Gene Expression

Malcolm Gladwell

First, in The New Republic, Malcolm Gladwell’s Secret Of Success:

The first sentence here is a classically Gladwellian assertion about what the rest of us think. The rest of the paragraph consists of, more or less, made up numbers and figures which Gladwell claims constitute a “rule”. Seriously, read these sentences again. Where does he get these figures? Anyway, the exchange ended on this note:

CHARLIE ROSE: Everyone always has this question when I tell them your story and hand your book out to people, and they say what does that say about gift and superb talent?

MALCOLM GLADWELL: I remain — I’m uninterested in that topic.

CHARLIE ROSE: Which one? The relation between gift and practice?

MALCOLM GLADWELL: No, I’m not interested in natural gifts. I know they exist and I know there is such a thing as natural talent, but I just feel so what, right?

Apparently there are some things that are uninteresting! The cumulative effect of watching both of these interviews was to make one feel enhanced respect for experts and for the peddlers of conventional wisdom. Here are three guys [he mentions Levitt & Dubner earlier in the post] who style themselves as being unconventional and bold and generally at an angle from received opinion. And yet after watching them talk for an hour, I felt like I was being sold a bill of goods by people who did not know what they were talking about.

Steven Pinker has a more measured and charitable review of Gladwell’s new collection of essays:

The common thread in Gladwell’s writing is a kind of populism, which seeks to undermine the ideals of talent, intelligence and analytical prowess in favor of luck, opportunity, experience and intuition. For an apolitical writer like Gladwell, this has the advantage of appealing both to the Horatio Alger right and to the egalitarian left. Unfortunately he wildly overstates his empirical case. It is simply not true that a quarter back’s rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros, that cognitive skills don’t predict a teacher’s effectiveness, that intelligence scores are poorly related to job performance or (the major claim in “Outliers”) that above a minimum I.Q. of 120, higher intelligence does not bring greater intellectual achievements.

The reasoning in “Outliers,” which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle. Fortunately for “What the Dog Saw,” the essay format is a better showcase for Gladwell’s talents, because the constraints of length and editors yield a higher ratio of fact to fancy. Readers have much to learn from Gladwell the journalist and essayist. But when it comes to Gladwell the social scientist, they should watch out for those igon values.

Apparently Gladwell thought the term “eigenvalue”, which you will stumble upon in quantitative work even if you haven’t taken linear algebra, was an “igon value.”* Pinker uses this error to illustrate that Gladwell has to rely on his sources for the lay of the land, and this sort of trip-up is a big clue that he’s wandering around somewhat blind much of the time. This is a problem because out of the possible set of ideas and models, only a subset can be turned into an interesting piece of prose, and only a subset are actually non-trivially true (that is, they stand the test of the time, not just falling below the p-value for the purposes of getting published once, and, add something which isn’t a mathematically fluffing up of something we already knew verbally or intuitively). The intersection between the two subsets is rather small proportion of the peer-reviewed literature at any given time.

There’s an New York Magazine piece which points out the same issues with Gladwell’s style. The somewhat nasty debate between Gladwell and Megan McArdle gets to the crux of his reliance on experts in a selective and uncritical manner. His writing is analogous to a readable sports or political columnist, more for entertainment than insight. But as it is Malcolm Gladwell can garner fat speaking fees to give talks to businesses on big picture analytic issues. Though perhaps that says more about the state of American business.

* Though the fact that that got through editing also says something about the nature of the editorial profession, or at least their educational background.

Comments

  1. #1 Comrade PhysioProf
    November 14, 2009

    All these whiners are just pissed off because Gladwell is a ROCK STAR who makes more money than they do!

  2. #2 Oran Kelley
    November 14, 2009

    On your last note: more than likely this is a statement on the state of the publishing industry. I doubt the book was extensively edited and fact-checked. Few books are these days.

  3. #3 Asha
    November 14, 2009

    Hey Razib,

    Thanks for the post… both are interesting reads.

    If anyone is interested, you should read Chotiner’s more extensive and scathing take on all things Gladwell. http://www.tnr.com/article/books/mister-lucky

    Knocking down the Gladwellian phenomenon is easy enough to do. After all his genius is the ability to take plausible but dubious research and weave compelling seductive narratives out of them. (Even Pinker, gives him credit for that.)

    The real question is why in spite of all this criticism is he still so successful? Not just successful, he is influential!
    What does that say about the kinds of books people are interested in reading?

  4. #4 Tom
    November 15, 2009

    @Asha: I would say that the first comment on this blog shows you exactly why Gladwell is popular.

    We like it when some guy comes in and upsets the conventional wisdom. It’s an expression of solidarity with our own mediocrity. Whenever the conventional wisdom fights back, it’s because they’re jealous of the attention that the upstart is getting. Not because the conventional wisdom happens to be right.

