News & Criticism

The Dipping Point

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Slate's Jack Shafer has a very interesting and pretty disturbing story about the willingness of bestselling author (The Tipping Point, Blink) and superstar journalist Malcolm Gladwell to fudge the truth. The setup is that Gladwell appeared at the "storyteller's forum The Moth," where he told about early journalistic experiences (Gladwell skipped over his connection to The American Spectator and the Wash Times' publication Insight).

That talk, which Shafer calls "mostly bunk," was later broadcast on NPR's This American Life. Writes Shafer:

A storyteller can't have it both ways, instructing listeners to "look it up" while stretching the yarn beyond the breaking point or claiming that smuggling the "baffling" phrase into Post copy became "literally" an "obsession." Gladwell's method, and his decision to let This American Life air his tale, raises … well, new and troubling questions about his attitude toward his audience.

Gladwell isn't having any of it.

"My story was true in spirit," he e-mails. "The details were happily and gleefully and deliberately exaggerated and embellished and made up by me-and I am quite sure that not a single person in the audience the night I told it thought otherwise. Anyone who would fact check a tall tale like that either has no sense of humor or is on crack."

On March 13, after I interviewed him, Gladwell had second thoughts about his Moth talk, qualifying it on his blog with these words:

There is a disclaimer at the end of the This American Life broadcast, to the effect that the Moth is a place where "people come to tell both true stories and occasional tall tales." As I think should be obvious if you listen to it, my story definitely belongs to the "tall tale" category. I hope you enjoy it. But please do so with a rather large grain of salt.

Whole Shafer bit, which fact checks various Gladwellian assertions, here. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in how journalism gets done. And undone.

It shouldn't be surprising if Gladwell stretches the truth. What is arguably his great breakthrough story, The New Yorker piece "Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg," is built around the work of legendary psychologist Stanley Milgram, who conceptualized the idea of "the small world" experience later popularized as the movie-buff game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Milgram's work is, alas, mostly bunk itself. As Judith Kleinfeld wrote in 2002 in Psychology Today (the magazine that published Milgram's original writeup):

I had always regarded Milgram's work as one of the great counterintuitive studies in the social sciences and wanted to replicate it. To do so, I tracked down the details of the small-world study in Milgram's papers at the Yale archives.

What I found was disconcerting. Very few of his folders reached their targets. In his first, unpublished study, only three of 60 letters-5 percent-made it. Even in Milgram's published studies, less than 30 percent of the folders got through. Since then, only a few replications that actually spanned cities have been done. Of these trials, few folders made it through, especially across class and race boundaries.

More here.