The only thing is, I’m not sure who’s David here and who is Goliath. From the standpoint of book sales, Gladwell is Goliath for sure. On the other hand, Gladwell’s credibility has been weakened over the years by fights with bigshots such as Steven Pinker. Maybe the best analogy is a boxing match where Gladwell stands in the ring and fighter after fighter is sent in to bang him up. At some point the heavyweight gets a little bit tired. (Recently Gladwell had a New Yorker column defending dopers such as Lance Armstrong, so I suspect he’ll have Kaiser Fung coming after him again, once the current lucha with Chabris is over.)
Chabris took his swing at Gladwell a few days ago, as I reported here.
Yesterday was Gladwell’s turn. I have a lot of sympathy for the Blink-man here: he writes these bestsellers and puts himself out there, so he’s a target. If Gladwell’s books were generic business-bestseller pap of the be-yourself-and-be-tough variety, he wouldn’t get hassled. It’s because Gladwell has this impressive track record of putting out these intellectual earworms—the tipping point, blink, the 10,000 hours—that he gets this attention.
Chabris’s claim is that Gladwell’s latest big idea is ill-defined or false. My inclination is to side with Chabris (or, perhaps I should say, Gorilla-man) on this one—for one thing, in his reply yesterday, Gladwell didn’t really defend the science of his claims, he gave more of a procedural defense of his method of storytelling. But I give Gladwell credit for presenting enough of an idea in his book that there was something worth shooting down.
As those of you who are social scientists surely already know, ideas are like stone soup. Even a bad idea, if it gets you thinking, can move you forward. For example: is that 10,000 hour thing true? I dunno. We’ll see what happens to Steven Levitt’s golfing buddy. (Amazingly enough, Levitt says he’s spent 5000 hours practicing golf. That comes to 5 hours every Saturday . . . for 20 years. That’s a lot of golf! A lot lot lot lot of golf. Steven Levitt really really loves golf.) But, whether or not the 10,000-hour claim really has truth, it certainly gets you thinking about the value of practice. Chris Chabris and others could quite reasonably argue that everyone already knows that practice helps. But there’s something about that 10,000 hour number that sticks in the mind.
What makes the “10,000” number so sticky? I wonder if it involves just the right level of complexity to resonate with people. If somebody tells you that, to be good at something, you have to practice for 5 years (say), then the natural reaction is: OK, sure, that makes sense, no big deal. But if they tell you, “10,000 hours,” then you have to think about it: Hmmm, 40 hours a week for 50 weeks is 2000 hours, so that’s 5 straight years of work. Or 2 and a half years if you’re working at it 16 hours a day. Hmmm, how many hours was Larry Bird standing out there shooting baskets as a kid? Etc. The “10,000 hours” thing is just obscure enough to be interesting.
Here’s another example. A few years ago, I criticized the following passage from Gladwell:
It’s one thing to argue that being an outsider can be strategically useful. But Andrew Carnegie went farther. He believed that poverty provided a better preparation for success than wealth did; that, at root, compensating for disadvantage was more useful, developmentally, than capitalizing on advantage.
I argued that Gladwell was making a statistical fallacy:
At some level, there’s got to be some truth to this: you learn things from the school of hard knocks that you’ll never learn in the Ivy League, and so forth. But . . . there are so many more poor people than rich people out there. Isn’t this just a story about a denominator? Here’s my hypothesis:
Pr (success | privileged background) >> Pr (success | humble background)
# people with privileged background << # of people with humble background
Multiply these together, and you might find that many extremely successful people have humble backgrounds, but it does not mean that being an outsider is actually an advantage.
Commenter Aaron Veenstra added:
Part of the issue here may also be how we define “success.” If we think of SES as a 1-10 scale and I’m born at 9, I don’t have much room to improve. Indeed, I could recede a notch to 8 and still look pretty successful, even though I would seem to have squandered some of what I started with. Conversely, if I’m born at 3 and work my way up to 6, my position relative to my starting point is much better than the 9 -> 8 person, but the 8 may still be more successful.
But now consider the stone soup principle. Suppose that Gladwell is offering nothing but some well-arranged stories and an empty statement that sometimes a humble background can be helpful in achieving success. Still, that can get you thinking, right? As long as you don’t take his points too literally, you might get something out of it.
Similarly, when Gladwell claimed that NFL quarterback performance is unrelated to the order they were drafted out of college, he appears to have been wrong. But if you take his writing as stone soup, maybe it’s valuable: just retreat to the statement that there’s only a weak relationship between draft order and NFL performance. That alone is interesting. It’s too bad that Gladwell sometimes has to make false general statements in order to get our attention, but maybe that’s what is needed to shake people out of their mental complacency.
