The Gladwell pivot

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Below is a guest post by Mark Seidenberg on Malcolm Gladwell's recent book, David and Goliath, which promotes the idea that apparent disadvantages are often actually advantages, and in particular suggests that dyslexia might be Good For You.

This piece is commentary on a chapter about dyslexia in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book. I don’t follow his work closely, and the book is being reviewed and critiqued everywhere, but I thought the chapter merited a response from somebody, like me, who studies dyslexia and works with local advocacy groups for dyslexics and their families. The chapter deserves s a line-by-line analysis; what I’ve written only mentions the main issues. The document incorporates several key points that were handed to me by Maryellen MacDonald, for which I thank her, a lot.

__________________________Mark Seidenberg
__________________________Language and Cognitive Neuroscience Lab
__________________________University of Wisconsin-Madison

Malcolm Gladwell, the immensely popular writer, has just released his latest best-selling book. Gladwell mainly writes about aspects of human behavior that are studied by researchers in psychology, neuroscience, sociology, and related fields. He has perfected a literary form that might be called the nonfiction short story (by analogy to Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel”). Each chapter (or New Yorker article) explores an interesting, usually counterintuitive, idea by means of an engaging narrative, woven out of several types of cloth: personal biographies, telling anecdotes, research studies, expert opinions. The stories are exceptionally well told; it is a remarkable feat to turn an issue like the impact of practice on expertise (Outliers) into a page-turner.

The gripe about Gladwell is his selective use of such information—not letting facts get in the way of a good story. A different story, certainly a more nuanced one, would result if other studies, other personal narratives, other experts had been considered. The average reader is not aware of what has been left out and thus can be easily mislead. His selective use of the research literature turns scientific findings into another form of anecdote. This is particularly bothersome to scientists whose own first commandment is something like: thou shalt address all relevant evidence, not merely the findings that support the most interesting, attention-getting hypothesis.

But so what? The man is writing popular books for a general audience, not reviews of the scientific literature. He introduces people to fascinating topics they might not otherwise have known about or considered interesting enough to merit attention. He offers novel, surprising perspectives on topics that everybody wonders about, like the bases of extraordinary success. Gladwell is like a lot of journalists and public intellectuals whose greater commitment is to what is interesting, not necessarily true. Gladwell isn’t obligated to consider competing perspectives or contradictory findings. His only obligation is to engage his readers. It’s hard to build a compelling narrative out of “on the one hand this, on the other hand that,” even if that would be the most accurate characterization of what is known about a topic. Nothing is gained if people won’t pick up the book. Such books are valuable because they’re stimulating: readers are moved to think and talk about important questions, situations, and events. There are plenty of easily accessible sources for readers who want to know more. Besides, there is always some truth to what he is saying; the evidence may be circumstantial but he doesn’t just make it up. And the books are enjoyable: vivid characters, surprising findings, and anecdotes to share around the water cooler. It’s all benign.

Gladwell gets a lot of grief, but he does his job Damnwell. Reading is good. Knowledge is good. Enjoyment is good. Take the book for what it is and have fun. Or go read a novel.

But here’s something to consider. What if in telling one of these stories, the author inadvertently made life much harder for a large group of people who are disadvantaged in some way? What if it resulted in fewer people being able to overcome that disadvantage? What if it added to the considerable burdens that such individuals and their families already experience?

Could the Gladwell treatment be harmful to children?

There. That was my attempt to execute the famous Gladwell pivot, whereby he sets up an issue one way and then flips it around. You might have missed it because I’m an amateur, but here is the point:

Chapter 3 of the new book is about developmental dyslexia. It’s titled after David Boies, one of two dyslexic superachievers who are profiled. The chapter’s setup is this: Dyslexia is a serious disability. Lots of people struggle with it. Having a brain that’s wired to make it hard to read is a big liability.

The pivot is: [It being such a debilitating condition] “You wouldn’t wish dyslexia on your child. Or would you?”

Gladwell then develops the Idea that dyslexia might be a “desirable difficulty”, a condition that is usually a liability but can also be the engine for extraordinary personal success. He says that it’s hard to believe that the condition could be considered desirable given how many people struggle with it. But Gladwell is impressed by fact that “an extraordinarily high percentage of entrepreneurs are dyslexic”. And he is impressed by people like David Boies, the most successful, accomplished person at the top of a very high legal pyramid, who identifies as dyslexic. Boies is the dream-team litigator who worked on a slew of historic cases, including the IBM and Microsoft anti-trust cases, Gore vs. Bush, and the overturning of California Prop 8.

Gladwell’s idea isn’t just that such people manage to succeed despite their dyslexia. It’s that having dyslexia, and dealing with its consequences, played a causal role in their success. If dyslexia can boost people to stratospheric levels of success in professions like law and finance, and it can stimulate the creative, out-of-the-box thinking that contributes to entrepreneurial success, dyslexia might actually be a kind of “desirable difficulty.” Interesting!

Or disturbing. The answer to the question, “You wouldn’t wish dyslexia on your child. Or would you?” is, “No, you would not.” Gladwell seems oblivious to how deeply hurtful the “desirable difficulty” suggestion might be to people who have to deal with being dyslexic, and to the parents who struggle, against institutional resistance, to get their dyslexic children help. His light entertainment is likely to make it harder for many dyslexics to gain recognition of their condition from educators, or the early diagnosis and intervention that is effective for many. That would not be benign.

So here’s an irony: what if Gladwell’s chapter makes it harder for a dyslexic to achieve the levels of success he venerates?

Being dyslexic may or may not have contributed to the success of some very high achieving individuals. The truth of the matter is irrelevant for two reasons. First, it has no bearing on what to do about a dyslexic child. Withholding treatment would be unconscionable, and possibility that some dyslexics become superachievers doesn’t change that. Second, he’s created a meme whose existence doesn’t depend on being true. The meme is spreading through the culture at this very moment (move aside, “Overly Attached Girlfriend”). Gladwell has a vastly larger audience and far more influence on what people think than any scientist who studies dyslexia or advocacy organizations like the International Dyslexia Association. And so the idea that dyslexia can be a “desirable difficulty” will take hold, as will cruder versions than Gladwell intended, such as dyslexics being advantaged compared to ordinary folk.

