Not everyone loves Malcolm Gladwell's new book David and Goliath. Specifically — one person, Union College psychology professor Christopher Chabris — really, really dislikes the book, and has written so in scathing reviews in two major publications in the past week. Gladwell isn't taking this sitting down, and in his effort to defend his work, the bestselling author made this fight personal.
In book reviews for both The Wall Street Journal and Slate, Chabris took particular issue with Gladwell's well-known combinations of personal anecdote and "cherry-picking" science. "This is an entertaining book. But it teaches little of general import, for the morals of the stories it tells lack solid foundations in evidence and logic," Chabris wrote in The Wall Street Journal last week. He doubled down on that criticism in Slate with a post titled "Why Malcolm Gladwell Matters, and Why That's Unfortunate," lamenting that Gladwell's books don't give a rigorous academic discussion and so rely on "spurious" evidence. Chabris also shredded Gladwell on his own blog.
But Gladwell wasn't having it. Late on Thursday, he took to Slate to respond, and came out with guns a-blazing. "Chabris should calm down," Gladwell writes, and accuses Chabris of being, like, totally obsessed with him. "I clearly drive Chabris crazy." In addition, Gladwell "came across" another article that accused him of being a "bullshitter," and upon further digging, he connects that piece to Chabris:
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.
First of all, that Gladwell "came across" the piece shows that he has clearly been googling himself this past week. But more importantly, these criticisms are particularly personal, bringing in his wife's similar disdain to essentially accuse Chabris of having a personal vendetta against him. Gladwell totally rejects Chabris' argument that rigorous academic debate is necessary in his books: "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."
But this fight makes Gladwell look narcissistic, too. It's one thing to search for reviews of your own book — who hasn't googled their name before? — but it's another to accuse a critic of being personally obsessive. Gladwell has defended his works against literary critics before without resorting to this level, such as his defense of the '10,000 Hour Rule' against Sports Illustrated writer David Epstein.
This debate, though, has devolved into the overly personal. Maybe both sides should take Gladwell's advice and just "calm down."