Am I Missing Something or Is Malcolm Gladwell a Fraud?

Another Jonah Lehrer?

Another Jonah Lehrer?

In an interview at Tuesday, writer Malcolm Gladwell is on The Daily Show plugging his new book David and Goliath. It deals with the notion of “desirable difficulties”, how you can overcome seemingly debilitating conditions and turn them into assets. One such condition, supposedly, is dyslexia, a disorder characterized by difficulties in basic language skills, like reading and writing.  So how is that desirable?

Gladwell mentions the phenomenon of successful and dyslectic entrepreneurs saying, “they didn’t succeed despite of their dyslexia, but because of it” and that their childhood problems with this condition “forced them to learn all kinds of strategies that ended up being more important.” More generally, he remarks that when asked about the reasons for their success they often speak of all sorts of problems as a source of their success. He seems blissfully unaware of the idea that this may be how people enjoy thinking about themselves – as the guy who beat the odds with his guts and determination. I’ve at least never heard anyone attribute their success to having a rich and powerful dad. And yet isn’t that how George W Bush became president, a man who many believe have dyslexia or some similar condition?

Or maybe Gladwell is well aware that this type of success stories sell, especially if they’re made to look as if they also tell the reader something new and interesting about human nature. Am I being cynical here? Let’s look at the evidence.

The only real, non-anecdotal evidence Gladwell presents is that a disproportionate number of successful entrepreneurs are dyslectic. This claim seems to be based on a study by Julie Logan, a professor of entrepreneurship at Cass Business School in London. In it Logan says,

This research set out to find an explanation for the high proportion of dyslexics among successful entrepreneurs…

This is a sneaky way of putting it because the word “high” suggests that it would be disproportionate, as Gladwell claims. But the study found no such thing. In fact, it didn’t even attempt to, since it has a sample size of ten (10) individuals who were selected because they are dyslectic and successful entrepreneurs! It’s interesting to note in the clip from The Daily Show when Gladwell mentions four such dyslectic entrepreneurs and and the host Jon Stewart jokingly wonders if they are only four and Gladwell laughs and says, “there is significantly more.” This way it appears as if he had a few dozen, but from what I’ve gathered there are only the ten from Logan’s study. Are an additional six really significantly more?

Anyway, where did Gladwell come up with this idea that dyslectics are overrepresented among prominent entrepreneurs? I haven’t read the book but in the Barnes & Noble Book Blog review, Amy Wilkinson states that it contains the claim that some 30 percent of successful entrepreneurs are dyslectic. But Logan’s study doesn’t state this anywhere. However, in her review of her own previous research she mentions that she found that 35 percent of all American entrepreneurs – successful or otherwise – have dyslexia. So it seems that when Logan cautiously stretched the truth with her “high proportion”, Gladwell took this one step further and fabricated the idea of a disproportionate amount of dyslectics in this group.

I guess I’ll have to read the book to be sure, but this looks very suspicious.

Update: I’ve now read the parts of the book that concern dyslexia. His claim is found in the quote,

An extraordinarily high number of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic. A recent study by Julie Logan at City University London puts the number somewhere around a third. The list includes many of the most famous innovators of the past few decades.

And as I said above, Logan only claims that roughly a third of all American entrepreneurs are dyslectic. She pushes the same idea as Gladwell, that they are successful but all she can provide is self-rated competence and the rate at which the dyslectics grow their businesses – neither of which is evidence of actual success.

On The Daily Show he makes the same claim,

If you look at groups of very successful entrepreneurs or professionals you will find a much greater than expected number of dyslectics among their ranks.

Now he examplifies with people like Richard Branson, Charles Schwab etc giving the impression that dyslectics are disproportionate among the entrepreneurial stars.  But the research he is basing his claim on is still made on a sample of  all dyslectic entrepreneurs. It’s not a subset as Gladwell implies. And their success has not been established. This is just a simple case of having an idea, looking for the evidence, not finding it – and then making it up.

18 Responses to Am I Missing Something or Is Malcolm Gladwell a Fraud?

  1. […] Am I Missing Something or Is Malcolm Gladwell a Fraud? | Staffan's Personality Blog […]

  2. Opinion: Having one, or a very few, obstacles to overcome, is good for your character and resourcefulness. But even a little more and the individual is swamped.