Of course I’m talking about future consequences here rather than known outcomes, and there’s no Tardis time machine handy to let us see how much impact the book will have. It’s an ongoing experiment, the data aren’t in, and it may be possible to bias the outcome while the experiment is in progress. But given what we know about dyslexia and the very real difficulties parents currently experience in getting the deficit recognized, it’s rational to be concerned that Gladwell’s message of desirable difficulty will have undesirable consequences for the mass of individuals who are dyslexic.

Dyslexia places individuals at high risk for educational failure. It creates serious challenges to people fully participating in the workforce, managing their own health care, or advancing their children's education. Gladwell knows this; he just wants it also known that the condition apparently had remarkably positive effects for some people, and why. He’s not claiming that it works for all dyslexics, obviously; the theme of the book is that underdogs win more often than you might think, not always. The potential harm arises from the fact that dyslexics and their parents already face enormous obstacles. The condition is not highly visible and often goes undiagnosed. About 30% of the US population reads at the basic or below basic levels as defined by standard metrics. Many of these individuals are dyslexics whose condition was not diagnosed or treated. Dyslexia is poorly understood by teachers because their training doesn’t include exposure to modern research on developmental disorders, their behavioral characteristics, their neural and genetic bases, or effective interventions. Many educational theorists are skeptical that dyslexia exists. Pushed to acknowledge that it is a brain-based disorder with a genetic component, these educators respond that, if that is true, dyslexia is a medical disorder outside their purview. Whereas on the medical side, it is seen as an educational issue.

The net result is a lot of people who go undiagnosed and untreated, or whose condition is recognized very late when it is harder to address. People who study dyslexics and work with parents and support groups also have stories to tell. There is a parent I’ve worked with in an advocacy group for dyslexics and their families, a highly educated, upper middle class mother (a pediatrician) with a severely dyslexic child and an extended family history of dyslexia. At a meeting to discuss the child’s difficulties in school, the teacher asks, “Do you have any books in the home? Did you read to your child when he was younger? Is reading important in your family?” The child's difficulties are seen as arising from poor parenting rather than a heritable disorder.

Dyslexics and their parents are frequently challenged about the reality of the condition. In some states, like mine, even a diagnosis based on a full clinical neuropsych workup will not be accepted at face value. The child might get an IEP (individualized educational program) which stipulates that the classroom teacher will provide instruction tailored to the child’s needs. This is the same teacher who lacks any training about dyslexia or how to address it.

The other frequent response to parents is: He’ll catch up. Children learn to read at different rates. No need to worry. Or do anything. (I used “he” here because the condition occurs more often in males.)

Now parents may be faced with yet another response: dyslexia isn’t a developmental disability, it’s desirable. It can give a child an enormous advantage. Do you know that there are dyslexic superlawyers and Wall Street billionaires? You wouldn’t want to deprive your child of those possibilities, would you?

Is this Gladwell’s exact message? No. Will it be taken that way? Yes. Does his book promote shallow thinking about dyslexia? Absolutely. Was Chapter 3 such a compelling, rock-solid story that it had to be told, whatever the consequences? I don’t think so.

Which brings me to the actual substance of Gladwell’s argument about dyslexia being a desirable difficulty for even a few people. I found his idea utterly unconvincing, the evidence for key points either shallow, non-existent, or open to obvious alternative explanations. Here is a small sample of some of the howlers that in aggregate made me question whether Gladwell was paying attention to anything except maintaining his perfect narrative structure.

1. The characterization of dyslexia. The chapter starts with a brief description of dyslexia, supplying enough semi-accurate detail to establish that it a serious developmental disorder.

The howler was his discussion of the neuroimaging data, which generally have shown a pattern of underactivation in areas relevant to reading (e.g., the left occipital area where spellings are stored) and overactivation elsewhere (e.g., parts of the right hemisphere; the left inferior gyrus, part of Broca’s area). Gladwell’s glib summary of these findings: for dyslexics, “the [fMRI] scan looks like an aerial photo of a city during a blackout.” No, it doesn’t. The scans actually look like this:

The figure (from Shaywitz et al., 2002, available here) shows fMRI results from nonimpaired (NI) and dyslexic subject groups, and contrast maps (in the third column) showing areas where activation was greater for the nonimpaired group compared to dyslexics.

As in this figure, dyslexics and nondsylexics tend to activate the same neural structures during reading, with differences in degree of activation associated with degree of reading impairment. Differences between dyslexics and nondyslexics are seen in specific, limited regions, not throughout the brain.

Sometimes a contrastive analysis will yield no net activation in an area. This might occur in comparing dyslexics’ performance in a reading condition compared to a baseline condition (e.g. looking at meaningless squiggles). However, that result only indicates “no statistically reliable activation over and above that observed in the baseline condition,” not that the area had its lights out.

Dyslexics also tend to show overactivation in the right hemisphere, which Gladwell describes as the “conceptual side” of the brain, adding yet another entry to a long list of specious characterizations of hemispheric functions.

Gladwell’s goal is in this section is to establish that dyslexia is a serious condition, which doesn’t require the full DSM-IV treatment. He directs readers to Maryanne Wolf’s book on dyslexia for details. But the misstatements in what he does choose to cite raise questions about how much he understands about the condition, how closely he attends to the research, and his apparent willingness to exaggerate for rhetorical effect.

2. Desirable difficulty? The term was introduced by Robert Bjork, a UCLA psychologist. In his work the “difficulties” involve ways of structuring a student’s experience (e.g., spaced practice on math problems) that may produce a longer learning curve but better mastery. The idea that dyslexia could be a “desirable difficulty” is apparently Gladwell’s. The link he mentions is a study showing that making print harder to read (by using smaller letters in bad fonts at 60% grayscale) led to better learning by high school and college students compared to normal print. The print manipulation created a desirable difficulty, apparently forcing students to expend more effort, yielding better performance. Dyslexics also expend more effort reading texts because they are poor readers. Perhaps they too can attain the desirable benefits.

