December 19, 2006

Things I like about Malcolm Gladwell

A reader writes:

"But considering all Gladwell has to lose, and how easy it would be just to ignore you, perhaps he should be given some credit for how far his honesty and intellect take him. He knows he's giving you free publicity; and though he's conflicted about it, at least he doesn't mind much.

"He sounds like he's almost agonizing. He seems to have just enough of a conscience to realize that you deserve to be heard, as well as just enough intelligence to understand that your arguments are actually substantial.

"As far as I can see, what he's missing are 3 things.

"Courage--He's got too much to lose; he's too afraid of losing it

"Humility--I have a feeling that he would be far more welcoming of you if he didn't think you would consistently outclass him.

"Audacity/Zeal--distinct from courage, I refer to the kick one gets from sticking it to the man, taking down sacred cows, exposing charlatans, etc come hell or high water. Gladwell's a bit timid and deferential."

One thing to Malcolm's credit is that he really does like new ideas. Most journalists have a small stock in trade of novel ideas that they came up with by age 30 or so and just keep using those over and over. Malcolm, in contrast, is constantly out there searching for new ideas. Of course, when you swing for the fences, you are more likely to strike out.

Malcolm's boyishness, lack of cynicism, naiveté, cluelessness, whatever you want to call it, is one of his most endearing qualities. It comes out in his "Gee willikers, sir, what a great idea! I would never have thought of that" enthusiasm for every single promoter he endorses in the pages of The New Yorker.

Malcolm reminds me of Asok the Intern on the Dilbert comic strip. When a manager comes to pitch his new idea, the Pointy-Haired Boss introduces the team: "Asok will be full of enthusiasm for your concept because he hasn't yet learned how the world works."

I have no idea how at age 43 Malcolm gets so fired up for each new half-baked idea that comes down the pike. He's like the world's highest IQ Labrador Retriever: "What?!? You want to take me for a walk? What a fantastic idea, Master! How did you ever think of that?"

Malcolm's guilelessness leads him into poor decisions and hence into humiliations, like picking a public fight with me by dishonestly slurring me, and then getting voted down on his own blog 127-44! And then failing to cut his losses and proceeding to slam his head into the wall on his own blog a second time, a third time, and then a fourth time.

It ought to be pretty obvious that I'm just about the last person any famous public intellectual in his right mind would choose to get into a battle of wits with. Do you think, say, Jared Diamond would be so short of cunning as to go out of his way to tangle with me? There would be no upside for him. If he won, big deal, he beat up so guy most of his readers hadn't heard of. And Diamond would also realize that in all likelihood he'd get beat like a drum by me. And who needs that?

Malcolm certainly doesn't. When the world's hottest movie star, Leonardo DiCaprio, is attached to play you (more or less) in the film version of your business advice book, well, arguing with me makes no sense whatsoever from a practical career advancement standpoint.

The especially bizarre thing about Malcolm choosing to go to war with me this month on his own blog over Ian Ayres's study of discrimination by car salesmen is that … we had already fought that battle a long time ago. And I had won. Big time.

Back in 2005 or early 2006, Gladwell had written on his website a highly aggrieved 1,000 word response to the criticisms Judge Richard A. Posner and I had made of his interpretation of Ian Ayres' car dealer study in his bestseller Blink. (This is where he famously sputtered, "Sailer and Poser [sic] have a very low opinion of car salesmen.") When I discovered Gladwell's reply last February, I unloaded on him with both barrels in "Malcolm Gladwell Blinks Again" in

And yet last week he still decided to fight me on the same grounds again!

When somebody makes as much money as Malcolm does, it's natural to assume that he is a conniver who has consciously plotted his every move to fame and fortune. But the more I deal with Malcolm, the less that seems true of him. He now strikes me as an artless innocent, Forrest Gump with a felicitous prose style.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Things I like about Gladwell: he makes a lot of money.

Steve Sailer doesn't make a dime. Sure he tells the truth, but after a while it must suck to not make any money.

Dylan said...

This was impressively humble.

Rast said...

I think most people who care have realized that you were right and Gladwell was wrong about the car salesman thing. There's no need to be a jerk about it. Gladwell is not the only one lacking in humility here.

Anonymous said...

The thing is, it's not a fair fight. Malcolm Gladwell or Jared Diamond have to be careful what they say, because there are tabus about race, gender, and all kinds of other stuff, and they will pay a price for crossing those lines. Steve won't, because whatever price there is to pay for that, he's already paying it. And in an interactive debate on the web, it's just a lot harder to brazen it out with some line about "No, that's racist pseudoscience" when you can respond with the Google string that brings up the APA statement on the Bell Curve, say.

Anonymous said...

Gladwell is most concerned that a salesman would overlook every other quality in an individual, only to see that he is black. He sees that is racist. But I don't know if the salesman is being irrational: my experience with African-Americans is that they are the most conformist of groups. Expensive cars have been always been tempting to blacks (e.g. the tradition of Cadillacs). They want to look like big spenders and perhaps the salesman is flattering the ego by starting the negotiation with a higher price. No one has said anything about if the final price is higher than whites also. A buyer can leave the dealer with a sense of acomplishment if he believes he got an especially good deal by paying much less than the asking price.

Anonymous said...

Steve, take a deep breath, grab a turkey sandwich and relax over Christmas.

This kid with the bad haircut just ain't worth the effort.

Anonymous said...

What happened to magnaminity in victory?

Steve, you are at your most ineffective when you are intemperate. When angry you come across as a mixture of hysterical lady and mean male drunk. For example, is it illuminating to compare the Afro-something Gladwell to a dog that refers to his "Master"?

You have an ugly side and it shows when you discuss poor Gladwell and, curiously enough, homosexuals. I'm no fan of either, and I'm a normal human being who gets angry too - but please do yourself a favor and, when your blood is boiling, let your pieces cool off a day or two before putting them up. Thanks.

You have in your blog feet less clay than almost anyone else has - which makes your unnecessary lapses doubly chagrining.

Anonymous said...

I think Malcolm revisited this issue thinking he had a few new silver bullets to put down the undead Sailer. I don’t think his 4 or more latest posts on this or related issues are mental diarrhea so much as plans A, B, C, etc to publicly humiliate and claim moral victory for exposing and marginalizing the most dangerously un-PC blogger around.

Even as Steve repeatedly depants Malcolm in these dust ups, I’m amazed how many groupies at Gladwell’s blog see these as confirmation of their chairman’s own infallibility and the unassailability of their party line. And these groupies probably represent a self-selecting elite. Image how well Malcolm would come across on Oprah.

So perhaps the downside for Malcolm is not that great. He gets to throw his latest PC-infused academic mashups against the wall and see what sticks when some people brighter, more experienced, more critical than him put it through filters he lacks. I doubt he looses credibility or sales from his base and he’s able to tighten up his spiel before it hits mass distribution (if only to know what to roads to avoid and how). He certainly isn’t concerned enough to proof his blog posts for logic or consistency which demonstrates some measure of indifference.

Incidentally, I’ve noticed that his blog’s comments have gone up quite a bit recently (30-80 to 150-200 per).


Anonymous said...

"You have an ugly side and it shows when you discuss poor Gladwell and, curiously enough, homosexuals."

Steve's a homophobe? I'm curious, as I've probably read everything he's written about gays (human biodiversity as it relates to homosexuality being an interest of mine) and I never got that impression. Got any quotes?