Despite its title, Revisionist History is not quite a history podcast but rather a show about ideas. Though host Malcolm Gladwell does use past events to stitch together his arguments, he relies just as often on social science research. The result is a wide-ranging narrative podcast that reaches conclusions as fascinating as they are unexpected.
The show’s stated mission — to explore “the overlooked and misunderstood” — serves as a helpful orientation to the types of stories Gladwell gravitates towards, and gives him the wiggle room to explore just about any topic he likes, from the Toyota phantom acceleration scandal to World War II firebombing campaigns.
The podcast’s success is inseparable from Gladwell’s persona and rhetorical style. Nobody can sell a surprising idea or turn a narrative on its head quite like he can. Here are the best episodes of Revisionist History, drawn from the show’s equally great five seasons.
The Big Man Can’t Shoot (S1, Ep 3)
In this episode, Gladwell asks why basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain abandoned his record-setting underhand free-throw style, and why Rick Barry was the only man in the modern NBA to stick with the underhand style during his entire career. It’s a story that sets up the framing of a larger question: Why do smart people often do dumb things? The episode then discusses how ideas manage to spread, as Gladwell uses the story to explain a theory called the threshold model of collective behavior.
Hallelujah (S1, Ep 7)
If you haven’t burst into a creative field as fully formed genius by your late 20s, don’t worry, you might just be an experimental innovator who takes a lifetime to figure out what you’re are trying to say. Not everyone can be a young genius like Picasso, but everyone can hold on to the hope of becoming a late-blooming old master like Robert Frost or Alfred Hitchcock. Genius can take a winding road, Gladwell argues, starting with the unexpected story of a terrible Elvis Costello song that everyone tried to forget.
Blame Game (S1, Ep 8)
Maybe you remember when, starting in 2009, Toyota recalled over 10 million cars due to deaths from unintended acceleration. In this episode, Gladwell details why he thinks this was all the result of mass hysteria and poor reporting because, ultimately, brakes always beat engines. Here he combines his love of cars and his love of correct-contrarianism to make an extremely compelling argument.
The King of Tears (S2, Ep 6)
This episode should be required listening for anyone like myself who typically rolls their eyes at country music. I like sad books, movies, and podcasts, but had never realized that most of the music I listen to isn’t very sad. When it comes to sad songs, country music hoards all the feels. “We cry when melancholy collides with specificity,” Gladwell tells us, “and specificity is something not every genre does well.” Compared to most genres, country gets rather specific with the details of sad stories, which allows us to relate to the music at a deeper level. The fulcrum of this argument is Bobby Braddock, the man after which this episode is named and who has penned hundreds of sad songs.
The Basement Tapes (S2, Ep 10)
In another life, Gladwell would have made an excellent full-time science writer. In this episode, he deftly boils down complicated subjects about health and succinctly communicates what makes for good science. Nutrition science in particular is ripe for a good Gladwellian takedown. Ultimately, this episode strikes a devastating blow to the famous Seven Countries Study (which laid the groundwork for decades of anti-saturated fat/pro-vegetable oil policies) and diet research in general.
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Free Brian Williams (S3, Ep 4)
You may remember when, back in 2015, Brian Williams got caught red-handed in an attempt to self-aggrandize his role within a war story. But is he a liar? The big idea of this episode is that no matter what you think, your memory isn’t like a video saved on your phone, able to be accurately retrieved over and over again with no distortions. The reality is that the very act of retrieving a memory will change it, to the point that even our sharpest memories are largely altered. This episode will likely forever change your relationship to memory.
The Hug Heard Round the World (S3, Ep 6)
With Malcolm Gladwell at its helm, an episode about Sammy Davis Jr. was never going to be a simple biography. On “The Hug Heard the World,” Gladwell makes his case for why Davis Jr. was one of the greatest entertainers of all time while dissecting what it means to fit in when you stand out.
Analysis, Parapraxis, Elvis (S3, Ep 10)
Elvis Presley was known for having an impressive memory when it came to lyrics, but he always had trouble with one part of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” Investigations into the psychology of artists can often be tedious, but Elvis’s behavior when it came to performing this song was truly bizarre, and Gladwell uses this hang up to deliver a fascinating examination of Freudian slips. Gladwell himself has said this is his favorite episode of the podcast.
Puzzle Rush / The Tortoise and the Hare (S4, Ep 1 and 2)
This two-parter could be renamed “Malcolm Gladwell’s Grand Unified Theory for Fixing Higher Ed.” In it, he provides a Canadian perspective on America’s obsession with standardized tests, arguing that they don’t provide the predictive value that many would assume. Their arbitrary time constraints provide an outsized reward for fast test takers that doesn’t correlate strongly with real-world effectiveness. The best lawyers in the world are slow and methodical, says Gladwell, which is the opposite of how one successfully navigates the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Gladwell goes on to draw a parallel to the chess world, where simply changing the time limits allowed in a match dramatically shifts who the best players in the world are. Here, it’s the players most skilled at playing longer games who get all the glory, even though speed chess champions are still masters of their craft.
Four-Part Series on the Bombing of Tokyo (S5, Ep 4, 5, 6 and 7)
During the firebombing of Tokyo on the night of March 9, 1945, more civilians likely lost their lives than during any other six-hour period in history. The full bombing campaign led to an estimated 500,000 deaths. But despite this bloodshed, the firebombing of Japan, the Air Force general behind this bombing, Curtis LeMay, and the invention of napalm during WW2 are overshadowed in the collective imagination by the dropping of the atomic bombs. The first episode of this four-part series introduces the hyper-rational problem solver at the center of the story, while the second episode details the much-overlooked history of napalm and its invention on the grounds of Harvard. But it’s during the latter half of the series where the main story takes center stage and Gladwell fully dissects the logic and morality that factored into this traumatic event and its aftermath. I will say this episode certainly “revised” my understanding of history.
Erik Jones writes about podcasts and learning on the internet. He sends a twice-monthly newsletter called Hurt Your Brain that is full of podcast recommendations and other links that make you think.