    It’s actually quite useful that Pinker signed his name to an article that demolishes Gladwell, and in the Times. Many more people know who Pinker is than Chotiner or McArdle. And the Times gets much wider readership than the New Republic or some blog (even a famous blog).

  5. #5 miko
    November 15, 2009

    Success takes talent, luck, and hard work in some mixture. BFD. All Gladwell does is make handwaving arguments that the latter two count for more than most people think. This is such a bland stance I don’t think it even matters if it’s true.

    “… his genius is the ability to take plausible but dubious research and weave compelling seductive narratives out of them…The real question is why in spite of all this criticism is he still so successful?”

    This is what all successful popularizers do–including Pinker in his “pop” mode–they challenge lazy assumptions (real or imagined) and make readers feel smart for seeing through them. The degree to which we find them frauds is correlated with how unappealing we find their conclusions. Pinker is right that Gladwell’s genius–or “genius” since what we’re talking about is marketing–is that his conclusions are vague enough to appeal to a broad range of political and social sensibilities.

    It’s funny to see pop science assertions being argued over like it’s actual science with evidence. Intellectual tennis with no net, to steal a phrase from Dennett.

  6. #6 DK
    November 17, 2009

    All these whiners are just pissed off because Gladwell is a ROCK STAR who makes more money than they do

    In music analogy, Gladwell is a lot more like Britney Spears than, say, Radiohead.

  7. #8 Asha
    November 20, 2009

    Razib,

    Pinker really messed up. You should read Galdwell’s response on his blog.

  8. #9 GC
    November 24, 2009

    A writer has managed to publish several books that all make highly arguable claims? NO!!!!!

    The only people who take Gladwell too seriously are those who try to lambaste him for not doing something he never set out to do in the first place. Gladwell himself states in a few interviews that his goal is to have fun and make the reader have fun. He takes an interest in everyday phenomenon and seeks to explain it using anecdotes peppered with a few statistics. He’s not trying to start a revolution in thought, he’s simply dishing out a new perspective. Take it or leave it.

    To me, Gladwell’s books are pure entertainment, a higher-caliber version of a trivia book, if you will. Of course I disagree with some of what he says, of course I question some of his evidence, and of course I think he often stretches to reach his conclusions. But so what? He’s a charming writer, and I enjoy being taken for the ride. If you’re too insecure to be caught reading anything other than a book that has been welcomed with open arms into only the most elite literary circles or that doesn’t have some lofty title that’ll make passersby look at you in the coffee shop window and think, “That man/woman looks smart!”, don’t bother reading Gladwell. If you, like most human beings, enjoy reading for the fun of it every now and then and also take an interest in the world around you which extends beyond a strictly academic setting, Gladwell’s a great choice. Reading his work is, at times, genuinely thought-provoking and at time much like reading a fun mystery novel because it’s not hard to pull his argument apart, but you have fun doing so nonetheless.

    In short, stop taking Gladwell more seriously than he takes himself.

  9. #10 Ha
    November 24, 2009

    Gladwell’s response was lame and as vapid as his books. Pinker is right.

    Has anyone been as consistently wrong in every single thing they write about as Malcolm Gladwell? He is such a joke.

  10. #11 Jason Malloy
    November 25, 2009

    But so what? He’s a charming writer, and I enjoy being taken for the ride.

    Well, I think we can safely say this GC isn’t Godless Capitalist.

  11. #12 Holtz
    November 25, 2009

    Steven Pinker replies:

    What Malcolm Gladwell calls a “lonely ice floe” is what psychologists call “the mainstream.” In a 1997 editorial in the journal Intelligence, 52 signatories wrote, “I.Q. is strongly related, probably more so than any other single measurable human trait, to many important educational, occupational, economic and social outcomes.” Similar conclusions were affirmed in a unanimous blue-ribbon report by the American Psychological Association, and in recent studies (some focusing on outliers) by Dean Simonton, David Lubinski and others.

    Gladwell is right, of course, to privilege peer-reviewed articles over blogs. But sports is a topic in which any academic must answer to an army of statistics-savvy amateurs, and in this instance, I judged, the bloggers were correct. They noted, among other things, that Berri and Simmons weakened their “weak correlation” (Gladwell described it in the New Yorker essay reprinted in “What the Dog Saw” as “no connection”) by omitting the lower-drafted quarterbacks who, unsurprisingly, turned out not to merit many plays. In any case, the relevance to teacher selection (the focus of the essay) remains tenuous.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/29/books/review/Letters-t-LETSGOTOTHET_LETTERS.html?_r=1

  12. #13 David Dobbs
    December 22, 2009

    On the fact-checking issue: If you’ve got money for a fact-checker — and I think we can assume Gladwell does — then, well, the facts should be checked.

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