Christopher Chabris Should Calm Down

His criticisms of my book David and Goliath are unreasonable.

Malcolm Gladwell in Brooklyn, N.Y., on June 22, 2013.

Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Tropfest

Some years ago I ran across an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It was written by two academics, and it talked, in passing, about my second book, Blink. Blink, they wrote, was a celebration of the accuracy of snap judgments—a ringing endorsement of intuition over considered judgment—and this, to their mind, was a problem. Intuition was deeply flawed.

I decided to write to one of the authors. Blink, I pointed out, said no such thing. It was a book about the power of snap judgments—for both good and ill. It began with a celebration of the situations in which rapid cognition works well. But then it slowly challenged that position, walking the reader through ideas about racism and unconscious bias and the fragility of snap judgments before ending with the devastating story of the shooting of Amadou Diallo—in which the gut instincts and snap judgments of a group of inexperienced police officers led directly to the tragic death of an innocent man. Blink was a narrative about rapid cognition, and the thing about narratives is that they often begin in one place and end in another. As Daniel Kahneman writes in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow: “Although many readers of the [examples that begin Blink] were surely drawn to an almost magical view of expert intuition, Gladwell himself does not hold that position.” Kahneman understood my book. Why couldn’t these guys?

The professor I wrote to was perfectly nice. He asked me if I wanted to debate him and his co-author. But that seemed silly. I didn’t want to debate them. I just wanted them to read my book all the way to the end. The professor in question was Daniel Simons, who teaches psychology at the University of Illinois. His co-author was Christopher Chabris, who teaches at Union College in upstate New York. I didn’t give the exchange another thought.

But now I see that Chabris is back. Three times in the past week or so—in the Wall Street Journal, in his own blog, and then Wednesday in Slate—he has written about how upset he is by my latest book, David and Goliath. I wish I could say that in the intervening years he has come to a better appreciation of the narrative form.

The first striking thing about all three of Chabris’ reviews of David and Goliath is how much attention he pays to a study that I mention at the beginning of my chapter on dyslexia. That part of the book is concerned with the notion of “desirable difficulty,” a term that I think is a wonderful metaphor for the ways in which some dyslexics have adapted to their disability. To illustrate the metaphor, I spent two pages describing a paper published by Adam Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer a few years ago in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Chabris does not like this study. He thinks it involved too few subjects and that its findings were not replicated by a subsequent study. Alter and Oppenheimer disagree. They say that the version of desirable difficulty that they explore has been confirmed on numerous other occasions. This is the kind of intramural argument about the nature and value of evidence that social scientists have all the time. A reasonable version of Chabris’ position might look something like this: “In illustrating the metaphor of desirable difficulty, Gladwell makes reference to a peer-reviewed study that I—Christopher Chabris—do not find convincing. I believe Gladwell would have been better off choosing a different study to make his point.”

But Chabris is in no mood to be reasonable. Instead, he argues that this single instance of a study mentioned in passing to illustrate a metaphor in a chapter about something else entirely (dyslexia!) is indicative of something gravely wrong with the Gladwell intellectual project. I am guilty, he writes, of “virtual malpractice.” Malpractice! Where on earth did that word come from? I clearly drive Chabris crazy. Incidentally, around the same time I ran across Chabris’ piece in Slate, I came across another article on an academic blog that describes—in almost identically overheated language—the enormous consequences of my transgressions around things like quoting articles from the Journal of Experimental Psychology. “Gladwell is a bullshitter,” the blog post concludes. It was written by Michelle Meyer—who informs us in a footnote that she is Chabris’ wife. I clearly drive her crazy, too. These are not tranquil times in the Meyer-Chabris household.

What is going on here? The kinds of people who read books in America seem to have no problem with my writing. But I am clearly a bee in the bonnet of some of the kinds of people who review books in America. I think this has to do with the way in which my books are written. I write in the genre of what might be called “intellectual adventure stories.” Books like David and Goliath combine narratives and ideas from academic research in an attempt to get people to look at the world a little differently. I have always tried to be honest about the shortcomings of this approach. Stories necessarily involve ambiguity and contradiction. They do not always capture the full range of human experience. Their conclusions can seem simplified or idiosyncratic. But at the same time stories have extraordinary advantages. They can reach large numbers of people and move them and serve as the vehicle for powerful insights. The overwhelming majority of social scientists that I have encountered in my career appreciate this trade-off and respect writers like me for the efforts we have made to use storytelling to bring the amazing worlds of psychology and sociology to a broader audience.

But I guess not everyone feels this way. I made a comment a few weeks ago in an interview with the Telegraph in which I said that readers do not prize thing like “coherence, consistency, [and] neatness of argument” the way that critics do. According to Chabris, who devotes several paragraphs to chewing over that sentence, this means I am someone who believes “accuracy and logic are incompatible with entertainment.” He continues: “Is there no sense of ethics that requires more fidelity to truth, especially when your audience is so vast—and, by your own suggestion, so benighted—as to require oversimplification and to be unmoved by consistency and coherence?”

Chabris should calm down. I was simply saying that all writing about social science need not be presented with the formality and precision of the academic world. There is a place for storytelling, in all of its messiness. My point was that the people who read my books appreciate this. They are perfectly aware of the strengths and weakness of the narrative form. They know what a story can and can’t do, and they understand that narratives sometimes begin in one place and end in another.

I should say that I have tremendous respect for the work that Chabris does. I have written about it admiringly in The New Yorker. But before he repurposes his complaints about David and Goliath a fourth time, he should remember two things. First, that the world is not improved when those who create knowledge condescend to those who try to popularize it. And second, criticism that takes the form of “there is only one way to write a book, and it is my way” is not actually criticism. It is narcissism.