The comparison is risible. In one case skilled readers are able to expend additional effort in order to succeed in comprehending a degraded text. In the other case, dyslexics read normal texts laboriously because their abilities are so poor. The comparison is particularly inapt in light of research suggesting that dyslexia is caused by noisy (imprecise) neural processing. On this view the dyslexic brain processes stimuli as though they were degraded, to their misfortune, not benefit.

3. David Boies. The main biographical points here are that Boies became highly successful despite being dyslexic, because the condition forced him to develop work-arounds that turn out to be advantageous for a litigator. He read brief summaries of case studies rather than the entire casebook entries. He listened closely in class rather than taking notes, which helped him develop exceptional listening abilities and also gave him more time to think about what was being said. He worked at developing his memory skills. His spoken language is characterized as relatively sparse and employing limited vocabulary.

One question is whether David Boies is dyslexic by valid diagnostic criteria. People’s self-reports are not a reliable or sufficient basis for determining their reading abilities. An author such as Oliver Sacks does not just rely on patients’ characterizations of their conditions; indeed some of his most interesting patients are unaware of a dramatic impairment. I don’t know if Mr. Boies is or was dyslexic, but the behaviors that are described are not specific to dyslexics or strong clinical indicators. It’s said that he didn’t learn to read until third grade, which is common. Many people who aren’t dyslexic don’t like to read (as children they are often called “reluctant readers”). You don’t have to be dyslexic to prefer the Cliffs Notes/Sparknotes version to reading the whole text. Professors often struggle to get students to listen to what they are saying rather than merely take notes or copy slides.

Many people think they read abnormally slowly and with greater effort than normal. However, expectations about reading speeds and effort have been distorted by many years of fraudulent claims about speed reading techniques and the testimony of supposed super mega readers. As a consequence, people’s assessments of their own reading abilities are not accurate.

The suggestion that Mr. Boies succeeded by capitalizing on his listening and memory skills suggests a different causal argument and another narrative arc: People who have extraordinary memory and listening skills may be less dependent on acquiring information via text, requiring them to read less. Reading less works against gaining high levels of reading skill, which requires extended practice. Such persons might end up being relatively poor readers, though not because of a constitutional deficit.

The tendency to mistake normal behaviors for a reading deficiency is illustrated by another anecdote about Mr. Boies, who reports that his spelling was so poor that spell-checkers often could not come up with the correction. Has this ever happened to you? (In spell-checking this document, mine caught the typo “methology,” but did not list the obvious intended target, methodology.) This behavior is characteristic of spell-checkers, not diagnostic of a spelling impairment.

Finally, about Mr. Boies’ spoken language. First, if it is impaired, Mr. Gladwell contradicts himself by emphasizing elsewhere that dyslexia only affects reading. Second, it’s hard to detect any spoken language issues from YouTube videos of Mr. Boies speaking in various settings. Diagnosis cannot be accomplished by remote viewing. But perhaps Mr. Boies prefers to use a limited vocabulary in speaking to journalists.

4. Dyslexic entrepreneurs. In support of the idea that dyslexia might be a “desirable difficulty” Gladwell notes that “an extraordinarily high percentage of entrepreneurs are dyslexic”. He cites a study published by Julie Logan, City University of London, in the journal Dyslexia in 2009. Let’s dispense with this quickly. The study used an unnormed checklist for which I could find no evidence as to whether it differentiates dyslexics from nondyslexics. The checklist has 20 questions related to reading, spelling, memory, organizational skills, doing arithmetic in your head, and so on. For reasons that are not fully explained, the researcher chose to a focus on a subset of questions (difficulty with spelling, taking down and passing messages, and a couple of others). The questionnaire was sent to 2000 potential participants, “entrepreneurs” and corporate managers. The low 7% return rate yielded data from 102 entrepreneurs and 37 managers. The main data concern the “incidence of dyslexia,” even though the author had previously noted that the checklist can’t be used to diagnose dyslexia, only indicating “possible” dyslexia. Whereas only 3 of 37 corporate managers exhibited 4 or more dyslexic "traits", 36 of the 102 entrepreneurs did so. There were some other methodological problems and minor findings, which I’ll skip.

The howler for me was Gladwell’s leap from these results to the statement that “an extraordinarily high percentage of entrepreneurs are dyslexic.” Mr. Gladwell: show us the data.

5. The personality angle. If you are dyslexic, you might develop personality traits that are beneficial in big business. Gladwell talks about the “Big Five” personality traits, which are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Dyslexia might make people disagreeable because they face so many daily frustrations and challenges. Being disagreeable might be helpful in some high-powered professions. Ergo, it is another desirable side effect of being dyslexic.

At this point I’m thinking: why stop with disagreeableness? What about the claim, popularized in another best seller, that corporate executives score high on tests of sociopathy? Let’s not deprive little sociopaths of their desirable difficulty either.

The howler, though, is that Gladwell’s discussion is entirely speculative, informed only by some personal testimony from some dyslexics who are, apparently, disagreeable. No empirical evidence.

This section provides the segue into the final act, a personal narrative from a Wall Street executive. This one is worth reading but not for the intended reason.

Relevant biographical details: the gentleman self-reports as being a dyslexic, describes a pattern of poor school performance, dislike of reading, life going nowhere. At some point he decides it would be a good idea to get a job on Wall Street. Long story short, he shares a cab with a banking executive who’s charged with starting a new options trading unit, bluffs the guy into giving him a job, lying that he knows a lot about options. He reports that he then picked up a copy of the Bible of options trading, McMillan’s Options as a Strategic Investment, which he proceeded to read, describing in detail the great effort it required. The cab ride was on a Friday, he was hired on Monday, and the options desk was running a week later. The book was read ““in that period of time””. The man so successful that he eventually became the CEO of Goldman Sachs. Dyslexia wins again.

