Jonah Lehrer, Malcolm Gladwell and our thirst for non-threatening answers

Eric Garland Greatest Hits 8 Comments

This week marked another PR disaster for writer Jonah Lehrer, the intellectual prodigy who has become a best-selling author for his books Proust Was a Neuroscientist, How We Decide and most recently Imagine: How Creativity Works. A few weeks back, Lehrer came under fire for recycling some of his past work in his new job as a staff writer for The New Yorker. This past week, he admitted that he fabricated quotes attributed to Bob Dylan in his latest book, and has subsequently resigned from the magazine all together. One thing is clear – when you get the most cherry gig in all of English-language journalism at age 31, you should expect that more than a few people may be fact-checking you in hopes of taking you down a notch. But I am not here to hogpile on a young man who is no doubt feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders right now. Quick success can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing, and while such amateur errors seem out of character, we cannot know what is going through someone’s head as they take on a heavy cultural mantle of being expected to provide exceptional wisdom day in and day out.

I am more interested in why such awesome commercial success has been thrust on Lehrer and his publishing industry forebear, Malcolm Gladwell, author of the galactic best sellers The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers. In full disclosure, I am in their same business of providing non-fiction insights about the world around us, and every analysis I provide should be filtered for possible jealousy or self-consciousness. Regardless, I believe that the enormity of their success says as much about Western industrial economies and our culture as it does about their skills as public intellectuals.

Let us be clear – both Lehrer and Gladwell are worthy authors. Both write with tremendous fluidity and a gift for turning complex situations into engaging narratives. They are both excellent thinkers and world-class writers, period. But step back and look at the topics they cover:

  • How trends emerge in the global economy
  • How we make decisions
  • How people are creative
  • How people achieve success

Neither Gladwell nor Lehrer attempt to cover single subjects with both breadth and depth, like, for example, Mark Kurlansky does in Salt and Cod. They swing for the fences and attempt to explain how “things happen” or “how brains work.” They mix together enormous fields that are still in their infancy, such as neuroscience, with popular fields like art and music and sports. In works of less than 500 pages, Gladwell and Lehrer attempt to enlighten the reader on How the World Works, What People are Really Like, and How Greatness Happens without getting into any of the technical details that would absolutely overwhelm the majority of the readers traipsing through airport book shop before grabbing their flight home.

The incredible complexity of neurotransmitters, global supply chains, or police emergency response training is smoothed over, edited, reduced to a light and palatable narrative of someone with the speech pattern of an Ivy League education. More than actionable insights, this kind of popular analysis gives the reader something far more immediately valuable – the feeling that they have a sophisticated view of the world. Reading this kind of book, the sharp corners, uncomfortable realizations, insecurity, class struggle and information overload of the early 21st century is massaged away into a single comfortable feeling – our elites know what is going on, and the complexity of the world can be explained in a calm, hip, erudite way.

We fall in love with “interesting” explanations

It is no coincidence that this kind of book achieved its apex just as Dot Com One began to crash, and America’s bubble and war economies thrived in earnest against a backdrop of terrorism, job outsourcing and economic uncertainty. The Tipping Point emerged in the year 2000, at the height of mendacity of Dot Com One, just prior to the unveiling of the crimes of Enron, Global Crossing and the rest of their cohort who exemplified the excesses of fraudulent accounting and pure grift. And if you recall, even that which wasn’t pure fraud was still pretty weird – this was the era of, “worth $4 billion but searching for a business model,” leased Porsche Boxsters, getting paid $60,000 to spell HTML, and other epic tomfoolery. The world was having a great time, but nothing made a whole lot of sense.

Into this void of strangeness steps journalist Malcolm Gladwell, looking smart yet left-of-center with his trademark ‘fro and casual business dress. Nothing makes sense, but he could show you how trends emerge from mavens and connectors and Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He talks in code, discussing The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and The Power of Context. Instead of citing General Electric or Sony, he references Sesame Street‘s Elmo and Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues.

Marketing people go berserk – here is a theory that will help them aim their giant budgets with the goal of hitting a “tipping point.” CEOs love the book because it explains “we’re in a brand new world” requiring “new strategies.” People in Brooklyn love the book because, well, it makes Brooklyn out to be important. MBA students, journalists, homemakers, bowlers, and for years pretty much every other literate person in the Anglo-Saxon world buys both a hardcover and softcover version. Gladwell makes enough money to live in his own ziggurat and travel the world in a golden sleigh drawn by a team of unicorns. All this because the book is perfect – it arrives at a time that the American model of economic growth is beginning to falter, and nobody is ready to look at the real problems. This type of intellectual material arrives as the perfect placeholder until the world is forced to consider that which could be inconvenient and ugly.

And soon after, while Tipping Point is still selling pallet loads every nine seconds, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 occur. In terms of absolute damage, it is a relatively small loss of life and property; despite the trauma, Americans continue to have reliable food supply, electricity, fuel and the basics of life. But the intellectual damage is catastrophic. For the years ahead, America will be unable to think rationally about its future, too busy jumping at shadows, launching wars of adventure, deepening its political divide, mocking dissent, and too busy relying on mythology to wisely assess and implement anything that looks like a coherent plan.

