Moving on to Chapter 1 in my ongoing pedantic plodding through Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success. See here for what this is all about. Note that I really am doing this as I read the book (I’m reading it really really slowly), so what I say here may be outdated by the time I get further into the book.
SPOILER ALERT: Dude, I can’t talk about the book without giving away what the book is about, so if you don’t want the book’s main ideas to be spoiled, don’t continue reading.
IDIOT ALERT: I’m in no way qualified in most of the fields Gladwell will touch on, so please, a grain of salt, before you start complaining about my ignorance. Yes I’m an idiot, please tell me why!
Chapter 1: The Mathew Effect
Chapter one begins with Gladwells laying out his main thesis. To summarize it, roughly, we overly stress “personal” qualities in explaining the highly successful and don’t put enough emphasis on “hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies.” Let’s just leave that where it is, because at this point its hard to tell what it really means.
|Those with the Ruby birth stone are sometimes blessed with awesome hockey birthdays, and sometimes doomed to hockey mediocrity.|
Gladwell then focuses on a case example, which is supposed to illustrate some of these “hidden advantages.” The example he picks is junior ice hockey in Canada. He shows us a lineup for a Western Hockey League team and asks us if we can spot the strange pattern. Now I love finding patterns (that’s in a way, part of my job) so it didn’t take me long to spot the pattern that Gladwell wants to talk about. (Of course I also found more patterns, but more on that latter!) In particular Gladwell points out how the majority of players were all born in January, February, March or April (seventeen out of twenty-five.) How can this be so? Well if you know a bit about the junior hockey system in Canada you’ll realize that this has to do with the cut-off date for hockey which is January 1, and this is dictated across the whole system. Thus someone born on January 2 will be playing along side kids who are, for the most part, younger, and thus not as well developed physically. And, because the kids who start out relatively older get streamed into the elite teams and they get an advantage that translates into there being more likely to get extra practice. Thus because of the initial cut-off establishes an relative age advantage, and the system then selects for those who are at this advantage, the chances of making it through to the upper levels if you are not born early in the year are highly skewed. Gladwell then discusses, briefly, similar effects having to do with performance in school: the relatively older kids to better.
|An angel tell’s Matthew to make the first four months the hockey months, but Matthew refuses to add this to his Gospel.|
Finally Gladwell gets to explaining how he views these results in light of this book. In particular he points to the idea of the Matthew Effect (which he attributes to sociologist Robert Merton). The naming comes from a line from the gospel of Matthew (Matthew 25:29)
For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.
(it also appears, unsurprisingly given the history of the gospels, in the gospel of Luke. Good thing the internet cheat scanners weren’t around when Luke turned in his gospel!) The idea here is that if you’re successful, then because you are successful you get advantages that lead you to be even more successful. If you aren’t successful, then you get tracked into the “not successful” track and aren’t likely to overcome being not given the advantages. (Correct me if I’m wrong, however, but my recollection was that most Christians interpret this slightly differently: that those who have faith/enact God’s will shall be given to and those who don’t have faith/don’t enact God’s will shall have their advantages taken away.) Thus Gladwell tells us:
The professional hockey player starts out a little bit better than his peers. And that little difference leads to an opportunity that makes that difference a bit bigger, and that edge in turn leads to another opportunity, which makes the initial small difference bigger still – and on and on until the hockey player is a genuine outlier. But he didn’t start out an outlier. He started out just a little better
Curmudgeonly Pedants take: Well first of all I have to say that the relative age effect doesn’t surprise me much at all. I played little league baseball growing up, and it didn’t take much observation to note that the older kids had a huge advantage and were the ones who ended up all-stars. Further I used to use this as a strategy growing up: on the playground pick the kids who had been held back a grade on your team! And, just to be clear, given that this effect exists, it seems that it would be the duty of good sportsmenship of the the Canadian hockey system to figure out a way to alleviate this effect (see this paper for proposal on how to fix this.)
So I don’t doubt the effect of the Canadian junior hockey cut-off date having the effect described: if you aren’t born in one of the first four months you are in deep trouble in this system. But there are a lot of problems with using this as an “explanation” for the outliers who end up playing professional hockey.
The first problem is that the effect Gladwell describes, while certainly there, is “small.” Wait! How can it be small: it nearly excludes something like two thirds the participants! Well look at it this way. There are around 480,000 players registered in the Hockey Canada system. Of these, around 71 per year make it to the NHL. There is something like fifteen years of hockey players in those 480,000, so if you assume there are equal numbers across these age groups (certainly this is wrong: it is more likely the distribution shrinks with age, but this would make the odds I’m about to state worse) gives you a one in 450 chance of making it to the NHL from this system. So great, you say, the effect described, explains one third of this. But this is the wrong way to think about it. Of the one in 450 chance of making the NHL, to explain just getting into the NHL you have to “left” to explain the one in 150 chance of making the NHL after having been screened for this effect. This is because explaining “outliers” is a multiplicative effect: you can’t explain an outlier by giving me an effect which narrows down the chances by such a small amount of the long odds. Sure the early effect of this relative age discrimination grows with time, but this is very different from saying that it becomes the overwhelming explanation for getting into the NHL! If you read the quote I’ve pasted above, you’ll note that Gladwell is making a huge category error: just because an effect arises from a selective process does not mean that it can be used to explain the entire one in 450 odds of becoming an outlier!
|Roy Worters is the real outlier|
And this dovetails into the second problem. It is trivial, and I mean trivial, to find and effect which is nearly as large as this effect, and has nothing to do with a “hidden advantage” or is “cultural” in nature. Indeed it should have jumped out at you when you read the list of hockey players that Gladwell presented in the book. All but two (or four, see below) of the twenty five players listed in Gladwell’s list are above average height for their age! The average height for Canadian boys of age 19 is 174.6 centimeters which is about 5’8.7″. Two of the players are listed at 5’8″ and two are listed at 5’9″, so lets just be generous and say that all but four are above average height. Take a look at a random NHL team and you’ll see that there is some pretty strong selection going on in heights: almost all are above average height (but not too tall.) This, then, is roughly an effect which can “explain” about one half of your kids chance of making the NHL. If the kid is going to be short, then, well you’d better give up! In other words, it’s pretty damn easy to find an effect which is pretty close to the opposite of the effect Gladwell wants to emphasize, one based on “nature”, which is nearly as large as the effect he describes.
Again, just to reemphasize, I am not doubting the relative age effect in the hockey system. It’s there. But it is a small effect and there are easily other effects, like the eventual height of the child, which has a large effect and is, of the essence very different from the one Gladwell emphasizes. So I’m left with just one interesting point of the chapter: that the relative age effect exists. But should we be surprised by this? I’ll leave that up to you, but for me I’d say no (maybe because I’ve seen similar effects before: for example alphabetical ordering of names on scientific papers appears to influence your employment and tenure chances!)
|Full of woe: to be born on the wrong day!|
Improv’s take: Suppose we lived in a world where your future occupation was directly influenced by the date of your birth. Oh boy would that lead to a lot of scheduled sex! In such a world we’d probably have holidays around the major desired occupations. Today it’s “Doctor Day”, everyone go home and make whoopie! And boy the stress this would put on hospitals around those dates. Not to mention the parents who want to induce the pregnancy on a given day! Or the father mad at the wife for not being able to make it to the desired date. (For fun such a system should schedule the jobs no one wants around the ones everyone wants.) I think in such a world I’d make my living selling tables which calculate your expected salary if you procreate on a given day.