David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell [Book Thoughts]

You’ll have to forgive Gladwell’s dodgy statistics and research methods but David and Goliath is a well-presented entertaining read even if it might not teach you much.


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Malcolm Gladwell has been a writer for the New Yorker since 1996 and he’s got four best-sellers to his name including Blink and Outliers. He’s known for using research and case studies to present alternate points of view, but he’s equally notorious for his dodgy use of statistics, leap-of-faith logic and broad generalizations. David and Goliath is his latest book subtitled Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.

 David and Goliath is standard Gladwell fare. He analyses a series of cases linked by some broad underlying theme and then presents his insights while backing them up with research and reasoning. The theme this time is how we misevaluate the factors that contribute to success in conflicts and social problems, but that doesn’t make for a good subtitle so Underdogs it is. The book starts with the biblical story of David and Goliath and right off the bat Gladwell is doing what he does best. He argues that we’we’ve got it wrong when we think of David as an underdog and that Goliath actually had no chance of winning at all. He then presents ‘evidence’ that Goliath was suffering from acromegaly which impaired his eyesight and… yeah, standard Gladwell fare.

 It can be hard to see if you’re not familiar with research methods but Gladwell is often guilty of abusing small samples and jumping to conclusions if they support his arguments. You’re going to have leave your rigour at the door and not treat his arguments as serious research if you want to enjoy this book.

 And if you manage to do that, you’ll find that Malcolm Gladwell is a brilliant storyteller. Each chapter focuses on a few individuals and Gladwell tells their stories in way that makes you understand them and relate to them. There are case studies of class size in the school system, of battling crime with harsh punishment, of the Protestant-Catholic conflicts in Northern Ireland. It’s all interesting subject matter and it’s all presented well. Gladwell draws conclusions such as that large armies have disadvantages or that acts of terror can actually unite people rather than strike fear in them. Many seem obvious (and probably are) but they’re presented in a compelling way.

 If you’re a Gladwell fan you’you’ve probably bought this already and if you’re a Gladwell-hater you’ve probably bought it too. If you’re neither of these things then it all depends on what you want to get out of the book. If you’re looking for serious study into the subject of underdogs you’re going to be left wanting. Gladwell’s cases bare resemblance to those of Ariely, Kahneman and Taleb although if you’ve read those, you probably won’t learn too much from this. But I suppose if you’re looking for some light and entertaining reading then David and Goliath certainly provides that.

 You’ll have to forgive Gladwell’s dodgy statistics and research methods but David and Goliath is a well-presented entertaining read even if it might not teach you much.

 See you next week

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