Against Gladwellism

19 November 2008 at 10:38 am 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

The blogosphere is atwitter over Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers (#4 on Amazon this morning). Outliers studies high achievers in art, science, business, and other fields, seeking to refute the myth of the self-made man: high achievers “are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”

Abbeville (via 3quarks) expresses some reservations, not about Gladwell’s conclusion, but about his approach:

[Gladwell] is a skilled and entertaining writer, exemplifying the modern New Yorker “house style” for journalism with its combination of solid research, amused detachment, and quirky anecdotes in the Ken Burns mold. Tragically, Gladwell is also often very wrong. His work, famous for its forays into sociology, social psychology, market research, and other trendy disciplines, is a testament to both the exciting possibilities and the intellectual limitations of those fields. His penchant for what might be called pop statistical analysis sometimes leads to elegant, well-supported, and counterintuitive conclusions, but just as often recalls the man who couldn’t possibly have drowned in that river because its average depth was five feet.

Specifically, says Abbeville, there are substantial literatures on creativity and achievement in art history, literary criticism, the history of science, and related disciplines that deal specifically with the influence of the environment on artistic, scientific, and commercial achievement, literatures Gladwell doesn’t consider.

As Gladwell may or may not realize, the “nature vs. nurture” argument as relates to high achievers is an old one. At one extreme you have the Romantic notion of genius or greatness as an innate, invincible force that breaks through any constraints placed upon it. This, as the author of the New York article points out, is a widely discredited notion—in fact, another straw man. Certainly even extraordinary talent needs nurturing and opportunity in order to become extraordinary achievement. But is extraordinary achievement simply the sum of the nurturing and opportunity it has encountered? This view lies at the opposite extreme, and it, too, is easily discredited by real-world examples. Yet Gladwell embraces it as a revolutionary insight.

I find this interesting because because economics, according to some critics, has become infected with what might be called creeping Gladwellism, a dilettantish fascination with clever puzzles, idiosyncratic insights, and statistical anomalies that while flashy and clever, are ultimately ephemeral and are typically based on a superficial understanding of the phenomenon in question. I’ve previously called this the Freakonomics approach. Economists, with their broad and general analytical framework, are particularly susceptible to the disease. Blogging is of course a natural outlet for Gladwellism — a blog entry, after all, is the perfect place for quick-and-dirty, broad but not deep, cutesy and provocative commentary. (I should know.)

The complaint here is not with true polymaths like John von Neumann, Herbert Simon, or Murray Rothbard, geniuses who made substantial contributions in a number of fields. Rather, it’s aimed at contemporary social scientists and essayists, credentialed or not, who feel free to discourse hither and yon without having done serious research on the theory, issue, or controversy at hand. Do you think this criticism is fair?

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. andrea  |  19 November 2008 at 2:26 pm

    “Hello, Kettle, this is Pot calling!”

  • 2. michael webster  |  19 November 2008 at 11:15 pm

    Hmm, I suspect that most of us are not polymaths and have to concentrate pretty hard on puzzle problems to make even a small difference.

    Gladwell is a great writer, who may inspire young thinkers to take up his unique synthesis of ideas.

    But he is not a scientist, nor does he pretend to be one. Let’s give him his due as a wonderful writer.

  • 3. Bob V  |  20 November 2008 at 11:07 pm

    There are many authors who if I were to meet I would take out my copy of the Rosenzweig’s The Halo Effect and slap them with repeatedly until they went away. He’s one of them.

    That said, I think it might be unfair to coin a word after him for this flaw. What about virtually every CEO autobiography detailing the presumed reasons for their success?

    I shudder to consider going back to my own blog and view my 1000+ posts for the number of just-so explanations I offer.

    I shudder more to consider how many there are that I wouldn’t even be able to identify.

    Is there really a way to stop Gladwellism though? should we really include a logic and cognitive biases course into the high school curriculum?

  • 4. Graham Peterson  |  7 August 2016 at 8:25 pm

    I think before we denounce a phenomenon we should understand it.

    Abbeville and co. may be upset, like Reviewer #3, that Gladwell did not cite their friends’ work. But the onus was on Abbeville and co. to influence the world with their stunning insights. They failed. Gladwell succeeded. Pearls were clutched. The success of Gladwell’s pure constructionism is evidence that despite “decades of research,” Abbeville’s cohort failed to convince anyone that genius is somewhere between constructed and not.

    People continued to worship genius. Gladwell found a way to do what sociologists had wanted to do for decades. He undermined that narrative in a persuasive way. Now everyone’s mad that he didn’t publish a more comprehensive exegesis of their work. Jeez.

    Maybe Abbeville could have been out there asking people why they continued to worship genius, despite leftists and sociologists relentlessly assailing the idea. Nope. It’s much easier to conclude that the public is stupid or just emotionally intransigent, and that anyone who dares comment on your subfield ought to consult your opinion, which counts, as against the millions of people who don’t.

    Most of the blowback against Gladwellism is motivated by rational professionals who realize that Gladwellites stand to eat at their margins. Well, academics are going to have to grow up and deal with it. It is not 1950 anymore. We don’t live in a technocracy. Close to 2/3 of the electorate barely trusts the media much less the academy. And popular social science writing is going to continue to shape public discourse.

    Interestingly, that discourse ends up shaping research. You can call that dilettantism. Or you can call it a conversation. There’s no reason to believe, a priori, that the best way to do science is (1) construct theory from first principles, (2) test, (3) amend theory. And there’s growing dispositive evidence that splitting people into deep specialties even accomplishes that falsification.

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