what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Gladwell and Diamond - a Health warning

I enjoy the essays of Malcolm Gladwell – as I enjoy essays as an art-form (and his book The Tipping Point). But I had failed to spot the ideological baggage he carries.
His original training was apparently in a school funded by the tobacco industry; he has received considerable amounts from the corporate lobby (which shows in quite a few of his arguments) and he now earns most of his money from huge speaking fees from multinational companies.

Another populiser, Jared Diamond, has also come in for some serious criticism for making life comfortable his readers by using a “blame the victim” meme in his books about the collapse of civilisations.
After a successful slave rebellion formally freed the Haitians from their French masters, the French still managed to bully the Haitians into paying them the huge indemnity for “lost property”—that is, freed slaves—in exchange for diplomatic relations. By 1900, 80 percent of Haiti’s annual budget was consumed by these payments, which did not end until 1947. By then, Haiti had paid France about $21 billion in contemporary US dollars. In explaining Haiti’s social collapse, Diamond ignored 120 years of illegitimate debt payments as well as the long history of US interference in Haitian affairs, including America’s decades-long support of dictatorship under the Duvalier regime.Diamond’s blindness to imperial power was of a piece with the assumption embedded in his subtitle: Failed societies (a reified abstraction) have somehow chosen to fail. In the wake of the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, the New York Times columnist David Brooks revealed his attachment to the same point of view: Haitians’ attachment to voodoo and other primitive superstitions, Brooks believed, had immeasurably exacerbated their suffering in the wake of the disaster. Once again, Diamond’s work revealed its resonance with neoliberal conventional wisdom. As the anthropologist Frederick K. Errington wrote, Diamond’s two books constituted a “‘one-two punch.’ The haves prosper because of happenstance beyond their control, while the have-nots are responsible for their own demise.” One could hardly imagine a more comforting account of global inequalities.
Ignoring class and other social divisions among the victors as well as the vanquished, Diamond overlooks the complex political conflicts involved in imperial policy—which included decisions about how to use guns and steel as well as how to make alliances with native elites. As the anthropologist Michael Wilcox writes: “A more appropriate troika of destruction [than ‘guns, germs, and steel’] would be ‘lawyers, god, and money.’”

A recent article has put these sorts of books in a wider context
The more the healers (and their “conditions”) proliferated, the harder it became for customers to figure out where to focus their limited time, money, and attention. It made sense that by 2000, our biggest guru wasn’t a writer but a new pope, Oprah Winfrey, whose brand lay in the power to ordain others. Like that other millennial guide, ­Malcolm Gladwell, she was a curator rather than a creator.Some think it was The Tipping Point, Gladwell’s 2000 argument for the power of social connections, which made it safe for techies and business types—and, more generally, men—to read about bettering themselves. “The whole idea of showing that there is a counter­intuitive way of looking at information, to make you understand yourself in a completely different way—that’s been game-changing,” one commentator  says.You could argue that the marriage of self-help and social science began a few years earlier with Daniel Goleman, a bridge between self-help’s New Age past and its journalist-driven, label-defying present. A Harvard Ph.D. and a science reporter for the New York Times, his ­Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ spent more than a year on the Times best-seller. 
postscript; John Gray has just written an interesting piece on Gladwell's latest book about David and Goliath. Gray suggests that -
One of the features of Gladwell’s genre is a repeated effort to back the stories he tells with evidence from academic sources—a move that has attracted some of the most virulent attacks on his work. Yet Gladwell has more in common with his academic critics than either he or they realize, or care to admit. Academic writing is rarely a pursuit of unpopular truths; much of the time it is an attempt to bolster prevailing orthodoxies and shore up widely felt but ill-founded hopes. There are many examples of academics who have distorted fact or disregarded evidence in order to tell an edifying tale that accords with respectable hopes.


  1. Thanks for your great information, the contents are quiet interesting.I will be waiting for your next post.
    life sciences

  2. Many thanks for your comment. I wish more of my readers would do that! You will notice that I have updated the post - adding an excerpt from the article which should have been linked to the Diamond reference.