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alex beam

Switching sides — why not?

Whenever I adopt a cause, I feel I should offer fair warning. Be advised: This columnist is prone to switching sides without warning.

This summer I was pumping the tires of the fanatical People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, because I like the way they do business. But just last week I was running my mouth on public radio about the need to kill off snowy owls, coyotes, and Canada geese if they threatened human life.

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Back in the ’90s a pugnacious editor urged me to take a swing at the Eagles’ front man, Don Henley, who was crusading for what I called “an environmentally sensitive dump site,” Walden Woods. “Cynics have suggested that the millionaire rock god/sybarite has been using Walden,” I wrote, “where he occasionally visits with such Lear-jetting day-tripper pals as Don Johnson, Tom Cruise, and Jack Nicholson, to keep his name in the papers during a fallow period in the recording studios.”

About 10 days ago, a friend led me along “Thoreau’s Path,” which winds around Brister’s Hill inside a parkscape curated in part by donations from the glam crowd. It’s wonderful! As a landscaped monument, it’s second only to Maya Lin’s famous Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Consider that side officially switched; Don, you’re a god!

Five years ago, I opined that writer Malcolm Gladwell’s storied career had reached a “tipping point,” the title of one of his best known books. Gladwell was taking flak from all sides, from the New York Times columnist Joe Nocera (“he runs off the rails”); from Salon’s Ask the Pilot writer Patrick Smith (“totally absurd”); from super-detractor Andrew Orlowski, who called Gladwell “empty, cynical and trite . . . Gladwell can’t do science. He can’t do people . . . [and] he can’t really do journalism, either.”

Gladwell published a book, “David and Goliath,” this fall, and the usual suspects piled on again. Psychologist Christopher Chabris, writing first in The Wall Street Journal and then in Slate magazine, attacked Gladwell relentlessly and eruditely, concluding inter alia, that “he excels at telling just-so stories and cherry-picking science to back them.”

Separately, an expert in dyslexia pointed out “some of the howlers” in Gladwell’s (cautious) suggestion that dyslexia might be a “desirable difficulty” in human development. Writing in the New Statesman, Steven Poole joined the necktie party: “[Gladwell] tells his readers that everything they thought they knew about a subject is wrong, and then delivers what is presented as a counterintuitive discovery but is actually a bromide of familiar cliches.”

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OK, fine, Gladwell is a simplifier and a popularizer, and a successful one at that. I don’t know anyone in my line of work who doesn’t aspire to do what Gladwell does; find great stories to tell, sell them to the highest bidder, and then move on and look for more stories to tell. Maybe he’s just better at it than the rest of us.

By way of research, I listened to a none-dared-wish-it-shorter Longform podcast of Gladwell speaking about his book, in which he memorably admitted that “I am everything I once despised.” He included some interesting praise of Michael Lewis, who tells “idea” stories without interviewing scads of PhD-toting authorities. “He’s proved to me that, if you can tell a story properly, you don’t need this kind of scaffolding,” Gladwell said.

He praised Lewis’s self-confidence by invoking a basketball metaphor: “He’s the writer you want to take the last shot. I don’t want to take the last shot.” That resonated with me. I’ve thought about it over the years, and I, too, don’t want to take the last shot. I’ll take the assist.

Side officially switched.

So, Alex, does that mean that you’ll rescind your cheap-shot denunciation of the sainted Elizabeth Warren as a demagogical headline-hound? I’m not quite ready to switch that side. But I am ready to wish my readers and non-readers alike, relaxing holidays and a happy new year.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at

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