In the Frankfurtian sense of bullshit, that is. Or so it appears. Malcolm Gladwell is often hailed as bringing the insights of social science to the masses. But most social scientists (and many others) have long known that Gladwell plays fast and loose with that science. He cherry picks data (often discussing studies with splashy findings while failing to acknowledge other—often larger, more recent—studies that failed to replicate the beguiling counter-intuitive finding). He fails to acknowledge the limitations of the studies with which he captivates his audience (such as their embarrassingly small sample sizes). And so on.
But failing to do the science justice does not, all by itself, make Gladwell a bullshitter. He might earnestly believe in the truth of what he says—say, in Outliers, about becoming an “expert” in any competition by spending 10,000 hours practicing the relevant skill—but simply lack the competence to carefully assess and communicate the literature. Or he might just as earnestly believe that the 10,000-hour rule he popularized is false, and aim to mislead his readers (for whatever reason).
For Frankfurt, neither scenario implicates bullshit. Instead, for him, the “essence of bullshit” is a “lack of connection to a concern with truth,” an “indifference to how things really are.” Whether someone is a bullshitter or not, then, depends not on any correspondence of their statements to objective truths but, rather, on the speaker’s state of mind. In several remarkable recent interviews—analyzed in this Slate article*—Gladwell talks about his writing (and live “performances”) in ways that suggest that he is primarily concerned with telling a good (read: captivating) story, and not especially concerned with the scientific truth of those stories. In other words, Gladwell is a bullshitter.
The only question, now, is whether his audience knows they’re being bullshitted.
* Disclosure: the Slate article is written by my husband. I wouldn’t link to his work, however, if I didn’t share his deep loathing for bullshit, whether in popular writing or (ahem) academia. Nor would I do so if I didn’t think that the Gladwell problem is related to (if distinct from) similar questions closer to home, such as when an academic may pursue advocacy that selects data and arguments in the service of a preselected conclusion and when, instead, an academic’s writing should come with an “implied warranty of scholarly integrity.”