Malcolm Gladwell's fellow intellectuals, bloggers and Canadians were the first to turn against the New Yorker essayist's accessible and apparently all-too-convincing ideas; now the various professional classes are, one after another, joining the backlash against his DANGEROUSLY misleading anecdotes. Fearsome reviewer Michiko Kakutani was brutal in the Times ("glib, poorly reasoned and thoroughly unconvincing"); the Malcolm Gladwell of computer programmers rather ironically ripped into him ("utterly lunatic theories"); and now a pilot writing in Salon warns that Gladwell will kill us all! Or at least perpetuate untrue stereotypes, false assumptions and incorrect statistics around commercial airline safety, which is almost as dangerous, if you'll grant us some Gladwellian license here. Take, for example, this exchange:
CNN interviewer: Another fascinating finding is that you are more likely to be in a plane crash if the pilot comes from a particular country. What's that all about?
Gladwell: Yes. That's a fascinating thing. The single most important variable in determining whether a plane crashes is not the plane, it's not the maintenance, it's not the weather, it's the culture the pilot comes from.
The pilot, after deploying fancy "research" and "records" and "analysis," claims this is "a reckless and untrue statement... absurd... I am extremely disappointed that somebody as influential as Malcolm Gladwell said it. In addition to being incorrect, it encourages the widely held notion that non-Western airlines are by their nature less safe than those of North America and Europe."
He also slaps Gladwell for not giving the Koreans enough credit for reforming their aviation system and for overplaying the importance of culture in bringing down a Colombian jetliner.
Which is fair enough! This guy is, after all, a pilot. And Gladwell probably was talking out of his ass in that quote from television, as people on television sadly tend to do, to fill dead air or not look dumbstruck. But Gladwell is, foremost, an author rather than a CNN talking head; and, anyway, who ever said the popular nonfiction writer was supposed to be the last or even second-to-last word on any scientific topic, any more than Jon Stewart would have (or want to have) the final word on any piece of news or Andrew Sullivan would think of his blog as anything other than provisional and part of a "superficial medium... reward[ing] brevity and immediacy?"
Leave the last word to scientific journals (not yet killed by evil evil Gladwell!); at least Outliers made the Salon pilot write this interesting blog post, got a doorman and cop to argue about the topics in Blink; and got the n+1 kids possibly briefly interested in something other than decadent literary self-absorption. As Sullivan wrote, of himself and his ilk:
He is similar in this way to the host of a dinner party. He can provoke discussion or take a position, even passionately, but he also must create an atmosphere in which others want to participate.