So, not too long ago, I finally got around to reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (the guy who wrote The Tipping Point and Blink). I’ve read his other two books as well on the heavy recommendations of several people who insisted I would love them. Overall, I thought they were interesting, but there was something about them that I didn’t really like. Something about his writing style that annoyed me, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
In reading Outliers, by about 20 or 30 pages in, I found myself getting mad, which I’m pretty sure isn’t the intended effect, so I started noting some of the things that made me mad. I think most of it is around the fact that everyone seems to treat his books as scientific works of fact, and with the way he presents things it’s easy to get that impression. But, at the same time, it’s so, so, so wildly not scientific. Later in the book, I started writing down some of the things about him and his writing style (and to some degree the wide acceptance / praise of him) that sets me off. So, in no particular order or pretense of being scientific or anything other than one person’s rant, here’s a bunch of little pieces that in my mind add up to disliking Malcolm Gladwell.
– His language is extremely flowery, and tends to appeal strongly to the sense and to the emotions. It reads more like the script to an episode of 60 Minutes than science.
– He starts every argument with an isolated incident that is narrative, engaging, and make you sympathize with the character, and then generalizes wildly.
– The book isn’t really about outliers at all. In fact, it focuses more on large groups, patterns, and what shapes entirely average people. He just tends to use the extreme cases as his attempt for proof. It’s like a sociology text written in the language of a political campaign speech.
– The title could just as easily be (as it is his main argument) “Nurture’s important too”. The basic premise of the book is, when you get right down to it and strip away the flowery language, that the culture you’re raised in and how people treat you is as important in determining who you are, and therefore where you end up and what you end up doing, as are your genes or personal effort. In short, an entirely unoriginal argument that’s been going on for centuries in science. At the same time, he alternates wildly between tying personal effort / perseverance to genes (nature) and then portraying it as a cultural trait (nurture) to be absorbed (as in his scientific *gafaw* attempt at explaining why Asian kids are good at math – because their culture teaches them to have more effort and determination in problem solving).
– He doesn’t provide references, he just says “there was a study that proves this” and moves on. There is a short section in the back that references scientific papers (again, giving the appearance of being scientifically rigorous), but they – 1) are buried in the back, 2) don’t have any actual footnotes, to both discourage tying a specific piece of text to evidence so it could be supported / refuted 3) never gives more than a passing, dismissive reference to any studies or works that could counter his points. I think this – the lack of any sort of balance at all is what really sets me off.
– Because of all of the fawning adoration of him, I feel like I’ve read most of the book before I ever opened it. I had lots of moments of deja vu because it’s been quoted so heavily everywhere. Again, with everyone presenting it as fact and some sort of mild scientific break through.
– For each of his points, he claims basically all success in life can be attributed to one particular environmental factor. However, that factor varies from chapter to chapter. If we try to tie all of his “logic” together, we would find that the world should currently be ruled by Asian people from wealthy backgrounds who were born on January 1st, who lived near a computer lab growing up and have never interacted with Scottish people. Which is obviously totally supported by realit… oh wait, no, it’s not, at all.
– He loves juxtaposing things as desperate as possible to create an effect and impact in the reader’s mind, even if it’s at the cost of a logically coherent argument or understanding.
– He writes to be talked about, but not to say much.
– He uses a single quote, from a single individual, with no evidence that it speaks for a whole time (or even anything beyond just that individual’s opinion) to create broad, sweeping explanations of entire cultures.
– He places enough unrelated examples close enough together, and uses anecdotal evidence (at best) to tie them together, to make it seem as if he has created an encompassing theory of all existence, and also implies that he know how to fix it all, but never present his actual conclusion in a clear manner. This has two results, after someone reads it, they feel like they’ve learned something really important, but they can’t quite articulate it (because he doesn’t articulate it, and if they did so accurately, it wouldn’t seem so profound anymore), which leads them to 1) tell other people they should read it, because they can’t say exactly what it was about for sure, just that it was good, and 2) makes you think that if you had just a bit more time with him, he’d either put it all together for you, or at least give you all the other wonderful pieces that didn’t quite fit in the book, so you could finally figure it all out. In other words, he sets himself up for speaking engagements. Each individual example is also quotable / summarize-able enough that it both gives him something to talk about (rehash) on talk shows, and lends itself easily to being quoted elsewhere (again, felt like I read half of it before I opened the book), so it spreads. In short, he’s perfected using the points from his first book (The Tipping Point) to make himself hit a tipping point, even though he’s really just been an old set of hush puppies since then. The strange part is that, in a way, each of his books sets up every point needed to call him out, he spells out exactly what he’s doing, as he’s doing it, and no one calls him out for it.
