A Critique of David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

Categories: Malcolm Gladwell

Thank you for reading my paper. My paper is a critique of Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath, it is not simply attempting to analyze his piece but attempting to extract what he has said about difficulty and disability and compare it with what others have found regarding the topic in order to develop a greater understanding of the connection. My thesis is that Gladwell develops his argument but the evidence he uses is weak and he ignores the scientific characteristics of dyslexia as well as the societal issues involved with being a gifted dyslexic.

I start out by showing Gladwell’s idea of ‘desirable difficulty’ is based on overgeneralization of a scientific hypothesis. He examines a study that finds the very specific conclusion that changes in font can improve testing performance. He overgeneralizes this to difficulty as whole and attempts to show how it could cause similar performance in the case of dyslexia being the difficulty. This would be fine had he proved it with experiments and data, not a examining few instances which would prove his point.

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I show that overgeneralizing the results even slightly can result in incorrectness by citing a study that did just that and found their hypothesis to be incorrect.

I then show that his examples of people who prove dyslexia are a desirable difficulty actually are not examples of that at all. I show that he has ignored a subset of people known as gifted dyslexics who are incredibly intelligent but also have dyslexia.

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One of the main issues is recognizing these people and understanding how their disability holds them back. Gladwell not recognizing acts as a perfect example of this. My paper also somewhat serves to bring light to this issue.

Finally, I show that despite Gladwell misusing the idea of desirable difficulty and him not recognizing the genius of his examinees, he somehow arrived at a correct conclusion, but largely by chance, as his reasoning is thoroughly flawed. I cite a study showing that dyslexia can improve visual-spatial ability which can help people succeed in many of today’s most difficult tasks. This works to explain the fact that there are so many genius dyslexics and the fact that so many dyslexics are successful. Which Gladwell fails at doing.

My paper’s biggest strength is my integration of sources and connection of ideas. I think that I connected and supported my ideas very well and little is said without substantial evidence to support it. I also attempted to work on not beating around the bush with my words, and to be much more direct in this piece and I hope that worked. My biggest flaw is that it seems hard for me to provide something of my own to this as well as integrate to ‘genius’ into it. I hope the connections I am making are strong enough to make this more than a simple argument or paper. I also hope that my thesis is not too specific as well. I attempted to be more direct here instead of using superfluous wording, which is a habit of mine, and I fear I may have made it too convoluted in the process. I look forward to hearing what you have to say.



Manbir Gulati

Professor Amelia Worsley

WRI 125

27 November 2013

The is on dat in the hose. Did you get that? No? Try again…still no? You’re not very bright are you…an IQ of 125? I suppose you’re just not really trying then. The[re] is [no] [b]at in the ho[u]se. It’s simple.

To many, it is an amazingly foreign concept to imagine a person who could be gifted, a genius even, yet be unable to complete what most would see as an incredibly basic task. Unfortunately, millions of people who struggle with living in the paradox of being a gifted dyslexic also struggle with others not understanding that it is possible to be one. Despite these hurdles, is it still possible to succeed? Even more counterintuitively, could it be possible that these “hurdles” could make someone more likely to succeed?

This extremely counterintuitive notion is precisely the one addressed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath. Gladwell makes the assertion that difficulty, and lack of opportunity can actually help one’s chances of success, not hurt them (12). He presents an interesting and persuasive argument stating that, in the case of dyslexia, the effects of the learning disability can actually cause one to develop skills more beneficial than the skill they lost. For example, he asserted about a dyslexic he examined, “the things he was forced to do because he could not read well turned out to be even more valuable. ” (128). Though Gladwell’s conclusion that disability can result in a greater likelihood of success may be correct, his overgeneralization of data, failure to discuss the inherent neurological benefits of dyslexia, and ignorance of the gifted dyslexic greatly problematizes his claim of causation.

Gladwell sets up his case for dyslexia engendering excellence by first outlining the idea of “Desirable Difficulty”(115). He explains that introducing difficulty into a situation can actually increase one’s ability to perform, rather than decrease it. In other words, some difficulty can be “desirable” due to more unobvious benefits. His main piece of evidence is a research paper done by two psychologists who administered a short IQ test to many students at top universities. They repeated the test for one of the highest scoring groups, the Princeton group, except this time they changed the font from a typical font to a small, grey, illegible one. This change actually greatly boosted student performance (Gladwell 122).