America splits its valuable time between blowing an enormously obvious housing bubble, demanding Master’s degrees for entry-level positions, and badly managing the bloodbaths of Iraq and Afghanistan. Still desirous of wisdom about the world around us, the buying public turns to Gladwell’s smash sophomore hit – Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, which is an outstanding title given the intellectual environment. Gladwell takes his reader into “the connection between cutting-edge psychological and neurological research and human intuition,” focusing on how real decisions happen while bypassing our conscious powers of reason. This is a perfect message for the current environment, since from the presidential administration on down, America has by this time developed a deep and abiding mistrust of anyone actively engaging their capacity for logic instead of bowing down to the hyperbolic expansion of banks, military budgets or secret government surveillance regimes.

Eventually, Gladwell turns to another blockbuster topic with Outliers– how really talented, rich and famous people got really talented, rich and famous, which dovetails nicely with our burgeoning national obsession with the Hiltons and Kardashians. The book also complements the emerging reality that becoming prosperous simply by getting a public education and doing a good job is becoming nigh-on impossible.

The perfect books for a culture avoiding real problems

Taken together all three of these books form a pattern when set against the backdrop of the major trends changing the United States, Europe, ascendant Asia, and indeed the whole world. The analyses proposed by Gladwell, and later continued by Lehrer, skate over the top of any of the real problems facing humanity, remaining on the surface of consumer and business trends without taking any kind of an empathetic look at what real people are experiencing. Their books are perfect expressions of the elite class that is running the world, since the concerns of the elite tend to be hermetically sealed from any of the problems of the middle or lower classes, whose troubles are being amplified as the 21st century grinds on.

In America, fewer people are covered by health insurance than in 2000 – but you won’t find those concerns in books on “how we make tough decisions super quick.” In the time since The Tipping Point came out, student loan debt has quintupled in the US alone, saddling people from age 20 to 65 with loans they may never eliminate entirely. Outliers rehashes the Buddhist notion of spending 10,000 hours on a livelihood, but certainly doesn’t waste time sweating about how to have a crack at success is going to mean more risk of personal bankruptcy than ever before. The suburban pattern of development is proving to be a complete disaster for our collective futures, as we have both peak oil and trillions of dollars of housing bubbles still facing us. Don’t bother looking for that set of decisions in any books that talk about how Marcel Proust thought of the thematics of neurolinguistic romanticism in Du côté de Chez Swann. And in the decade where many of our democractic institutions seemed to fold in the face of torture regimes and central bank Ponzi schemes, we avoided looking at the actual way “trends” emerge through policy decisions behind closed doors in favor of “mavens” and “connectors” in “hip neighborhoods.” Never mind the actual power structure of the world, let’s focus on hipsters.

These intellectual contributions were the perfect complement to the power structure of the last decade, in which all too many senior executives have abdicated leadership in favor of fleecing many of the institutions they were sworn to protect. Dealing with discomfort, honest self-analysis instead of shallow, pseudo-scientific reflections on “the brain,” speaking truth to power, enforcing checks and balances – these things have all been out of fashion in a world where we worship power and forget the trials of history. It should be no surprise that we buy millions of copies of books that let us go through the motions of thinking about civilization without any of the challenges that any useful idea will force on us.

Returning to the plight of Jonah Lehrer, I cannot say I’m surprised that he seems to have made some unforced errors as he sits atop the world of journalism at age thirty-one. Perhaps he no longer wants to play this game. He will be inheriting the world that this type of thinking creates. The world expects regular insight from him, and if he is as smart as he appears, he might not be able to play this game with a straight face much longer. Perhaps Lehrer will be back with some real material, and instead of blathering about Bob Dylan, he will be examining how we can alleviate poverty in crumbling American cities. It won’t be as hip or as clean, but maybe he will be able to sleep at night.

  • Chris Weagel

    You may also be interested in the Exiled Online’s Shame Project report on Malcom Gladwell’s shilling for the tobacco industry and his bullshit response.

  • liz

    There has always been a dance between structure and freedom, discipline and expansion, accuracy and vision.
    I find MBTI personality quadrants helpful in understanding this dance in people. Rational causal detail-oriented types often believe the inattention to detail from an idealist is deliberate or unethical (especially if the
    person becomes famous doing it).
    When I see people expand into a larger view of an issue (as from reading or therapy or meditation), I see compassion arise and movement begins that carries them to the next alive place. The author or guru or therapist is not causing the movement any more than Lehrer is causing a direction in our culture with his books. He is identifying a trend that captures and invokes response (and feeds trendy egos) which will eventually bump up against structure, detail checks, and emotional resentment. The details will be filled in and worked out and challenged by those who love that work. Neither approach is more true or more valid, and both are needed for movement.

    • This is a great expansion of the dialogue, thanks so much for adding it.