The man seems disagreeable, to be sure, although perhaps more on the sociopathic side given the brazen way he lied his way into a job (and his firm’s deep, ethically indefensible, and obscenely lucrative participation in the subprime mortgage debacle).

But what about that bit about reading the Bible of the options trade in a few days? The man is dyslexic. He says it takes him about 6 hours to read 22 pages and that he won’t be reading Gladwell’s book because of the time and effort involved. The current edition of the McMillan Bible is 1072 pages. At 3.67 pages an hour, it would take approximately 292 hours to read the book. Say the guy picked up the book on Saturday and read straight through until the Monday the options unit opened. That’s 216 hours. To have completed the book reading at this rate the man would have had to read continuously about 32 hours a day.

Maybe he read an earlier edition of the book that was only 800 pages long: 218 hours. Maybe he didn’t have to read the whole book. Maybe he skipped around. Maybe he skimmed. Maybe he’s a genius. Maybe he’s not dyslexic. Maybe he's lying about completing the book in 9 days, just as he lied in his job interview. We don’t know. But something is not right.

The personal narratives in this chapter leave the following impression. Two rich and powerful Master of the Universe types relate self-invented, self-serving life stories to a close but credulous listener, a great writer who can embellish them even further in a book that will be read by millions. The writer either doesn’t have the curiosity to verify whether any of the key assertions are true or doesn’t want to ruin a great story.

It seems obvious that some professions tend to attract some types of people, and that different cognitive capacities and personality traits can be beneficial in different contexts. You could look it up. Some professions are surely better suited to people with impairments than others. For many years deaf people were overrepresented in the typesetting industry, for example. Some people’s impairments motivate them to excel and to do so by developing other skills. We admire people who succeed despite apparent handicaps.

Gladwell's novel contribution was to use superachievers to connect dyslexia with "desirable difficulty." With Boies and the Goldman Sachs guy, the role of their putative dyslexia in their professional success is unknown: the experiment can’t be run again with the relevant control conditions. Gladwell is still dealing with outliers, the subject of his last book. Outlier data can be highly informative but not the basis for generalizing, in this case to the mass of individuals who have to live with dyslexia and find ways to cope with it.

My great concern is that the desirable difficulty concept will combine in malevolent ways with the brush-offs that dyslexics already encounter, particularly “They grow out of it.” Both concepts encourage parents and educators to wait and see. That is dangerous advice, because with dyslexia, as with many other developmental disorders for which treatment is available, early identification and intervention offer the best hope of success. Though not at the level of David Boies, to be sure.

Other insightful commentaries on Gladwell’s new book, and the dyslexia chapter in particular, have begun to appear:

A critic who finds the latest book simplistic: David Runciman, "David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell", The Guardian 10/2/2013.

Gladwell's response: "Malcolm Gladwell: 'If my books appear oversimplified, then you shouldn't read them'", The Guardian 9/29/2013.

Psychologist Chris Chabris’ Wall Street Journal review: "'David and Goliath' by Malcolm Gladwell", 9/28/2013; elaborated here: "The Trouble With Malcolm Gladwell: I thought he was sincerely misunderstanding the science, but he knows exactly what he is doing", Slate 10/8/2013.

The astute and statistically adept Andrew Gellman weighs in: "Gladwell and Chabris, David and Goliath, and science writing as stone soup", 10/11/2013.

Gladwell responded to Chabris ("Christopher Chabris Should Calm Down: His criticisms of my book David and Goliath are unreasonable", Slate 10/10/2013), in a piece that I would summarize as "Don’t take what I write quite so seriously".

To which I say: Mr. Gladwell, you need to take what you write more seriously.

Above is a guest post by Mark Seidenberg.


  1. GeorgeW said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 5:30 am

    I saw Gladwell interviewed yesterday by Fareed Zakaria on GPS. He failed, I thought, to demonstrate that the success of Boies and the others was the result of dyslexia. It is clear that his examples also had other unusual skills that may have been present or developed independently of the dyslexia.

  2. Alex said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 5:49 am

    The "desirable difficulty" meme has a long history when it comes to ADHD. Mozart had ADHD! Einstein and Edison too! Well, er, there was no formal diagnosis of ADHD back then, but, well, they sure were disorganized! If they had gotten drugged up on Ritalin and had their brains reduced to fried eggs, we would have been deprived their genius! Forget the fact that Ritalin makes people with ADHD more productive…


    Of course, a lot of people with ADHD participate in this because it makes them feel better about the syndrome. But it does make conversations about the disorder a lot harder since that meme has taken hold and has a lot of sway among people without ADHD. Heck, I'd venture that people without ADHD have likely heard more about it being a "desirable difficulty" than they've heard about it being an "actual difficulty."

    It leads people to believe:

    1) Ritalin and Adderall should be withheld from people with ADHD since they eliminate the awesome creativity that ADHD bestows. Even adults with ADHD shouldn't be allowed to make that decision with their doctors because, if they are willing to give up their free, liberated minds, it can only be because they're addicts and their doctors are in the pockets of the pharmaceutical industry.

    2) ADHD isn't a real disorder, so your/your child's real problem is a lack of discipline. Less TV, more spanking!

    3) If you do have difficulties that stem from ADHD, then stiff upper lip because of all the advantages. You went to bed at 5am last night, didn't finish your assignment and got fired, missed your date with your SO who dumped you in a voicemail while crying, and just got a big late fee put on your credit card bill from when you bought stuff you aren't even using anyway? Quit your whining and unleash your creativity!

    Anyway, all that is to commiserate with you. I don't think I've ever heard of dyslexia being thrown around as a desirable difficulty like ADHD gets all the time, and it's something I think dyslexia advocates are right to try and nip in the bud.

    I can draw a straight line between "desirable difficulty" and attempts to deny ADHD awareness, diagnosis and treatment. There definitely are people with ADHD feel differently and more power to them. But if I really am more creative because of it, that benefit is outweighed by the hours I spend staring at the wall, unable to move with 30 things I want to do at the same time floating around my head, all because I didn't take my stimulants.

