but time and I again I keep realizing that there is no substitute for the original source material.