    No, I have no data on that, so I shouldn’t be kicking Gladwell, should I?

    • Staffan says:

      That’s my personal impression too. You need challenges to grow. Although I’m not sure being a functional illiterate is a good example of that.

      You should be kicking Gladwell. He makes claims and pretends like the research backs it up. I read that study (only 28 pages) and as far as I can see it doesn’t in any way back him up.

      He also lists four of those highly successful dyslectic entrepreneurs in the clip above and says, “I could go on and on” but the research suggests that there are ten such individuals. It’s like a magician trying to make you see something that isn’t there.

  3. Mike says:

    If you are not dyslexic…you have no idea…As a dyslexic…I can assure you his assessment is spot on…It’s only a matter of time before medical research maps out the mental processing of dyslexics and non-dyslexics…

    • Staffan says:

      No idea of what exactly? Keep in mind that this article is about whether Gladwell has any evidence to back up his claims with. It doesn’t concern itself with the question of whether his statements are true or not. He might be, but he sure hasn’t provided any evidence for it – but he pretends as if he has. That’s my problem with him.

  4. Gottlieb says:

    The claims of alleged cognitive advantages between dyslexic people is basically the same on the supposed advantages of left-handed people . There is a great darkness in these matters and I think also there is great ignorance about the cognitive human characteristics among scientists . I realize very clearly , to observe several scientific papers on the website that there is a tendency among them to make statements or findings of the studies that performed when in fact , already lost half way .
    Human intelligence as it should be , is very complex , as a result , stating that , IQ tests do not measure anything is wrong like say , IQ tests measure everything . There is a tendency , particularly human , to be always seeking strong answers based on a dualistic thinking , yes or no , right and wrong , more intelligent or less intelligent .
    By little literature on dyslexia I have seen, it seems to me that the carriers of this mutation may display because of their unusual brain physiology , great math skills . Is that rule of nature , you lose a hand and win another . It’s similar to my case , I ‘m a disaster in math , however present good verbal skills . However, dyslexia is an extreme case, as if a spectrum that dyslexia is at the end of a continuum and is dyscalculia another.

    The number of entrepreneurs that Gladwell attributed as a practical proof of the advantages of dyslexia could be composed of the most famous and successful. At most, I have the impression that to excel in any area where a larger filter selects more accurately, certain traits rare in the population as dyslexia, or some composition cognitive style extremely favorable for economic activities, high-capacity, and favorable personality traits may eventually respond better to existence, in my opinion, unusually high, people with supposed cognitives disadvantages among the best in their respective fields.

    • Staffan says:

      Dyslexia is probably more than the impairment of language skills just like ADHD is more than attention deficit and hyperactivity. This way of making narrow and negative concepts is inherent in psychiatry. I wouldn’t rule out that Richard Branson and others have favored from some benefit linked to dyslexia. What I don’t agree with is Gladwell’s idea of the actual impairment as the key to their success. That’s like saying an unintelligent person was successful because of his stupidity.

      And of course, the fact that he fabricates evidence.

      • Gottlieb says:

        I am of the opinion that all these excesses are extreme neurological within a spectrum and may occasionally happen that an individual has large specific cognitive abilities and that coupled with his personality traits favorable to overcome the problems , which may possibly have , especially at the time of school when there is a strong emphasis on standardization and confluence of neurological diversity for stricter types based on certain models , especially education and socialization in the long term .
        As with autism , some phenotypes of dyslexia can work very well ( or even extremely well ) since they have professional intervention since childhood or the person , depending on their characteristics , carries on this self conscience about their uniqueness complex , so you can manage your abilities and disadvantages in the best way possible.
        When we speak of mental or neurological reconfigurations unusual , we are also talking about randomness phenotypic – genetic . So we have so much diversity and extreme types among left-handers and ambidextrous . With a random combination is possible to have up to geniuses or stupid . The same happens in the case of dyslexia , it is within this group outliers .

