Tony's Reviews > David and Goliath: The Triumph of the Underdog

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell
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really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, favourites, 2013, fnf, reviewed

No-one does insight porn quite as well as Malcolm Gladwell. His technique has been fairly well analysed before, and, with the publication of “David and Goliath” is currently under the spotlight again (e.g. http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/10/m... and http://blog.chabris.com/2013/10/why-m...). Even though much of the backlash often falls directly into the same traps of which he gets accused (e.g. critics cherry-picking the parts of his books that best support their complaints), the key argument is generally quite valid: Gladwell takes a minority, slightly counter-intuitive, perspective, highlights some evidence that possibly supports it, and ignores alternative readings of the same stories, and all the evidence for different positions.

The key question is: how much does this matter?

One of the central concepts in this book is that of the inverted U-curve — where an increase in something is valuable for a while, but then starts to become a negative (e.g. drinking some alcohol is good for your health, but drinking too much causes problems.) Gladwell applies this to numerous other areas, from teacher–student ratios, or the relationship between wealth and parenting, through to punishment for crimes.

But one question not asked in this book, or any review I've seen of it so far, is whether Gladwell's own brand of pop-science might have exactly the same curve, and whether he might actually now be at the wrong end of it.

This book contains two extended discussions on topics I know quite a lot about (the conflict in Northern Ireland, and the interpretation of the Biblical story of David and Goliath). In each there's an existing dominant narrative that is largely flawed. But directly attacking a dominant narrative generally has little effect (indeed, often simply reinforces it). A more effective approach to countering a position with which you disagree, and one that Gladwell is a master of, is to simply tell a better story with a different narrative. (There has been significant research on this area in recent years, particularly with respect to political debate, but there's also a long history of this in theology too, in the battles between heresy and orthodoxy.)

On the left-hand side of the inverted U-curve, this is a very valuable function. Handled well this approach stimulates thinking and debate and, hopefully, leads to a deeper and more nuanced general understanding of the area. But this relies on arriving at a synthesis of both positions. The key problem with Gladwell, it seems to me, is that he's simply too good at what he does. He's such a superb story-teller that people read his books and come away convinced of his positions, accepting his narrative as being the complete truth itself, rather than simply as a valuable contribution to a wider debate and understanding.

But I'm unconvinced that this is a flaw with his books and columns themselves. They're doing a very precise thing, and doing it very well. And this one is no exception. It's a delight to read, and raises a lot of very interesting and valuable questions. And those who wish to challenge the answers it offers would do well to learn from the approach, and start telling better stories themselves.

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Reading Progress

October 7, 2013 – Started Reading
October 9, 2013 – Finished Reading
October 10, 2013 – Shelved
October 10, 2013 – Shelved as: non-fiction
October 10, 2013 – Shelved as: favourites
January 5, 2014 – Shelved as: 2013
January 5, 2014 – Shelved as: fnf
September 9, 2014 – Shelved as: reviewed

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Eleanor (new) - added it

Eleanor With Cats "Insight porn": awesome.


David Fuhs Did you take issue with the David and Goliath story/position, or the Northern Ireland story?


message 3: by Bob (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bob Berry These haters in no way diminish my enjoyment of the one Gladwell book I've read. I intend to enjoy and benefit from more of his books. His fun style and life enhancing points more than nullify the pollution of the far Hate.


Leslie Every writer finds what they are looking for. I think of Barbara Ehrenreich and her book "Nickeled and Dimed." Great read, but if she set out to prove the working poor COULD make it, she would have told that story. He presents the info, you can take it or doubt it, but I tend to believe more of it is true than people want to believe. I agree wholeheartedly with your statement--"And those who wish to challenge the answers it offers would do well to learn from the approach, and start telling better stories themselves."


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