Criticism and Book Club Discussion Points for Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Feb 23, 2020
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Criticisms of the book

James Mitchell who interrogated KSM:
“Gladwell implies that Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs) were (1) used to pressure KSM into “confessing” to attacks; and (2), that efforts to question KSM about future attacks were marred because KSM was being subjected to EITs when he provided information that the CIA used to disrupt plots and capture or kill terrorists still at large. But, those two things are inaccurate. I know it makes for a better story, but that’s just not what happened.
“EITs were never used to pressure KSM to “confess” to anything…period…full stop. And, EITs were not—let me repeat— not being applied when KSM provided information that helped CIA prevent a second wave of 911 style catastrophic attacks on the West coast or aided in the capture terrorists still at large. I explain all this in my book (Enhanced Interrogation)”
“Gladwell makes much of KSM confessing in open court to a large variety of attacks and plots (including 911 and killing Daniel Pearl). Gladwell seems to be saying that KSM confessed to these things because, years after their brief use, the EITs compelled him to confess to things he didn’t actually do. To be clear, we did not discuss many of the things on KSM’s confessed list during his interrogations and debriefings. My guess is that if KSM confessed to crimes he didn’t commit, then it was to imbed his true crimes in a list of bogus plots in order to cast doubt on his confession later, should he need to or simply to mess with court proceedings. It is not necessary to evoke the boogie man of cognitive impairment to explain KSMs duplicitous behavior.”
Andrew Ferguson of The Atlantic:
“Poets die young,” he writes, in a section on Sylvia Plath. “And of every occupational category, [poets] have far and away the highest suicide rates—as much as five times higher than the general population.”
“To get her “five times” figure, … studied the lives of “all major British and Irish poets born between 1705 and 1805.” She determined their “major” status by consulting old poetry anthologies. She decided there were 36—not 35, not 37, but 36—major poets, ranging from …. Of the 36 poets, two committed suicide. (It’s not clear that these two can even be classified as poets, however: One was a physician by trade, and the other died at 17, probably too young to qualify for an occupational category.) Jamison reckoned that two out of 36, proportionally, is five times the suicide rate for the general population.
Voilà! A statistic is born.
Steven Poole of the Guardian:
“In Gladwell’s world of large ideas, it may also be hard not to be a rapist when you’re drunk. He brings his forensic empathy to the case of Brock Turner, the Stanford college student who was caught sexually assaulting an unconscious woman on the ground outside a dorm building. Such a difficult case! Gladwell explains sorrowfully that consuming large amounts of alcohol causes mental “myopia”, where one is unable to consider the long-term consequences of one’s actions. It’s just too bad, he concludes, that these careless students both got so drunk at a party that the man could “tragically misunderstand” the woman’s intentions. You may object that plenty of men are able to get blattered without raping anyone, but that seems to be beyond Malcolm Gladwell.”

Book Club Discussion Points

Warm-up Question

What was your most memorable encounter with strangers?


  1. There are many stories in the book. Which one impacted you the most?
  1. The book is based on the ‘default to truth’ theory. Do you agree with it? Can you think of examples of when you ‘default to untruth’?
  1. Gladwell wrote, “We fall out of truth-default mode only when the case against our initial assumption becomes definitive.” Do you have good examples from your life when the truth-default scales tipped over for you?
  1. The bail judgment AI system has been shown to perform 25% better than human judges. Do you think we should reduce human judgment and increase the AI system’s role in our judicial system?
  1. The “Holy Fool” is a truth-teller because he is an outcast & blurts out inconvenient truths or questions things the rest of us take for granted. Have you encountered a “Holy Fool”? What inconvenient truths did they blurt out?
  1. After you read this book, what would you do differently when talking to the next stranger?
  1. Has the book changed the way you see yourself?
  1. The author wrote, “alcohol’s principal effect is to narrow our emotional and mental fields of vision. It makes the immediate aspects of the experience have a disproportionate influence on behavior and emotion.” Has this book changed your views about alcohol and its place in our culture? What do you think should be done to minimize the damage that alcohol will cause in the future?
  1. How do you make sense of the statistic that 77 out of 114 soldiers falsely identified their interrogators in a photo lineup? If torture changes the mind so much, how can we reliably get critical information from the captured enemies?
  1. 515 people who tried to jump from the SF Golden Gate bridge had been unexpectedly restrained. Just 25 of them persisted in killing themselves some other way. Do you agree that suicide is coupled? Why is it tough for us to accept the idea that a behavior can be so tightly coupled to a place?
  1. Firearm suicides make two-thirds of all gun deaths and half of the suicides in the US. The US firearm suicide rate is 10 times that of other high-income countries. Do you think that US suicide is coupled to the firearm, or is it the other way around, that firearm suicide is coupled to the USA? What can we do about this?
  1. How has reading the book affected your views on the victimization of unarmed black people (Sandra Bland & Ferguson) to women & children being sexually assaulted at colleges (Brock Turner & Sandusky)? Do you agree with Gladwell that these are mere “communication” issues between strangers?
  1. Gladwell is saying that the riots in Ferguson, Mo., are not about race, but about “a particular style of policing that had been practiced in the city for years.” Police officers approach civilians on the flimsiest of pretexts, looking for a needle in a haystack, resulting in obliteration of trust between police and community. What’s your take on this issue?
  1. What problems does the author identify in our society that hasn’t been discussed?

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