Malcolm Gladwell is an inspirational writer who sprinkles in just enough science to be informative. He’s the Art Garfunkel of popular non-fiction writing, in appearance and in the silkiness of his soothing voice. I’ve blogged about his potential influence on our work before, and his newly released book, David and Goliath has already begun to raise eyebrows among critics. There are those who position Gladwell as dangerous, and that seems a bit harsh. I choose think of Gladwell as embodying the power of success stories, even if the science behind those stories is speculative. Consider the introductory story of David and Goliath.
The way the story is traditionally told, David is the classic underdog and an improbable combatant against the mighty Goliath. In reading Gladwell’s account, one is reminded that King Saul sent David out to battle with Goliath by default. The little shepherd boy was the only one to volunteer to fight the Philistinian Giant. But this also positions Saul in a poor light, and as a feeble military strategist. Gladwell relates that pebble slingers like David were common, and it was well known that sticks and stone could break bones and hurt much beyond words. Goliath also missed out on reading War for Dummies, not realizing as Little Dave approached with his pouch and sticks that he was a stone slinger intent on exposing the Giant’s weakness. But the bottom line for Gladwell is that David is the heroic outsider with just enough moxy to overcome Giant odds.
So what’s this got to do with Dyslexia? Gladwell seems to have drawn his title, and much of the inspiration for his model from a book in 2005 authored by Karen Donovan, v. Goliath. The David featured in Donovan’s book is David Boies, the superlawyer who represented Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election recount. This David is featured in the HBO documentary that celebrates high achieving individuals with dyslexia, and Mr. Boies is also the subject of Chapter 4 is Gladwell’s new book. Right off the bat, Gladwell perpetuates the myth that reading problems in general, and dyslexia in particular, is a problem in phonology having nothing to do with vision.
Consider this (p.100): “Many people used to think that what defines dyslexics is that they get words backwards – ‘cat’ would be ‘tac’, or something like that – making it sound like dyslexia is a problem in the way words are seen. But it is much more profound than that. Dyslexia is a problem in the way people heard and manipulate sounds.” All well and good until you realize that there is absolutely no credible evidence of this. While we can all agree that dyslexia is more profound than substituting “was” for “saw”, transpositions in the form of visual substitutions are much more common than their linguistic counterparts. If dyslexia is all about phonology, then spoonerisms should be much more common in this population than letter reversals or transpositions in word or number sequences.
A spoonerism within one word would be the substitution of “chicken” for “kitchen”. A spoonerism that comes to mind here is the substitution of “fighting a liar” for “lighting a fire”. I have no doubt that many dyslexics had trouble with rhymes as children, but this observation that has been used to bury visual factors is overly simplistic at best. Even if one were to concede that forms of dyslexia present primarily a difficulty in phonics (dysphonesia) there are clear-cut cases of dyslexia that are relatively more visual in nature (dyseidesia). At the very least, evidenced in this elegant PowerPoint presentation, subtle visual deficits in efficiency and processing can make it difficult to read.
No doubt Gladwell’s book, and the story of David Boies in particular will be celebrated as the latest entry in the “Dyslexia As A Gift” movement. No doubt stories of Boies and other high achievers who beat the odds after they survived less than stellar school careers can be inspirational to some struggling children. Yet Gladwell missed his greatest opportunity to study underdogs cast as outsiders who beat the odds to achieve at improbable levels: developmental optometrists who help children with visual dyslexia.