Malcolm Gladwell on understanding advantages and his critics

(CBS News) Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell is known for writing stories that reshape the way we think about the world. His latest book, "David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants," examines the struggle between underdogs and favorites.

On "CBS This Morning" Wednesday, Gladwell said that he started his book with an actual re-telling of the biblical story of David and Goliath in order to point out that the sling David had was a "devastating weapon" and he wasn't necessarily the underdog.

"It is not a child's toy. It is one of the most feared weapons in ancient times," he said. "Then, I talk about how Goliath, who seems like this giant, this formidable warrior - there's all of this speculation he might be suffering from a medical disorder called acromegaly, which would mean that he has very limited eye sight. So we have a Sheppard boy filled with the spirit of the lord, armed with a weapon in his hand, up against the lumbering giant who can't see ... who would you bet on?"

Gladwell explained that this story spurred the question for his book, which he said was: "Do we have an inadequate understanding of what an advantage really is?"

The author gives examples about what could be misconceptions of advantage, such as a child's class size in school. Common thinking is that smaller classes are better for both the student and the teacher, but Gladwell said that isn't always the case.

"There's a period where data would suggest that in between 25 and 20 kids doesn't make much difference, but when your class gets too small there's some very interesting evidence that suggest students may be worse off," he said. "Why? Because they learn from other students in the class. Take away their compatriots and you don't get that peer-to-peer learning."

Gladwell said that what he was trying to do with his book was get people to take a step back from "easy assumptions" about what makes the most sense.

A chapter in Gladwell's book that has created quite a stir talks about successful people with dyslexia, including the chief operating officer of Goldman Sachs, Gary Cohn. The author said that he looked at this learning disability because it's an "obstacle that can have very different outcomes depending on who has it."

"Many people with dyslexia truly suffer and their lives are worse off for having had that disability," he said. "A small number of people, on the other hand, are very, very successful ... For example, we know that if you look at groups of successful entrepreneurs you see rates [of dyslexia] that are way higher than the general public."

Gladwell told the "CBS This Morning" co-hosts that if you talk to these entrepreneurs, they will say they are successful "because of," not "in spite of" their disability and it "forced" them to learn new skills.

"You walk into the class in second grade. You can't read. What are you going to do if you're going to make it? You identify the smart kid. You make friends with him. You sit next to him. You grow a team around you. You delegate your work to others. You learn how to talk your way out of a tight spot," he said.

The author did explain he was talking about a "small number of dyslexics" who are able to use their disability this way; he said that he still believes it's important to understand that something considered a disability can have "profoundly different outcomes."

"CBS This Morning" co-host Norah O'Donnell asked Gladwell about the science behind his books. Many critics have said that he picks and chooses which data to use in order to support the narrative and doesn't always show both sides. He told O'Donnell that there are two instances in his new book in which he relies "heavily on science."

"On the class-size discussion, I used a meta analysis of 300 studies - that's not cherry picking. The second case is when I talk about the three strikes law in California and I review the entire literature and give all references to it," he said. "People use that and I always ask them, give me an example and they never can.... I think people say that as a way of saying, 'Oh, I just disagree with what you're saying."

Gladwell has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1996. His other books include "The Tipping Point," "Blink" and "Outliers."

For the full interview with Malcom Gladwell, watch the video in the player above.

  • Shoshana Davis

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