The SHAME-ing of Malcolm Gladwell

Thank You for Smoking

Read this.

Then this. OK. Now we’re all up to speed. Great.

Yasha Levine did the right thing, in terms of tactics and truth-seeking. Gladwell was trying to prompt him into a Socratic interchange where Gladwell would make some brilliant counter-intuitive argument to exonerate himself. Levine was correct to not engage. Gladwell was fixated on one small piece of a large argument. Also, Gladwell would have an advantage by focusing on slippery abstractions. Levine responded with a list of hard-nosed, reportorial questions that Gladwell ignored.

Levine was right to dismiss this as “playing verbal footsie.” I’m fairly certain Gladwell was never going to talk openly about his cigarette company ties anyway, and the end result is that he looks like a patrician dickhead. But Levine could have argued with Gladwell about that article and won. What he did was better, but he could have won that argument.

Here’s how. Gladwell asked [w]hy do you think that someone who writes an article about how smokers die young–and as a result use less social security–is shilling for the tobacco industry? Do you think that companies, as a whole, are delighted with people who write stories about how they are killing off their customers?

Well, the main thrust of the article in question wasn’t about how the tobacco companies kill customers. It was about how society could benefit from having a significant part of its population die early. It’s anti-tobacco if you assume its aimed at customers. It’s cynically pro-tobacco when you read it as aimed at policy makers.

The article was written when lawmakers were considering tax hikes on cigarettes to discourage smokers and argues that it would be a bad thing for society as a whole. Tax hikes would discourage people from smoking, and then those nonsmokers would live longer. In their old age they’d be a drain on social security. So let people smoke! It’ll help us all out in the long run.

So the article presents smoking as a health risk. But the health risk is presented as a positive thing for society. It was an attempt to shift the argument at a time when tobacco companies needed it to shift, allowing the tobacco companies to backtrack from “our products don’t harm people” to “our products are harmful, but that’s actually a good thing.”

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6 thoughts on “The SHAME-ing of Malcolm Gladwell

  1. I tried reading Gladwell’s “Tipping Point.” I think I stopped about 20 pages in. He never got to the point. I also found the movie version of “Thank You for Smoking” insufferably smug.

    1. I’ve only read articles by Gladwell and haven’t been favorably impressed. Never tried the “Tipping Point.” Not sure I ever will. Have been tempted by “Outliers,” though.

      I’ve never actually seen “TYFS,” but I thought the poster image tied in nicely to the subject matter.

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