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 5:50 am

    See also Leigh Cowart, "The Killing Point", 10/16/2013, for a similar set of objections to Gladwell's New Yorker article "Man and Superman" (9/9/2013), phrased more emphatically:

    The use of performance-enhancing drugs presents the chance to explore an interesting ethical dilemma. The problem, however, is in Gladwell’s omissions. His piece paints a rosy portrait of pharmaceutical enhancements. He likens them to the adoption of iodized salt. It has all the context of a sales pitch.

    What Gladwell fails to mention – at all – are the risks involved in using performance-enhancing drugs. There is nothing about the risks of blood doping or of pharmaceutical enhancement. He even skips the risks inherent in the very genetic condition he holds up as “lucky.” There is no mention of contact sports, where the decision to illegally enhance could be the difference between life and death for your competitor. There is no recognition that healthcare access for athletes is a continuum with the Lance Armstrongs at the upper end, with their elite teams of morally questionable medical practitioners,and with some kid at the bottom end, desperate for a place on the team, taking injectables that he gets from a friend of a friend.

    It’s cool, I read a thing in the New Yorker and PEDs are like, no big deal.

    That Gladwell can proclaim the moral superiority of performance enhancement with no mention of the enormous physical toll that these drugs exact is fucking outrageous. Athletes are already testing the fringes of bodily limitations. Our blood, our hormones, our entire physical systems exist within certain parameters because those are limits that allow everything to work properly. Those limits keep us alive. So yes, of course it’s fucking dangerous to screw around with that shit. Of course there are consequences. People die.

    Her conclusion:

    … to buy into genetic determinism in sport, to use that as the basis of rationalizing risky, pharmacological glory, is a dangerous mistake.

    And it makes Malcolm Gladwell an extraordinarily dangerous journalist.

  4. Paul Allopenna said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 6:07 am

    This is a fantastic and important piece. I would suggest that it needs a wide audience, the same kind of audience that Gladwell cultivates. To that end, I would like to push for you to send it to the NYT as a guest editorial.

  5. GeorgeW said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 6:55 am

    "To that end, I would like to push for you to send it to the NYT as a guest editorial."

    I second the motion.

  6. Bridie said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 7:40 am

    This is a fantastic analysis. Glad I stayed up reading it.

  7. Patrick M. Dennis said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 7:57 am

    "But perhaps Mr. Boies prefers to use a limited vocabulary in speaking to journalists." Love it.

  8. Sickie said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 8:22 am

    I guess I should get a sex change, then, since most successful entrepreneurs are male. :)

    Unfortunately, the New York Times is prone to the tendency to want to see a bright side in everything, even disabilities, as this 2012 article ('Disabilities can be workplace assets') asserts. It makes the same argument that Malcolm Gladwell does, i.e. that the coping strategies developed to deal with a disability more than make up for the disability where it counts — the workplace. No attention is given to the daily struggles that disabilities entail, or the problems they cause in people's personal lives. And this particular article does the further disservice of conflating "disability" with "visible disability," further marginalizing people with problems that are not immediately apparent, e.g. dyslexia, epilepsy and arthritis.

    There are even academic articles arguing much the same thing ('Disability as an asset?'). This article likewise does not address the difficulties of actually getting a job while disabled.

    A concerted effort to dispel this particularly harmful type of wishful thinking would be wonderful.

  9. John Velonis said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 9:44 am

    I am sympathetic to your argument, but I found your point in #2 confusing. You state that "skilled readers are able to expend additional effort in order to succeed in comprehending a degraded text" and "the dyslexic brain processes stimuli as though they were degraded". To me, this suggests a similarity between the two cases which does not seem inherently "risible".

    I can certainly see the possibility that the two cases, despite their superficial similarity, lead to different outcomes, but I think your point would be better served by acknowledging the plausibility of Gladwell's argument and then providing evidence to the contrary, or pointing out specific ways in which the apparent similarity is flawed. For example, it might be that the additional neural areas which are activated in normal brains are those which resulted in the study's improved learning, or that the additional areas which are activated in dyslexic brains interfere with learning.

  10. KeithB said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 10:00 am

    The same sentiment is in _Dumbo_, too:
    "Why, they're poifect wings! The very things that held ya down are gonna carry ya up, and up, and up! "

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 10:55 am

    Even if the Boies anecdote were perfectly true on its own terms, how many such anecdotes would one need to validate the "desirable difficulty" claim as a general matter? One could, for example, perhaps tell a plausible counterfactual story that if Ray Charles had not gone blind from glaucoma as a young boy, he would not have grown up to be the musical genius + professional success he did. One could take such a story (and dozens or even hundreds of similar ones about people who achieved success in various fields via workarounds that blindness forced them to develop) and still feel pretty confident that one should not affirmatively wish blindness on ones children.

  12. Jeb said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 11:04 am

    It made me reflect on when I was tested for dyslexia, aged around 37 before attending university. As identity was certainly a notable and unforgettable feature of that afternoon.

    The psychologist who tested me Gavin Reid and my Dyslexia officer Jane Kirk had just returned that morning from doing the first testing on criminals in the Scottish prison system.

    They were both in what I would describe as a state of shock as they had not expected figure to be so high. It can be an emotive issue for everyone involved. A memorable day for all the wrong reasons.

    My own emotions on that day were identical to that of in of the young offenders in the documentary.

    "Some of the young offenders break down in tears when they discover that, while they clearly have specific learning difficulties, they are not "thick". Several wonder why they could not have taken such a simple test much earlier in their lives."

    I preferred to not watch the documentary but it aired as part of a three part a series, 'Dyslexic Genius', 'Dyslexic Criminal' and 'Dyslexic Children'

    Article covers the main points made in the Dyslexic Criminals documentary.