These results do show that a road block can help to improve performance rather than hurt it, but Gladwell greatly overgeneralizes these results. He attempts to use this study to prove that dyslexia could have the same effect (123). The study demonstrates how one particular interference in our ability to take in information while reading a question can increase our performance. Dyslexia also results in difficulty while gathering textual information. Using the logic of Gladwell’s extrapolations, one could easily say that perhaps this difficulty would cause greater performance involving reading, this, however, is not the case. The study cannot even be generalized to something along the lines of ‘difficulty in absorbing test content can improve results’. A study Divided attention: An undesirable difficulty in memory retention, done by Nicholas Gaspelin et al., directly attempts to tackle the desirable difficulty hypothesis as it was presented in the original research paper Gladwell used as the foundation for his book. They found:

“Although many studies have demonstrated that memory retrieval difficulty introduced during learning leads to memory benefits during later retrieval (R. A. Bjork & Bjork, 1992). On the basis of this empirical generalization from a diverse set of manipulations and contexts, it seemed plausible that divided attention might also provide such a benefit. However, all three of our experiments produced no divided-attention benefit” (981).

Desirable difficulty is a real scientific hypothesis, and one Gladwell uses to an extent it should not be used. Gaspelin and his colleagues – scientists in the field - used the evidence presented for the desirable difficulty hypothesis to make a much more limited extrapolation than the one Gladwell makes, and they found their extrapolations to be false. Gladwell is unjustified in making the extrapolations he does. Not only does Gladwell use this term and idea incorrectly when he says “Can dyslexia turn out to be a desirable difficulty?”, but he doesn’t even use data to show the ways in which the idea of desirable difficulty could apply to dyslexia, simply a few extraordinary cases. (123) He is using the idea of difficulty while encoding memory, to prove that the act of overcoming difficulty in a dyslexic’s life can lead to advantages later on, which is not a valid way of using the evidence from these studies.

Gladwell doesn’t even consider a scientific perspective. Contradictions between scientific studies regarding dyslexia and what Gladwell is doing prove further that he is extrapolating incorrectly. Gladwell points out that a figure named David Boies became an outstanding corporate lawyer and was dyslexic. He contends this was because of his outstanding memory which developed because, as a child, Boies’ inability to read encouraged him to memorize words instead of read them. “His memory by that point was a formidable instrument. He had been exercising it, after all” (128). Were we to generalize this specific case to prove Gladwell’s point, we would be implying that most dyslexics develop above average memory skills, but instead we find the exact opposite. A study examining dyslexia in relation to extraordinary ability, Dyslexia linked to talent done by Catya von Károlyi et al., very clearly accepts that “Problems with working memory are common among those with dyslexia (Swanson & Siegel 7)” (129). If Gladwell had attempted to find any sort of substantial evidence to prove a correlation between memory and dyslexia he would find his extrapolations unsupported. While this does discredit Gladwell’s case, it does not change the fact that both Boies and another figure Gladwell used, Gary Cohn, both had excellent memories, nor the huge number of immensely successful people who are dyslexic. (143, 124).

First, let’s look at the correlation between dyslexia and success that Gladwell cites. It is that many successful entrepreneurs have dyslexia, not that many dyslexics are successful entrepreneurs. Unlike in the desirable difficulty studies which showed that a desirable difficulty was not a difficulty which was only desirable to some, not all. The divided attention study did not show that as long as you overcame the divided attention difficulty you benefitted, nor was the study done on Princeton undergraduates a condition based on one overcoming the difficulty presented. That is why Gladwell’s interpretation of desirable difficulty is so flawed, he is using it to mean essentially that overcoming an obstacle will help you in life. The notion that overcoming adversity can be beneficial doesn’t seem like a very novel conclusion, nor does it prove or even fully relate to the correlation of success and dyslexia which he examined. Gladwell essentially concedes this argument later saying “Many people with dyslexia don’t manage to compensate for their disability, there are a remarkable number of dyslexics in prison, for example.”(157). It seems as though dyslexia, as Gladwell presents it, is more a gamble for success than a desirable difficulty as presented in the studies examined.