        In the case of a complaint concerning the alleged data fabrication by Gladwell. Well, it is always important to have a quantity of sample, preferably very large, to extract any possible explanation of this more concrete, but on the idea that randomness is like a genetic lottery that distributes unevenly their positive and negative traits, then we could conclude for now that most dyslexic people have long-term problems in their professional lives, their neurological disadvantages resulting from , whereas a minority of them can be extremely successful, precisely because of its insular genius specific, such as a savant of Functioning higher.
        An example, I read a while ago that there is a great representation of left-handers among tennis players, however, the amount of left-handers increases with increasing category level. Ie, between the professional grand slams there is indeed a overrepresentation of left-handers. If the percentage of left-handers is around 30-40% among the main players then the theory of the benefit to a minority is reduced.
        In the case of dyslexic it can be seen in their respective areas. In many of them, part of their brains for the verbal skills are depressed while the parties related to math and spatial perhaps are super magnified.
        Lose one side wins and the other.

  5. Staffan says:

    Yes, there must be something similar to savant-like ability, perhaps some nonverbal ability in the top entrepreneurs because even if they compensate with general (and nonverbal intelligence) it would take them far given that everyone at that level is highly intelligent. That’s what they should be studying. But psychiatry and similar fields of research are only interested in what is wrong with a person, not what is right.

    • Gottlieb says:

      Exactly. I was thinking about the main emphasis that the common psychology, ie, dealing with alleged mental disorders lighter as shyness, anxiety (often related) or some form of humor less balanced, has a very strong tendency to categorize people not fit the model of society (most). Increasingly believe that professionals can not really be among the most intelligent.
      Currently watching the success of Susan Cain’s book, I wonder if someday we will finally understand that shy or introverted, for example, are not guilty of anything at all and are not sick because they prefer a good book to a party on Saturday night.
      Well, I think there should be a historical explanation for the negative nature of psychology, since it originated by the dawn of science chatterbox of leftism.

  6. […] sell and, presumably, make him loads of money. Can you blame him? Of course not. People call him a fraud or say he sounds extremely convincing if you lack expertise, but the reality is that he has written […]

    • Staffan says:

      And Gladwell is left-handed. The plot thickens : ) There could be a link to a right hemisphere dominance for sure. Wouldn’t surprise me.

      • Gottlieb says:

        How to explain the success of left-handers in the swimming an individual sport and the current success of the Russian gymnast Aliya Mustafina a lefty too, at the last world played in Belgium, it took 3 medals. Since he started racing professionally that Mustafina won medals in every event in which they competed.

        I still thought it was exaggerated exposure of this research in the media lamstream ( cattle ) and their likely consequences for the dumb .
        I have a theory that lefties tend to incomplete birth and throughout life , a genetic mutant , influenced by the environment , acquires format . I have read reports of known about an alleged high intelligence of left handed individuals .
        Loved the explanation MacMannus about left-handedness , nothing more than genetic randomness . And we know that in a lottery every type phenotype can be created . Moreover , I believe that if it is true that left-handedness as well as other minority traits are archaic features of the human species , then the phenotypes for genetic intelligence, cognitive style and bio – culture could arise before the left side , right brain. I mean , before you create something you must shuffle .
        I recently read that epopheic trajectory of humankind across the planet , most likely occurred due to the presence of people with mental disorders ” ,” natural candidates to transcend the established order . Therefore , people with behavioral tendencies high risk or high anxiedade may have taken the first step outside of Africa . We know how the normal behave , they are only there to procreate and live their lives , enriched with the madness of brilliant minds and lonely .
        The uniqueness of man is made ​​in half the time , the people who generally despised by society .

  7. […] Maybe Gladwell is well aware that this type of success stories sell, especially if they’re made to look as if they also tell the reader something new and interesting about human nature. Am I being cynical here? […]

  8. Mission Cat says:

    My experience with Gladwell is merely viewing one of his Youtube videos “Ten Secrets of Successful People”, or some such.
    After viewing the video and reflecting for about 5 minutes, I was motivated to search for “Gladwell” and “dumb”. This led me to your blog.
    Some sell pages, and not information (publish or perish). I sense that possibly Gladwell has a priority to fill up pages with ideas that are out of the box, only.

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