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Why Malcolm Gladwell Is Wrong About David And Goliath

10/14/2013 10:50 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The biblical story of David and Goliath is regularly invoked when an underdog must face a much stronger opponent. Malcolm Gladwell adopts the story for the title and introduction to his latest book, which is about how such lopsided conflicts can produce surprising results. He brings to his account of this familiar story new research to suggest that the conventional interpretations miss the point. Unfortunately it his account which misses the point.

The giant Goliath is the champion of the Philistines. None of the fearful Israelites are prepared to take him on until an unlikely candidate steps forward in the form of David, a shepherd boy. Despite the giant's thick armour and terrifying weapons, he is felled by a stone from David's sling.

Gladwell makes clear why Goliath would have looked fearsome but then he seeks to demonstrate that the giant was more vulnerable than he seemed. It is evident that David's refusal to take King Saul's armour gave him an agility that Goliath lacked, but Gladwell also claims that slingers were regular features of the armies of this time, well know to have an ability to kill an opponent from distances as high as 200 yards.

His most original claim is that Goliath was handicapped by poor eyesight. The argument runs as follows. One explanation for great size is acromelagy, a disease of the pituitary gland. One symptom of this disease is poor vision. This leads Gladwell to suggest that to Goliath the advancing David he would have been a bit of a blur. As evidence he cites Goliath's objection that David was coming towards him with "sticks" in the plural, when we have just been told that actually David was only carrying one stick. So even before he got hit between the eyes by a well-aimed stone, Goliath was already struggling with double-vision. So the point about the story is not that David had hit upon a clever strategy which got Goliath by surprise but that the two were actually far more evenly matched than supposed. The moral to be drawn is that alleged underdogs can gain an advantage through employing distinctive and often more appropriate forms of power.

The moral may be fine but it is not supported by the Bible story. It is easy to dispose of the double-vision argument. Most obviously, if Goliath saw two sticks when there was only one he would also have seen two Davids. There is no hint in the Biblical account that Goliath thinks he is addressing twins. Moreover, at six foot nine inches Goliath's height was not that tall. Many basketball players are taller.

If one is going to take the story literally then one has to explain how David's stone did the trick when Philistine helmets covered the forehead and the bridge of the nose. But to get into these details clearly misses the purpose of the original story, which depended on David being a palpable underdog, because only then could it be shown that it was God that made the difference. In saving the Israelites David demonstrates that he will make a better King than the hapless Saul, who should really have been the one to take on Goliath. Saul, after all, had been the first man chosen to lead the Jews as a warrior rather than as a prophet. But he had been something of a disappointment, showing excessive caution and poor military judgement.

Once we accept that David's confidence came from his superior faith in a superior God then we can also consider the risks that he was taking were it not for divine support. If the first shot had not brought Goliath down but had pinged off his helmet instead David would have been in real trouble. Even then as vital as the first shot was the speed with which he was able to take Goliath's sword and chop off his head, for if Goliath had recovered the giant's superior strength would have been back in play. Once Goliath was dead the Israelites depended on the Philistines accepting this unconventional approach as a fair fight and conceding the victory. Nor could David follow this strategy twice. Next time his opponent would know what to look for. Lastly, this was this the only strategy available. Muhammad Ali survived against stronger opponents (for example Sonny Liston) by using his agility to survive the early onslaught. David might have encouraged Goliath to thrash around until he was exhausted.

The strategic lessons of the story are therefore quite ambiguous. Gladwell draws his lesson by means of a dubious interpretation. In practice, David did not so much made a shrewd judgement about his strengths and Goliath's vulnerabilities but instead took a considerable risk, made possible by his faith in God.

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