Malcom Gladwell, author of such popular science books as Blink, The Tipping Point, and now David and Goliath, is culturally influential. And that’s unfortunate. The super short explanation is that he makes strong, causal claims unwarranted by data.
For the more elaborated version, I can’t recommend highly enough this article by psychology professor Christopher Chabris. It’s long, but definitely worth the read.
Here’s one of my favorite excerpts (though it was hard to choose):
But consider what Gladwell’s quote means. He is saying that if you understand his topics enough to see what he is doing wrong, then you are not the reader he wants. At a stroke he has said that anyone equipped to properly review his work should not be reading it. How convenient! Those who are left are only those who do not think the material is oversimplified.
Who are those people? They are the readers who will take Gladwell’s laws, rules, and causal theories seriously; they will tweet them to the world, preach them to their underlings and colleagues, write them up in their own books and articles (David Brooks relied on Gladwell’s claims more than once in his last book), and let them infiltrate their own decision-making processes… It doesn’t matter if these are misreadings or imprecise readings of what Gladwell is saying in these books—they are common readings, and I think they are more common among exactly those readers Gladwell says are his audience.
Please read Chabris’ piece and help give it the signal boost it deserves.