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Malcolm Gladwell's 'David And Goliath': Experts Criticize Scientific Basis Of His Dyslexia Argument

Painting of David and Goliath
Psychology experts view the points that Malcom Gladwell made in his book, "David and Goliath," as presumptuous and false. Fried Dough, CC BY 2.0

We all love a good story about how the underdog pulls off an unexpected victory, which is the premise of Malcom Gladwell's recent book, David and Goliath. But in a blog post on Language Log, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Mark Seidenberg, begged to deeply differ with how the widely read celebrity author portrayed dyslexia in his book.

This isn’t the first time Gladwell faces a turbulent reception by the science community regarding some of the takeaway points he raises in his books — and how he reaches them. For example, Steven Pinker, a Harvard University psychology professor, once wrote that Gladwell “frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring.”

Now, Seidenberg is wondering whether Gladwell is purposely “not letting facts get in the way of a good story.” Gladwell, he continued, “is like a lot of journalists and public intellectuals whose greater commitment is to what is interesting, not necessarily true.”

In the chapter in question, Gladwell makes a point that dyslexia may be a “desirable difficulty” for some dyslexics because it forces them to expend more effort in reading or coming up with alternate solutions to retaining information. By struggling through their reading disability, Gladwell postulates, dyslexics might somehow develop a better learning aptitude that benefits them in the long run.

A Union College psychology professor, Christopher Chabris, also took Gladwell to task in a review in Slate magazine. Chabris viewed Gladwell’s claim in The Guardian that “If you take away the gift of reading, you create the gift of listening” as oversimplistic and devoid of nuance because it assumes a “causal rule about the mind and brain, namely that having dyslexia causes one to become a better listener.”

“I thought he was sincerely misunderstanding the science,” Chabris commented, “but he knows exactly what he is doing.”

Seidenberg goes as far as to describe the way Gladwell twists some of the evidence he uses to support this point as laughable because it neglects the fact that dyslexia arises from “noisy neural processing.” The dyslexic brain, he says, “processes stimuli as though they were degraded, to [a dyslexic’s] misfortune, not benefit.”

A case in point Gladwell uses in his book to link dyslexia to success is his assertion that “an extraordinary high percentage of entrepreneurs are dyslexic.” After scrutinizing the 2009 study in the journal Dyslexia, which this claim is based on, Seidenberg concluded that the study itself was weak at best. For Gladwell to make such a claim from this study is, in Seidenberg’s words, a “howler.”

Ultimately, Seidenberg’s annoyance with Gladwell’s book stems from the gargantuan number of readers (fans) who will likely soak up Gladwell’s points with uncritical curiosity — even if they regard it as mere entertainment.

“Gladwell seems oblivious to how deeply hurtful the ‘desirable difficulty’ suggestion might be to people who have to deal with being dyslexic, and to the parents who struggle, against institutional resistance, to get their dyslexic children help,” Seidenberg wrote. “His light entertainment is likely to make it harder for many dyslexics to gain recognition of their condition from educators, or the early diagnosis and intervention that is effective for many.”

In this sense, Gladwell is joining a list of personalities who make groundless health claims that can potentially mislead a large audience thanks to their celebrity; think Jenny McCarthy drawing an unproven connection between MMR vaccines and autism, and Michelle Bachman’s bizarre claim that HPV vaccines can cause mental retardation.

Dyslexia, Seidenberg points out, already suffers from enough public misunderstanding because it is a condition that is not obvious and largely goes undiagnosed. Of the 30 percent of Americans who read at basic or below basic levels, many are due to dyslexic conditions.

“Many educational theorists are skeptical that dyslexia exists,” he wrote. “Pushed to acknowledge that it is a brain-based disorder with a genetic component, these educators respond that, if that is true, dyslexia is a medical disorder outside their purview. Whereas on the medical side, it is seen as an educational issue.”

 

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