Here’s an example of how Tyler Cowen takes Gladwell’s stones and makes a delicious soup out of them:
Quite possibly [David and Goliath] is Gladwell’s best book. His writing is better yet and also more consistently philosophical. For all the talk of “cherry picking,” the main thesis is that many qualities which usually appear positive are in fact non-monotonic in value and can sometimes turn negative. If you consider Gladwell’s specific citations of non-monotonicities to be cherry-picking, you’re not understanding the hypothesis being tested. Take the book’s central message to be “here’s how to think more deeply about what you are seeing.” To be sure, this is not a book for econometricians, but it so unambiguously improves the quality of the usual public debates, in addition to entertaining and inspiring and informing us, I am very happy to recommend it to anyone who might be tempted. It also shows Gladwell’s side as a regional thinker like never before. And the moral lesson of the work — don’t write people off — is very important indeed and we are far from having fully absorbed it. The same can be said for the second moral lesson of the book which is don’t overrate your power.
Read the above paragraph slowly. Cowen is, like me, a canny writer who will sometimes imply things but is careful about what he actually is stating. You’ll notice that Cowen is not saying that Gladwell is revealing any general statistical patterns, but rather that he (Gladwell) presents examples which get you thinking in ways that you otherwise might not have done.
To put it another way, Cowen’s review and Chabris’s review are completely consistent with each other, despite having completely different tones.
It’s sometimes said that a good story needs a villain. To his credit, Gladwell does not go around creating human villains to bash. (I remain annoyed at Dubner and Levitt’s invocation of unnamed “some academics” as a foil in their celebration of a sports bookie. It wasn’t enough for them to just say how cool this guy was; they had to pander to the crowd by postulating a (hypothetical) silly academic as a contrast.)
My impression is that, in Gladwell’s stories, the villains are not bad guys, they’re bad ideas. So, in the football example, the villain is the idea that top draft picks will always perform the best. In the 10,000 hours example, the villain is the idea that some people are successes and others are failures, and there’s nothing you can do about it. In the Andrew Carnegie story, the villain is the idea that all that matters is privilege. Sometimes the stories have human heroes (for example, in Gladwell’s (statistically) misleading story of divorce expert John Gottman), Gladwell does not seem to be in the habit of casting people as villains.
I like that.
And I also like that Gladwell writes, “I have tremendous respect for the work that Chabris does. I have written about it admiringly in The New Yorker.” It would be easy for Gladwell to lash out, but he doesn’t. He just doesn’t seem to be a hater.
David responds to Goliath (or was it the other way around?)
Finally, I’d like to briefly comment on Gladwell’s response to Chabris’s review. Gladwell starts off with an anecdote that, a few years ago, Chabris and a coauthor published a criticism of one of Gladwell’s earlier books, and when Gladwell disagreed with the criticism, they offered to debate him. Gladwell writes, “But that seemed silly. I didn’t want to debate them. I just wanted them to read my book all the way to the end.”
Gladwell appears to still have this position, of not wanting to debate, in that even in his recent reply to Chabris, I don’t really see him responding to Chabris’s scientific points, it’s more that Gladwell is defending his style of storytelling.
I bristle a bit at Gladwell’s defense because I think he’s missing the point. Nobody is criticizing storytelling. Stories are great, and they’re a key way we understand the world. Here’s what Gladwell writes:
All writing about social science need not be presented with the formality and precision of the academic world. There is a place for storytelling, in all of its messiness.
I agree 100%. And I suspect Chabris does as well. Here’s the problem. What Chabris is saying (I think)—and, in any case, what I’m saying—is that the messiness of reality is a key way that stories work in conveying information and overturning our preconceptions.
When I wrote that some of Gladwell’s stories are over-smoothed, my problem was not that Gladwell was not academic, or that he had too much messy reality in his books. Rather, my problem (and, I think, Chabris’s as well) was that Gladwell’s stories were not messy enough! Fables are fun, but the real world can be much more interesting.
For example, Chabris criticizes Gladwell for touting a 40-person study on Princeton students without mentioning the failure of “a replication attempt with a much larger and more representative sample of subjects.” In his response, Gladwell replies that the truth is not so clear: the authors of the original study “say that the version of desirable difficulty that they explore has been confirmed on numerous other occasions.”
OK, so maybe Chabris was too quick to slam the original Princeton study. I don’t know. But the point is that to just report that study as truth without mentioning the controversy over its non replication . . . that’s over-smoothing. It makes the story less interesting, less messy, less real.
So, what I’m really hoping is that Gladwell rereads his own response:
There is a place for storytelling, in all of its messiness. . . . narratives sometimes begin in one place and end in another.
Try resisting the urge to tie every story into a bow. Let some of the loose ends hang out. I think that’s what Chabris is trying to say.