Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Gladwell Value Problem

On the whole, I like Malcolm Gladwell's work a lot. Both The Tipping Point and Blink were interesting and thought-provoking. While I thought Outliers was weaker, its overall message is even more important than that of the other two books.

In Outliers, Gladwell makes clear just how much context matters to success later in life. The standard narrative of the American dream emphasizes hard work almost at the expense of other requirements (all people could pull themselves up by their own bootstraps if they only applied themselves). Most people, when pressed, acknowledge that talent cannot be ignored (it's hard to pull on bootstraps if you don't have any arms). Few people, however, are conscious of the importance of personal circumstances (what if you don't have any bootstraps?). For people opposed to distributive justice, that importance constitutes an uncomfortable truth.

Throughout Outliers, it sometimes appears that Gladwell wants to claim that talent is comparatively unimportant (if you practice long and hard enough, and are given bootstraps, you can pull yourself up, with or without arms). That claim is implausible, but fortunately it is also not necessary for the deeper point (having bootstraps matters!) to hold.

Gladwell's latest book is a collection of some of his articles written for the New Yorker. What the Dog Saw includes chapters on varieties of mustard, Ron Popeil (of "it slices, it dices" fame), fear vs. panic, intelligence reform, and much more. There is some thematic ordering to the essays, but no overall message.

Steven Pinker's excellent but critical review of the book points out some of its shortcomings, which in many ways are shortcomings of Gladwell's work more generally, though they emerge in sharper relief in some of the individual essays. Although Pinker does not quite put it this way, two key weaknesses systematically undermine the power of Gladwell's conclusions. First, his understanding of what we know about the neurological, psychological, and sociological determinants of decision-making appears simplistic (evident also in Blink). Second, he mischaracterizes key insights/implications from statistics quite often (evident also in Outliers). Pinker amusingly characterizes Gladwell's failings as the "Igon Value Problem", after an error in the book which suggests Gladwell is not familiar with eigenvalues.

Pinker implies that Gladwell simply does not understand psychology or statistics well enough to draw conclusions, but I am not convinced this is true. It seems more plausible to me that Gladwell's preference for unexpected insights and neat conclusions drives him to oversimplify issues; sometimes this merely results in a loss of nuance, but occasionally (probably too often, in fact) it actually leads him astray. The validity of Pinker's overall critique is underscored, I think, by the weakness of Gladwell's reply to it, which focuses not on Pinker's general argument, but rather on one small empirical claim Pinker uses to buttress his argument.

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