      Well, in my capacity as an ENFP, I resonate with your argument about individual people not creating a movement per se, but serving as a touchpoint for the broader intellectual evolutions. And yes, sometimes a dilettante has to expand the field without all the requisite technical expertise in order to move the dialogue forward – I have run into this constantly in my work as a futurist. True experts are rarely capable of understanding and expressing all the implications of their own work, and non-experts usually are required to see the possibilities, much to the discomfort of technical experts.

      That said, in fifteen years of evaluating forecasts in materials science, pharmaceuticals, nanotechnology, quantum computing and other demanding disciplines, I developed great respect and humility around the cognitive pitfalls that were everywhere when you don’t have a PhD in whichever specific field. The search for an elegant narrative can easily detour recklessly into the glib, the shallow, and the just plain old wrong. And in the work of Lehrer et al I see signs of a lack of respect for rigor, aided and abetted by a literary audience that will just as soon seek intellectual junk food. It is our responsibility as authors, as popularizers of ideas, to seek the utmost quality while remaining readable.

      It’s a hard job, but so is science.

      • I don’t think it’s so much a matter of whether the author has a PhD in a specific field, as whose interests the author takes into account. The difference is whether you want to change large systems in order to end suffering, or to ignore suffering in order to talk about how fascinating and useful the status quo is. Example: Lloyd deMause’s books expounding the theories of psychohistory–the psychological analysis of historical events–have not become trendy the way, say, Gladwell’s work have. They are not comforting airport reading, they are filled with stomach-churning accounts of child abuse. They also have real public policy implications: to end war, provide lots of public support for new parents, and end all forms of violence towards children including culturally legitimized ones like spanking. Or look at the analyses of society produced by Occupy Wall Streeters, who typically also don’t have PhDs, but which are not so glib and shallow because they do not focus only on the rich and trendy while ignoring the rest–for starters, they recognize that Brooklyn also includes non-trendy poor neighborhoods full of black people, which many magazine writers seem to forget when they say “Brooklyn” and mean “the hip parts of Williamsburg”.

  • I think this analysis is quite accurate, but also reveals a problem. For me, it is less a matter that the books are written, as any number of books are written about any number of topics in greater or lesser detail, but the fact that we buy them which is revealing. To take your concluding remark, perhaps Lehrer could write about poverty in American cities, and he may even do a great job of it, but the chances are that the book wouldn’t sell. I think people want to be able to read books that slightly challenge, but ultimately validate, their own worldview.

    This seems a bit bleak…what hope do we have to change anything if people only read what they already believe, but it need not be. It may be that a well aimed “glib” (or to be polite, synergistic) analysis could enfold a number of the real problems into a digestible narrative that enables people to see how they might themselves contribute to a solution. Hmmm, not sure what that means, and perhaps I myself am skating across the surface of grand narrative without daring to dive in.

    On the whole, I agree that people like to read what doesn’t challenge them, and these kind of “meta-narratives” are attractive because we can sort of subjugate ourselves to their own internal logic and validate our role in the world. However, I also think people also like to read well written thorough research, and this invariably has the effect of making our role feel particularly insignificant (I’m thinking here especially of historical analysis, but any good analytical work will do it.

    Thanks for the article!

    • “…but the fact that we buy them which is revealing.”

      BOOM – you got my real theme here. It is not my intention to insinuate that Malcolm Gladwell caused our society to go off the rails – that would be excessive, not to mention dumb. But it is inescapable that these works resonated to the degree they did because of an otherwise toxic intellectual environment that flourished in the trauma of the last decade. Gladwell’s first book would have sold thousands of copies no matter what – it’s a very good read. It is not, however, on the level of “On the Origin of Species.” I doubt even he would argue this. The problem is when we elevate people to the level of authority figures unconsciously for reasons that are not entirely healthy.

      The good news is that we are coming out of the trance, and people appear to be getting a taste for talent and merit over authority. This is pretty good news.

      • I like the point about the trauma of the last decade. I wonder if it is worse than, say, WW2. I think so (but maybe not, maybe there was a similar deadening of the intelligentsia after that). I think so because the trauma cuts deep into intellectual sinews, this trauma being largely internal rather than against an external enemy. The whole “war on terror” and all the insane ideological wars. I’m hoping we are coming out of the trance, though the increasing polarisation and savagery of US politics (mirrored in many democracies) suggests that we may be just beginning.

        Could it be that we are saved by the appetite of a significant “intelligentsia” (inverted commas because it is not driven by authority as you point out) that is curious, has the tools to diffuse ideas easily and is creative/daring enough to smash together ideas to find new insights? And accepts that those insights are as equally valid coming from Messrs Johnson, Garland and, yes, even Lehrer. You might be right, we just might have a chance at these big challenges.

  • Imp Over Is Hed

    I think there’s more to Outliers than you credit. A good deal of the book does discuss poverty. It doesn’t only explore what it takes to succeed, it examines social, societal, and familial factors that lead to lack of success, and points to a number of ways solutions can be found. Speaking as a bright but dirt-poor adult, I’ve never found a MORE “empathetic look at what” this real person has experienced.