Raising questions and challenging conventional wisdom, Malcolm Gladwell visits Penn

When Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” was published in 2013, he dutifully went on a promotional tour, sitting for countless interviews and book signings.

“The first time you do it, when the hardcover comes out, nobody has read it. You’re in the dark about what people are interested in,” said Gladwell, a year and a half later, sitting in the Widener Room of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. “And then, with the paperback, you have a much better sense of what works, what’s relevant.”

Gladwell was at the University of Pennsylvania this week at the invitation of the Philadelphia Arts and Business Council, to speak on themes he wrote about in his book. He addressed civic legitimacy, drawing examples from the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, our educational system, tax law (with which he says Americans are remarkably compliant), and a subject that did not exist when he was writing the book: the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

“The lesson from that experience is very sobering,” Gladwell told the audience of 800 Wednesday. “The population of a middle-class community in the middle of American turned on the institution in their community that is supposed to serve and protect them. Why? Because they completely lost faith in its legitimacy.”

Malcolm Gladwell’s books – including “Blink,” “Outliers,” and “The Tipping Point” as well as “David and Goliath” – follow a similar structure of piecing together large, overarching theories from a vastly diverse range of subjects, including neuroscience, social science, art history, criminal justice, cancer research … the list goes on.

The aftermath of the Ferguson shooting in 2014 neatly illustrates some of Gladwell’s themes in the book, but, of course, was unavailable to him when he was writing the book. Even after he puts down the pen, Gladwell keeps finding alternative ways he could have written “David and Goliath.”

“You wonder, did I write the book at the right time? Are you too early with your ideas? Did I choose the right stories? Are my arguments correct?” said Gladwell. “Now that I have some distance on it, did I do it right?”

“David and Goliath” has been widely lauded — and panned. Some critics have said Gladwell’s summarization of scientific work is too fast and loose to be valid, drawing connections between phenomena that might not be causal.

Based on the popularity of his books and his charismatic style, Gladwell continues to be invited to speak about topics of which he sometimes has limited expertise. After his talk at the Arts and Business Council event, Gladwell was interviewed on stage by Dr. Steve Klasko, the president and CEO of Thomas Jefferson University and the Jefferson Health System.

Klasko asked Gladwell for insight into admission policies for medical schools.

While Gladwell has written extensively about university admission policies in The New Yorker and “David and Goliath,” he has never worked directly in the field.

“Any journalist knows this: Sometimes the person disconnected from the topic at hand can have interesting or useful perspectives,” said Gladwell. “Even if those perspectives are wrong, by the way. I’m quite sure that when I speak about things that I’m not expert on, I’m wrong all the time. But you can be wrong and still be useful.”

This is the third time Gladwell has been asked to speak at the University of Pennsylvania, and at each opportunity he has taken a dig at the Ivy League school. This time, he took aim at its high tuition charges, which rise but never fall, saying the university’s reputation allows it to completely ignore economic market forces.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.