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Outliers

2008.12.09 Comments off

image I’m not particularly interested in reviewing Malcolm Gladwell’s latest pop-sociology treatise, Outliers.  Who needs another review when such outstanding writers as Stephen Kotkin, Michiko Kakutani, and our buddy Joel Spolsky have all weighed in?

Instead, I thought I might critique the critics.

In order to critique the critics, however, I will have to at least briefly review the book.  So, here goes.

I read Outliers.  It was a fun and insightful read.  The author’s thesis is that innate talent isn’t sufficient to create success, but instead hard work and good fortune are also required.  Gladwell points out and refutes two common misconceptions: that the gifted rise effortlessly to the top, and that if you aren’t the very best and brightest you have no chance of success.

Through anecdotes and some simple statistics, Gladwell demonstrates that the Beatles and Bill Gates weren’t just born lucky and brilliant, but had to work really hard as well; that the best educated and “most likely to succeed” attorneys in New York didn’t rise to the top; and that the most intelligent man in the world couldn’t finish college and worked for years as a bouncer.

Outliers didn’t purport to be a piece of scientific research.  However, reading the reviews, you’d think that Gladwell had published this work in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.  Kotkin, Kakutani, and Spolsky all tear the book to shreds for failing to scientifically prove its thesis, and for relying overmuch on anecdote.

Kakutani concludes that Gladwell is postulating a “theory of social predestination” which turns “individuals into pawns of their cultural heritage” when he describes the failure of Columbian airline pilots to challenge the air traffic control in New York or a Korean pilot to challenge his captain.  But Gladwell didn’t arrive at that conclusion.  He merely quotes the exhaustive research done by airline safety professionals who arrived at precisely that conclusion.

Kotkin writes:

If some points border on the obvious, others seem a stretch. Asian children’s high scores at math, Mr. Gladwell would have us believe, derive from work in rice paddies. Never mind that few of the test takers or their urban parents in Hong Kong, Singapore or Tokyo have ever practiced wet-rice agriculture. Noting that math test scores correlate with how long students will sit for any kind of exam, Mr. Gladwell points to an Asian culture of doggedness, which he attributes to cultural legacies of rice cultivation.

Having grown up close to a couple of Asian families, I can assure the reader and Mr. Kotkin that there is indeed a “culture of doggedness” to be found in many Asian families.  I found Gladwell’s arguments very compelling: rice farming, unlike all other forms of farming or hunting / gathering, requires a stupendous amount of work, encouraging a work ethic that, after thousands of years, has permeated the culture even though “few of the test takers or their urban parents in Hong Kong, Singapore or Tokyo have ever practiced wet-rice agriculture”.

Is such a thesis even provable?  Is proof even the point of a book like Outliers?

Joel Spolsky seems to think so.  Even though he admits that

I am not one to throw stones. Heck, I practically invented the formula of ‘tell a funny story and then get all serious and show how this is [sic] amusing anecdote just goes to show that (one thing|the other) is a universal truth’

Spolsky can’t help himself, and throws a handful of stones anyway, calling Gladwell’s theories “weak”, “crazy”, and “utterly lunatic.”  He calls Gladwell’s book “anecdotes disguised as science”.  But Gladwell isn’t trying to position his book as science at all.  It’s informational entertainment.  Like Discovery Channel or Mythbusters.

For that matter, what has science to tell us about the way that human culture works anyway?  Have you read any compendia on sociology?  Do I really care that it can be shown that the Mayan style of basket weaving began in Guatemala and progressed into South America?  Will it help me one iota in my day-to-day experience to learn about the parenting style of Ugandan peasants?  Probably not.

Outliers isn’t science.  It doesn’t purport to be science.  Which is why it wasn’t presented as a Ph. D. thesis or published in a scientific journal.  I found it stimulating and thought provoking.  It isn’t supposed to form the basis of my beliefs.  It’s supposed to cause me to challenge beliefs I might mistakenly hold.  And, yes, Joel, the world needs more of these books.

My suspicion is that the reviewers failed to read the book with sufficient thoroughness to actually understand how Gladwell makes his arguments.  Sure, on the surface, the idea that a person’s cultural heritage makes him more likely to run a plane into the ground is potentially insulting.  But years of analysis by experts in flight safety points to precisely that explanation.  Yeah, to say that Chinese are better at math because seventy generations of Chinese farmed rice paddies sounds absurd.  On the other hand, to say that they’re better at math because their cerebral cortex is so much more “mathematical” (the typical reason) is pretty unscientific as well.  Gladwell is able to draw a line between the kind of dogged determination a society needs in order to be really good at farming rice and demonstrates how exactly that sort of determination and patience alone is sufficient to explain the difference in math test scores.  That’s some good thinking as far as I’m concerned.  Kudos, not criticism, is in order.

I didn’t criticize Joel on Software for being “unscientific” because I recognized that his charming collection of more-or-less well-informed anecdotes paints a good picture of how a good software manager ought to think.  Never mind the fact that he never – not once – conducted any rigorous testing of any of his management hypotheses.  It wasn’t supposed to be science.  It was supposed to make me think about software product management, and it succeeded.  I’ve recommended or gifted that book to dozens of people.

Likewise, Outliers is a great book with big ideas – ideas which may not be scientifically provable, but which nevertheless deserve consideration and examination.  If Gladwell has chosen a fluffy, tasty, digestible medium for his ideas instead of the cardboard-dry, unpalatable forms preferred by hard science and academia, well, who can blame him?  Someone else can earn their Ph. D. proving – or disproving – one of his points.  He’s content to just rake in the profits.

As well he should be.

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