The correlation of success and dyslexia is still valid evidence though. So is the exceptional memory of Cohn and Boies. Gladwell stumbles upon this correlation by overgeneralizing and incorrectly uses it to support his hypothesis, but why did it exist for him to stumble upon it in the first place? In this case, two wrongs make a right, Gladwell does not seem to be aware of the subpopulation known as gifted dyslexics. These are incredibly brilliant individuals who happen to have a learning disability. Their learning disability and incredible intellect can interact in three main ways, outlined in Overlooked and Unchallenged: Gifted Students with Learning Disabilities by Carol Mills and Linda Brody. The first being students who can be seen as gifted, their intellect is acknowledged by themselves and by those around them, but they are thought of as slackers. They are thought to be simply wasting their intellect until “the academic difficulties of these students may increase to the point that they are so far behind their peers that someone finally suspects a disability” (Mills, Brody 36). The second class, which Boies and Cohn fall under, are people who are recognized as learning disabled but have their intellect masked due to the tasks they face. Finally, the last class has their intellect and disability perfectly mask each other so they get no special attention in either direction, they are simply perceived as average, and just accept that themselves (36). So with what frequency do these cases occur? They seem like they would be incredibly rare. Either one of these phenomena occurring in an individual is rare, but both together seems highly improbable. Surprisingly, “Many more students may be learning disabled and gifted than anyone realizes. In spite of their high intellectual ability, many of these students remain unchallenged, suffer silently, and do not achieve their potential because their educational needs are not recognized and addressed. ” (Mills 40). Gladwell ignorance is perfect proof of the amount this population is underserved. Instead of detailing how Cohn or Boies were geniuses who were held back by their disability, or talk about how they were clearly brilliant and unrecognized, he instead misused a scientific idea to attempt to show how these people overcame their disability and how they wouldn’t have gotten to where they were had they not been dyslexic. He refuses to acknowledge these men as geniuses and instead simply chalks it up to them be able to overcome what others could not, without even giving a second thought to what it was that allowed Cohn and Boies to overcome the obstacle while others couldn’t. Gladwell simply dismisses the other dyslexics as not being adequate enough. This ignorance on his part further proves how dyslexia is not in fact desirable as he continually claims. This ignorance, which he is not solely guilty of, is just another thing working against them, making their plight undesirable.

Gladwell interviews these men asking them “Would they wish dyslexia on their own children?” (183). They said no, despite Gladwell propounding the idea that dyslexia was in fact the seed behind their success. Cohn and Boies didn’t wish dyslexia upon their children because “they also knew firsthand what the price of that success was”(183). Now, this was with the idea that they would not be nearly as successful had they not struggled through their disability. They still thought that the pain of just being dyslexic alone was too much of a price to be successful. Imagine if these men instead saw themselves as geniuses with disabilities, and did not see their plight as the source of their power. Imagine how much that would hurt. Clearly this is not at all a desirable difficulty.

I have not yet offered proof that their giftedness and disability were not, in fact, correlated with each other. I have only shown that Malcolm’s idea of how they were correlated is flawed. The truth is that when Gladwell says “they succeeded…because of their disorder” (124), in all likelihood, he’s right…just not in the way he thinks he is.

In a previously cited source, Dyslexia linked to talent, Károlyi et al. performed a series of tests which proved increased performance tied to “visual-spatial ability” (427) in dyslexics. This is the reason, if there is any, that there is an overwhelmingly high number successful dyslexics. The authors of the paper says “ Global visual-spatial processing (what we refer to as “holistic inspection”) may underlie important real-world activities such as mechanical skill, carpentry, invention, visual artistry, surgery, and interpreting X-rays or magnetic resonance images (MRI).” (431). These characteristics and professions are ones largely associated with those cited by Gladwell. Invention and creativity are incredibly important in the careers he mentioned. Construction was a profession of Boies’s (115). One of Gladwell’s figures was even a surgeon (134). This finding both explains the population of genius dyslexics as well as the incredible number of extremely successful dyslexics.

So as it turns out, success and dyslexia are linked. Dyslexia can bring you benefit in the long run. But, Gladwell’s original proof for this conjecture is entirely flawed, and his ignorance of the subpopulation his figures reside in only serves to further undermine this group’s stature and propagate the largest problem they face: ignorance. Dyslexia causing growth is not at all the reason for the correlation nor is dyslexia a desirable difficulty. Dyslexia is a difficulty which may improve your visual-spatial cognition. These people are not successful because they are dyslexic, as Gladwell would like, they are instead gifted, perhaps because of their disability, and are successful because they are gifted.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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A Critique of David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. (2024, Feb 07). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-critique-of-david-and-goliath-by-malcolm-gladwell-essay

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