  13. Lisa said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 11:05 am

    If I hear one more person talking about the "gift" of dsylexia, I will scream! And invite them to observe a 5th grader desperately trying to read out loud in class. Or a 7th grader that is paralyzed by spelling and therefore has no way to put his knowledge on paper. And if we are discussing the wildly successful people with dyslexia, perhaps we should also discuss the percentage of people incarcerated that have struggled with reading disorders, too. Seems only fair to talk about the other side.

  14. Paul Allopenna said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 11:11 am

    "You state that "skilled readers are able to expend additional effort in order to succeed in comprehending a degraded text" and "the dyslexic brain processes stimuli as though they were degraded". To me, this suggests a similarity between the two cases which does not seem inherently "risible"."

    I do not see these as being 'similar,' but perhaps the wording could be unpacked a bit. In the first case, the skilled readers already a) have unimpaired reading ability and skill, and b) have the demonstrable neural functioning that links with that skill. Their processing of degraded text is a visual coding problem that they can address by scaffolding onto an already functioning reading system. The dyslexics, however, neither have the skill, nor the internal neural structures in place and so all reading is treated as if they are processing 'degraded' stimuli, but their problem is not primarily visual, it is fundamentally a reading problem.

    Seidenberg uses the word to point to two different senses of the word degraded.

  15. J. B. Rainsberger said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 11:33 am

    I understand your concern, but I see a difference between "we don't have to treat dyslexia like a social/economic death sentence" (how I interpret Gladwell here) and "we should invite dyslexia or not bother treating it where it exists" (how idiots interpret Gladwell here).

    A life with too few obstacles becomes boring to live. A life with too many or particularly-devastating obstacles becomes excruciating to live. Somewhere in between lie the so-called desirable difficulties. Perhaps "desirable" paints the wrong picture, but "not-quite-devastating" doesn't roll off the tongue particularly well.

    Ah, the curse of the writer: to be held responsible for the laziest interpretation of one's work.

  16. John Velonis said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 11:33 am

    @Paul, thanks, your analysis makes much more sense to me as a layman.

  17. hanmeng said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 11:36 am

    Superb criticism that deserves a wider audience. But isn't it disheartening to hear how popular writers and journalists misconstrue so much? I imagine much of what I've learned is wrong.

  18. Jeb said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 11:52 am

    "If I hear one more person talking about the "gift" of dsylexia, I will scream!"

    So easy to become trapped and lost in other peoples narrative and words. Words are clumsy, slow things. Popular tales, research agendas.

    Can sometimes be no difference between these things, one can become part of the other. You are this you are that, a generalization in someone else's argument, in which you play no part and see no life.

    I found it preferable to study how children and adults become trapped in words and language. Seemed more preferable than just to carry on screaming.

  19. Jeb said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 3:43 pm

    p.s I enjoyed reading this particularly the end the part. As a dyslexic and a parent of two dyslexic kids. Like all other parents its the part you have to carry on screaming about in the face of considerable complacency.

    It's nice to see a tale have an effective and to the point ending if not a happy one for anyone involved who cares about this debate.

  20. Liz Ditz said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 3:50 pm

    Thank you for this excellent and thoughtful analysis.

    For readers new to dyslexia, "The Gift of Dyslexia" is the title of a book by one Ron Davis, who has developed an expensive and ineffective "treatment" for dyslexia. His argument is that all dyslexics think in pictures and become disoriented when trying to picture abstract words such as 'the'; the disorientation causes reading failure and the cure is to model the disorienting words in modeling clay.

    I have not yet read "David & Goliath", so this comment is based in ignorance. Also, what I'm about to write is a gross over-simplification.

    In disability advocacy in general, there's a movement away from the deficits/medical model towards a strengths-based model. With respect to dyslexia,

    Drs. Sally Shaywitz and Bennett Shaywitz established the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, I think in 2008, to move the conversation around dyslexia from "always and only a problem" to a strengths-based discussion. (The other parts of the YCDC are to advocate for early identification and effective remediation, both of which are almost completely missing in US schools.)

    *Drs. Fernette Eide and Brock Eide have been writing and presenting about "The Dyslexic Advantage" since 2011 (or even earlier, really). Their point is that yes, the struggles that Professor Seidenberg points out are real (and maddening for both parents and students) but that there are overlooked strengths in the type of neurodiversity that dyslexia represents.

    Dyslexic students in particular don't need any further barriers to early identification and effective remediation. I like Professor Seidenberg fear that Gladwell's chapter will do just that: raise more barriers.

  21. Suzanne Kemmer said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 5:14 pm

    For a broader picture of Gladwell's message in this book, and for a description of his journalistic background, see

  22. Jeb said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 5:20 pm

    Liz. I certainly find the strength based method effective (I get some support and mentoring from someone involved in this area). It is always useful to have a clear idea of where both strengths and weaknesses may lie.

    I also know from experience rather than any academic expertise in the subject that dyslexic people thrive in drama and can easily deal with the very challenging training here. if you are dyslexic you are at home in the arts, can enter the most prestigious and selective institutions and meet more people like yourself. But I would not make the argument that it is dyslexia that is responsible for such aptitude anymore than I would suggest being gay is an indication of aptitude in drama (being gay was just accepted and you could be open about it in the theater long before the rest of society woke up).

    It is a good idea to play to the limited opportunities you have and skill sets that dyslexic people can pick up with ease. These skills should be transferable into other educational institutions i.e university. But it seems to me some cultural difficulties here.

  23. Daniel Barkalow said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 6:26 pm

    Any serious discussion of dyslexia and potential advantages would have to mention the research on dyslexia by people such as Lettvin, which has found that (at least many) people get dyslexia from only being able to process the visual field in a holistic way, which gives them advantages at (literal) big picture tasks at the cost of not being able to attend to details like what letters are in words when there's a whole page of other squiggles around.