– The subtle, detailed, well researched and cited argument that rationally addresses its critics is dead in our society.
– He bases his arguments on sweeping groups in ways that feed on (and feed into) stereotypes.
– He leaps up and down on scale – from an individual, one school, an isolated study, to a stereotype of a whole region based on one study, a whole culture / the whole world and all of human history – gives a grand sweeping feel, but gives basically no evidence.
– It’s emotional, you feel for the characters. Science doesn’t have characters. Even in psychology, you have patients, not protagonists.
– Not only does he only focus on environment as the sole predictor of success, he picks and chooses which parts of the environment to focus on. In his example of schools, he points out that at his personally relate-able, focused on, emotionally engaging school protagonist, everyone does orchestra, they have much much longer days, they have strict rules, but Gladwell only focuses on one thing as the solution- having 3 extra weeks of school in the summer. He argues that if we could just have kids go to school year round, it would fix everything, but ignored that maybe it’s not just the 3 extra weeks, maybe it’s the orchestra. What if every student had to take band? What if not sleeping enough is what’s actually helping them? He focuses on the environment for causes of things, but then ignores massive portions of the environment to further his specific argument.
– He puts up as an example of the way the world should be as including a 12 year old running on 6 hours of sleep each night, every night. Six hours.
– He seems to always propose a single right way to do things- train pilots this way and you’ll always be safe, raise children this was and they’ll be hockey stars.
– He continually argues that anyone who was given the correct opportunity succeeds – but he leaves out the many, many cases of people who may have been in the right situations, but still failed. He talks about one failure in the whole book.
– In particular, a certain paragraph on page 268 took me from mildly annoyed to “must rant to the internet about this”. Let me quote it here at length:
The lesson here is very simple. But it is striking how often it is overlooked. We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We looks at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today? To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determines success – the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history – with a society that provides opportunities for all. If Canada had a second hockey league for those children born in the last half of the year, it would today have twice as many adult hockey stars. Now multiply that sudden flowering of talent by every field and profession. The world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for.
Ah, the wonder! The soaring rhetoric! The potential of a brighter future for all!! This grand utopia if we would just listen to this one man’s wisdom!!! Oh wait. Fuck. It’s chock full of more examples of logical fallacies than than a textbook on Socrates. Let’s hit just a few of the high point of “are you fucking kidding me” in there. “Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968.” Really? That’s strange, because in your example of this earlier in the same fucking book, on page 51, you tell us that every single kid in Gates’ school had the ability to have the exact same access he had, and you refer on numerous occasions to “Gates and his friends” spending all this time on this very same computer. And you really think absolutely no other school in the world had a similar set up? Are you sure there weren’t actually a ton of them? Are you sure it’s not just that you haven’t heard of all the others, or even looked into it, because it might hurt your argument? Because they didn’t happen to produce an equally famous individual despite a similar environment? Or that someone who, oh say wasn’t even born until the next year could create software that’s currently run on multiples more computers than anything Gates ever touched? Or that with any research you would find that it never really was Gates’ technical ability that set him ahead but rather his business skills? My, all those MBA’s out there shall be great programmers one day. “If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?” One. Exactly fucking one. Microsoft is only a worthwhile example because it’s a huge monopoly. You know how many monopolies you can have in a particular market? Here’s a hint, it has to do with the prefix “mono”. Perhaps you meant “How many really successful companies could we have with huge market share?” Again, the same number. There’s only so much room in the market. Could they have been headed by other people? Probably. But that’s not going to make for a million more $260 Billion market cap companies. Aside from that a million kids spending all their time in a computer lab to produce a million Bill Gates would mean a million kids not out spending all their time in hockey leagues. Or playing guitar. Or student government. “If Canada had a second hockey league for those children born in the last half of the year, it would today have twice as many adult hockey stars.” No, it fucking wouldn’t. It would have exactly as many, they would just have birthdays bunched up in January and July instead of just January (that assuming we take Galdwell’s general argument here as being valid in the first place). Instead of screwing kids with November and December birthdays, we be screwing the ones with June and December birthdays, and spending twice as much on coaching and facilities for the opportunity. And hey, why not make 4 leagues?!! Then we could have 4 times as many adult hockey stars! Hey, why stop there? Let’s have twelve!! How about 365?!! Why not one for every hour of birth time? 8,760 hockey leagues and the world’s problems will be solved!!! But wait, 8,760 hockey leagues will only give us 8,584,800 NHL level players. With a mere 6,632,653 hockey leagues every person on the planet will be playing hockey at an NHL level. Cripples will be able to skate! The blind shall win shoot outs in overtime! Infants and the elderly alike will check one another into the boards!! All praise be to Malcolm Gladwell!!!