The limits of the Malcolm Gladwell/Chris Anderson approach

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This is of a piece with Barbara’s annoyed Monday post about Dan Ariely and Hershey’s kisses. Stephen Laniel, whose entertaining and educational blog I came across because I keep track of online mentions of my book and it’s currently on his reading list (see, narcissism has its uses!) muses about what kind of niche he could fill as an author, and concludes:

I should just follow along behind Jonah Lehrer or Malcolm Gladwell or Chris Anderson or whoever, watch what they’re writing about, then say exactly the opposite.

It’s not that these fellows are entirely wrong, but it’s that they seem to follow the science news cycle. Someone comes up with an idea which is valid within an appropriately circumscribed domain, subject to qualifications, hedge hedge hedge. Then someone else declares that this thing is the greatest thing and explains everything. Behavioral economics has gone this way of late; I think everything went downhill when people other than Richard Thaler tried to write about it. Then there’s evolutionary psychology, everyone’s favorite brand of universal explanation. Or take smaller trends, like the fetish for power laws or the “long tail”. These are all fine ideas, and when combined with other ideas they’re part of the toolbox. In the hands of popularizers, though, they often get unmoored from reality.

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