    Furthermore, he spoke to a class I was in about a clinical intervention which he said was (anecdotally) very effective: cut a word-sized rectangular hole out of a piece of paper, and allow the dyslexic person to position it over the printed page, blocking out all but the word they're trying to read. He said this allowed them to read each word with no significant difficulty, and read the text as a whole at a reasonable rate, as well as helping them to prepare for reading without the screen in the future. To the best of my knowledge, this clinical work has never been published or tried in a study, although there seems to be more recent anecdotal evidence that e-book readers (which also present a visual field with relatively few words on it) have a similar effect.

  24. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 7:34 pm talks about some of the Lettvin et al. research, which is interesting. The final paragraph seems worth setting against Gladwell (or at least Gladwell as summarized above . . .): "Whatever special abilities dyslexia may bestow, difficulty with reading still imposes a handicap. Glib talk about appreciating dyslexia as a 'gift' is unhelpful at best and patronizing at worst. But identifying the distinctive aptitudes of those with dyslexia will permit us to understand this condition more completely, and perhaps orient their education in a direction that not only remediates weaknesses, but builds on strengths."

    Of course, the NYT piece suffers from typical myl-criticized shortcomings about not really describing effect size. How do the bell curves overlap? If the median dyslexic has better peripheral vision than the median non-dyslexic, is the median dyslexic coming in at, say, the 85th percentile of the non-dyslexic population on that trait or more around the 55d percentile, which is statistically significant enough to be publishable, but . . .

  25. Jeb said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 8:18 pm

    Mark. I don't want to contribute further but would like to stress you have identified an issue that can be confirmed by observation (although I suspect given the range of activities you are involved in you already know that).

    I think however that presents a somewhat difficult balancing act. I presume the article was an attempt to understand the vary varied perspectives you need to cut through in order to succeed.

    I like the historian Bloch's words here.

    “This faculty of understanding the living is, in very truth, the master quality of the historian”

    Best of luck in finding the balance.

  26. Brian said,

    October 29, 2013 @ 12:50 am

    It's worth pointing out here that Malcolm Gladwell is neither journalist nor intellectual, he's a bought and paid-for shill for the pharmaceutical and tobacco industries. He is a PR hack, nothing more, he just lacks the spine and integrity to be upfront about it.

  27. Charles Euchner said,

    October 29, 2013 @ 8:09 am

    So what does a good editor — a seasoned, demanding, no-bull professional — say when she gets a manuscript so full of pivots and evasions and cherry-picking? Well, take a look at Malcolm Gladwell's rejection letter (

  28. KeithB said,

    October 29, 2013 @ 10:13 am

    I just heard an NPR piece that indicated that this finding *has* been published, it won't work for all dyslexics, but it cetainly helps some. The researcher who published the paper is dyslexic himself and found that reading on his iPhone in the manner you described helped immensely.

  29. Jason Wever said,

    October 29, 2013 @ 10:29 am

    I'm surprised Mr Gladwell hasn't come on here to make some pithy, non-substantive response to your criticisms.

  30. Amelia Marshall said,

    October 29, 2013 @ 7:49 pm

    Both Gladwell and his critics are somewhat right.

    Where Mark Liberman goes astray is his fear that Gladwell's spotlighting the dyslexic overachiever will adversely impact the academic supports given to children.

    [(myl) You need to sharpen up your own reading skills. As announced three times (twice at the beginning, once at the end), the author of this post is Mark Seidenberg.]

    There are many problems families face in getting access to special education, but the existence, or purported existence, of exceptional individuals is not one of them. Albert Einstein was undoubtedly on the autism spectrum, so should we deny Applied Behavioral Analysis to autistic children, lest they not become Einstein? Preposterous.

    As a storyteller myself, I am highly sympathetic to the impulse to simplify complex concepts in order to make a point.

    Gladwell's point is to illustrate how a few exceptional outliers respond to "desirable difficulty". His selection of dyslexic entrepreneurs, to serve these aims, may have been fraught with peril.

    Social sciences seem to be professed by some academics who feel a need to try harder, to prove that they can be as rigorous as their colleagues in the "hard sciences". Thus, it is not surprising that these folks will try to ferret out any flaws in the supporting data proffered by their academic rivals, or here, by Gladwell. That's how it's done. Critics look for the too-small data set, the un-scientific self-reported, anecdotal stuff. Yes, it would be nice for the social sciences to have academic rigor.

    If Gladwell were publishing in the peer-reviewed literature, he would be toast.

    But he isn't. He is a popularizer of curious snippets of research from a variety of fields, in support of the ideas he originates or picks up on.

  31. Anarcissie said,

    October 30, 2013 @ 2:01 pm

    I am curious as to whether anyone (who is paying attention, who is actually interested in the issues discussed) takes Gladwell seriously. He seems to be like TED talks: science as light entertainment. Maybe it is just the company I keep, but he seems to be an object of general derision, like Thomas Friedman.

    [(myl) Whatever their level of interest and attention, there are a LOT of people out there who write about what "Gladwell proved" or "Gladwell showed".]

  32. b2020 said,

    October 31, 2013 @ 12:49 pm

    "Don’t take what I write quite so seriously".

    A case of panglossolalia?

  33. Dominik Lukes (@techczech) said,

    November 1, 2013 @ 7:43 am

    I also work in the field of dyslexia (although it is not my research speciality). I read the whole chapter in question and although I wasn't personally incensed by it, I did find it easy misinterpret. My interpretation was exactly the opposite, 'dyslexia' is not a 'gift' but it does not doom you to illiteracy or failure. Gladwell doesn't say (at least in my reading) that it is dyslexia what makes the successful dyslexics successful but rather the compensations strategies they developed to overcome their disability. I agree he fails to clarify the huge downsides to dyslexia and makes this uncharitable reading far too easy, but he is not helped by critiques. I wonder how many people condemning him in this thread have actually read the chapter.

    I'm not defending Gladwell, I found the chapter too wishywashy and not really thought through but I also find it difficult to object to anything in it too strenuously on the face of it (outside the usual debate about sources). But I think the dyslexia community would benefit from more productive reshaping of his message rather then slamming him for how his book could be read.

