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Gladwell has second & third hand knowledge that he gussies up. I got a PhD in experimental psych in the 1990's, so I know first hand some of the researchers who have been written up. Steven Pinker famously caught out MG phoneticizing eigen-value incorrectly, and diagnosed: "I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong"

Consider his breakout, The Tipping Point, which absurdly advances the spicy argument that influencers can have an exponential impact on cultural fashion. Every midwit manager loved this notion, since it offered a virtually free lunch if you could somehow claim that your handful of customers included some dynamic hushpuppy amplifier. Logically, this can only be identified post-facto, and so it's just a circular argument that things that got very big had to start small, and the people in the first stage had inordinate impact.

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Oct 15, 2023·edited Oct 15, 2023Liked by Henry Oliver

John McPhee, Bill Bryson and Jared Diamond are authors from your decades ago time frame that generally hold up and write well. Gladwell does stand out.

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I forget who said this, but someone said when academics where mad at Gladwell for "watering down their research," what they were really saying is Gladwell was better at spreading their ideas than they were. That's always stuck with me and is similar to what you're saying in point five.

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founding

I thought The Tipping Point was terrific for all the reasons you state. But I didn't like Blink so didn't read his subsequent books. I'd be interested in what you think about his various books. All worth reading?

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He makes an excellent podcast, as well!

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Oct 18, 2023·edited Oct 18, 2023

Gladwell is fun to read, but, really, read some McPhee. Maybe you don't count Caro because it's biography? I just think your premise about "pre Gladwell" fiction is mistaken.

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The question is, what is the question? Are you asking why Gladwell is successful (presumably, successful at selling books), or why he's a good writer (relative to the reading experience), or why he's good at getting some body of knowledge into the reading public's heads? There's no reason to assume that these are all the same thing, or even positively correlated.

I did once copy down a quote form Steven Pinker, "It is simply not true that a quarter-back's rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros, that cognitive skills don't predict a teacher's effectiveness, that intelligence scores are poorly related to job performance or (the major claim in "Outliers") that above a minimum I.Q. of 120, higher intelligence does not bring greater intellectual achievements." But I annotated it with "It is, however, true that if you're selling books to the average reader of non-fiction books, targeting your book for an IQ higher than 120 won't sell more books."

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It's such a bizarre claim, that there was no great non-fiction pre-Gladwell! Lots of great contemporaries and predecessors - Michael Lewis (whom you mention), Undercover Economist, Levitt and Dubner, Joe Nocera, John Brooks, Hunter S. Thompson, then a little more high brow you've got David Foster Wallace, Tom Wolfe, Lydia Davis...

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