    The fact that people with dyslexia can be enormously successful and in some areas even be in significant minorities (a speculation by Gladwell) can only serve the self-esteem and goal setting of those diagnosed with or suspected of having dyslexia. What we should be adding with a loud voice is that it only shows how much more support we must give those with dyslexia who did not manage to find the right compensation strategies. Just imagine how successful they would be if we showed them not only that it can be done but also how.

  34. Victor Mair said,

    November 1, 2013 @ 6:26 pm

    More phony claims about dyslexia.

    Good sleuthing by one of my graduate students:


    I don't know if you have noticed this news:

    The news is from Xinhua net, and it cites many materials from a news report in the Wall Street Journal. However, I couldn't find the English report. Your [VHM] name is mentioned as "美国宾夕法尼亚大学语言研究家维克托·梅尔" in the 14th paragraph. It is about the hot TV show on CCTV, "中国汉字听写大会", which is a competition about writing hard characters such as "癞蛤蟆". And it is popular in China right now.

    Meanwhile, the last two paragraphs caught my attention. They stated that a research group proved that learning how to type Chinese (Pinyin input) early negatively effects the ability of children to read. I doubt this conclusion. So I searched about the "research group", and there were actually some news reports about it. Your can read it here:

    The researcher was Wai Ting Siok (萧慧婷), who is a professor in the department of Linguistics in Hong Kong University. However, I couldn't find any of her articles that were about this topic.

    And the paper mentioned by Wenweipo (文汇报) was "A structural–functional basis for dyslexia in the cortex of Chinese readers". I think it is an exaggerated report for the paper.


  35. Darragh McCurragh said,

    November 1, 2013 @ 10:15 pm

    My own work with disadvantaged and dyslexic children actually suggests there is no such thing as dyslexia. In all the cases I have studied, scaling font size and type (making it bigger and more readable) did away with "diagnosed" reading inability to a great extent. What remained I believe was an artifact hammered into these children by people who told them they can't read. Had that not happened but had they been given larger size letters in the beginning (which size you can gradually reduce after a while until it's as small as the "mainstream"!) I believe there wouldn't have been any handicap to speak of in the first place …

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  39. Jeb said,

    November 3, 2013 @ 7:17 pm

    "As a storyteller myself, I am highly sympathetic to the impulse to simplify complex concepts in order to make a point."

    May be the issue here. Dyslexia covers a broad spectrum, if you are identified as dyslexic you want to see descriptions conforming to you're sense of what it is. When that does not happen and the description of dyslexia does not match internal patterns and expectations I would suspect a tendency to develop the notion you are therefore not dyslexic and just stupid.

    Many people go through the education system with issues they have here generally noted as a mark of stupidity as opposed to genius. Its easy to pattern match and make the connection as it fits perfectly with self image.

    I don't see why the media is singled out for attention and concern here as their are enough academic papers and perspectives that strike me as highly problematic in regard to how they may be deployed in a much wider cultural debate.

  40. Ron said,

    November 3, 2013 @ 7:50 pm

    @Alex: One of my kids has ADD and several other learning disabilities (not dyslexia, fortunately). His challenges are managed by medication, a great deal of support at school, and his own desire to succeed. Nevertheless, there are academic subjects, such as science, that he will never master.

    I want to say that I completely agree with your comment. If I thought that my son lacked discipline I could address that easily. If I thought that he could somehow "fail upward" if I cut off his medication I could do that, too. The reality is that a smart kid with unfortunate wiring is doing the best he can, and medication helps. A lot.

    I couldn't tell from your comment whether you are going through this yourself, but if so I wish you all the best.

  41. Charlie Euchner said,

    November 4, 2013 @ 9:55 pm


    Dear Mr. Gladwell,

    We were pleased to get the manuscript of David and Goliath for consideration at [name of publisher redacted]. We know of your success with previous pop-scholarship books. The title suggests a powerful “high concept” book. And we love—lovelovelove—high-concept books like Salt and Cod and A History of the World in Five Glasses and, yes, The Tipping Point and Blink and Outliers. When you see the title, you instantly get the premise. So we loved your title and what it promised.

    We’re going to have to pass on the manuscript, though. I’d like you to rethink the concept and do more research. Right now, the book is a loose collection of anecdotes, which take huge leaps of logic, offer scanty evidence, and contain contradictions that undermine your case.

    (Continued here:

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  44. Nat Scientist said,

    November 16, 2013 @ 10:58 am

    Gladwell's reverse-engineering stories glorify singularity way more than translate to the ordinary, but hey, he's on a roll.

  45. Melissa said,

    December 7, 2013 @ 2:52 pm

    I must correct you that dyslexia is found in just as many girls than boys. Often boys are noticed in a classroom because they act out more often than girls but dyslexia occurs about the same in both. For more check our Overcoming Dyslexia Sally Shaywitz
    It's hard to continue to read a piece when you report an untruth from the beginning.

  46. Heather said,

    December 10, 2013 @ 12:25 am

    I agree with Melissa. Studies have shown that dyslexia is equally as common in both genders. When people say otherwise, not only are they ignoring significant studies, they are ignoring the social dynamics of dyslexia.

    "There are a number of studies that show that the incidence of dyslexia in boys is the same as that in girls. One longitudinal study from Yale tracked more than four hundred students in Connecticut, demonstrating an equivalent incidence between the sexes. In another study in North Carolina, researchers tested children in first and third grades with the same result. There was even a study of two hundred identical and two hundred fraternal twins in Colorado; again, no gender skew was found.

    It is true that there are more boys in special ed for dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities, but this is because boys who are frustrated by their difficulty in school tend to act out, and girls tend to clam up. Consequently, the boys tend to be identified while the girls are often overlooked."

  47. Bill said,

    January 10, 2014 @ 4:25 pm

    The point, obviously lost on the author, is the lovely message that, dyslexia is not a death sentence, any more than being left handed.

    Deal with the bucket of bolts you are given and build a life from it. Strong, positive sentiments in my reading of the Gladwell book.

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