Malcolm in a Muddle: Or, How Gladwell Gladhands The Cultural Establishment

Outliers: The Story of Success is New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell`s third book and third number one bestseller.

Bully for him!

Gladwell epitomizes some of the best qualities of the modern journalist. He possesses a hunger for novelty and a powerful urge to help his subjects tell their stories in the most effective manner.

He truly likes new ideas. Most writers have a small stock in trade of novel ideas that they came up with by age 30 or so and just keep using those over and over. Gladwell, in contrast, is constantly out there searching the human sciences for theorists with new notions.

In Outliers, Gladwell offers explanations for why Asians are good at math, why blacks aren`t, why Jews dominate litigation law, and why some cultures` airliners crash more than other cultures`.

We are also informed why Bill Gates is rich and why the Beatles are popular. In two chapters about “The Trouble with Genius,” he argues that nobody should bother thinking about IQ. In fact, talent really doesn`t much matter, according to Gladwell. Instead, what counts is hard work, and being provided with opportunities.

Gladwell concludes with an ambitious explanation of exactly what`s wrong with American society that prevents blacks and Hispanics back from achieving as much as other groups.

As you can see, Outliers sounds very much like my VDARE.com columns—if I politically corrected them so that they would pass muster with the legal and human resources departments at major corporations (who get sued for discrimination enough as it is). Then I could get paid $50,000 per speech to their annual sales conferences.

In Outliers, Gladwell rails against what he claims is the conventional wisdom: “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.”

Yet his book is not overloaded with quotes from anybody attributing their triumphs to their inborn aptitude. I have shelves of autobiographies, and virtually every famous person attributes their success to the same things Gladwell credits: hard work, mentors, and luck. The only exception to this polite fiction that I can recall is Wilt Chamberlain`s A View from Above. In that, the basketball star frankly gives the lion`s share of the credit to his being seven feet tall.

Gladwell is so fashionable that he sold the movie rights to his last book Blink, another unfilmable journalistic mishmash, to Hollywood for one million dollars, with Leonardo DiCaprio attached to play him. Outliers` success, which will lead to even more corporate speaking gigs for Gladwell, confirms his position as this era`s most representative nonfiction write—the perfect symbol of the Bernie Madoff Years.

But, not surprisingly, Gladwell also embodies the chief shortcomings of contemporary journalism: a complete lack of realism and skepticism.

He has neither the intellectual capacity nor the moral character to question his sources rigorously. So he ends up just recasting their self-interested talking points in a more reader-friendly format.

Let me be frank about my trade. On the whole, we journalists aren`t very bright.

Fortunately, we don`t have to be. We don`t get paid to ask tough questions. If we made our sources uncomfortable by figuring out the fatal flaws in the ideas they were peddling, they would just stop taking our calls. And then where would we be?

No, we are more or less in the PR business. Journalists get paid to package in a facile way other people`s ideas and help sell them to the public.

Running reality checks on the latest brainstorm of the century and pointing out why it`s wrong won`t sell magazines and won`t get you speakers` fees. (Not that I care, of course).

Reading Malcolm Gladwell is a lot like reading Dan Brown, author of the bestseller The Da Vinci Code. When you pick up a bestseller, you hope that the author inspires enough confidence to induce in you a willing “suspension of disbelief”. With both Brown and Gladwell, however, the relentless hailstorms of mistakes of fact and judgment that the well-informed reader must endure just show that they don`t know what the heck they`re talking about.

Malcolm never misses an opportunity to miss the point. For example, consider the self-evident stupidity of Gladwell`s title, Outliers: The Story of Success. His book attempts to offer a General Theory of Success in America—why, on the whole, Jews and Asians are well educated and well-compensated while blacks and Mexicans aren`t—through anecdotes about a small number of anomalous “outliers.”

Gladwell chose the word “outliers” for his title because it sounded scientific. He`s vaguely aware that statistical analysts are much concerned with the outliers in their datasets, so it sounds cool to write a book about why people like Bill Gates and the Beatles are successful and call it Outliers.

Of course, the reason statisticians think about outliers a lot is because, to quote Wikipedia, “Statistics derived from data sets that include outliers may be misleading.”

For example, say you are a market researcher doing a random survey of consumers for a mutual fund company to determine the average net worth of Americans by different levels of education. You tote up your results and see that the mean wealth of your 100 college dropouts is $500,050,000.

“That`s weird,” you say.

You then look at the individual surveys and see that one respondent claimed to have a fortune of fifty billion dollars.

 Is he lying? Is he crazy? Or is he Bill Gates? You don`t know. All you know is that he`s an outlier and therefore you aren`t going to use him in your data set. Otherwise, your innumerate pointy-haired boss in the marketing department (who, by the way, loves Malcolm Gladwell) might take your findings as justifying a huge ad campaign aimed at the evidently vastly wealthy dropout market.

In contrast, Gladwell devotes 18 pages to Gates, without noticing that Gates is a perfect example of the kind of data point that the very concept of “outliers” tells you to be suspicious of.

 But notice how Gladwell`s mistakes err in a direction favorable to his bank account. People will pay to read about the richest man in the world in the hopes that they`ll pick up some tips from him. So Gladwell makes up a theory about why Gates is so rich (he got to practice computer programming on an early timesharing terminal at his expensive prep school), just as he devotes eight pages to his theory of why the Beatles were so successful (they played live a lot in Hamburg in 1960-1962).

As usual with Gladwell, he manages to choose examples that undermine his own theory, even when his basic idea is fairly sensible. Yes, as Gladwell stresses, putting in ten thousand hours of practice is helpful at becoming really good at a trade, so it`s helpful to come from a privileged background where you can get in a lot of practice at a young age.

Nevertheless, while the Beatles got lots of practice at playing live in Hamburg, they aren`t the most famous rock group because they were an exceptionally great live band. In fact, they gave up playing live in 1967 and nobody much noticed.

Instead, they were the greatest songwriting and studio band.

Similarly, Bill Gates didn`t become the richest man in America by being a great programmer. In reality, he bought his strategically pivotal Disk Operating System from a Seattle programmer named Tim Paterson and then licensed it to IBM. No, Gates got rich by being a great monopolist—which is a more difficult career to practice far ahead of time.

Gladwell, the unofficial Minister of Propaganda for Multi-Culti Capitalism, seldom says anything negative about capitalists. For example, if you are looking for the deep roots of Gates`s unerring cunning at acquiring a monopoly at such a young age, it`s perhaps interesting that Gates`s father was a defense attorney for firms accused of antitrust violations. Unsurprisingly, Gladwell never notices that.

Indeed, Gladwell`s climactic depiction of the more just society he envisions is quite terrifying. In the grand summation of his book`s argument, he writes:

“We look 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?” [p. 268]

Let a million monopolies bloom!

The great thing about Gladwell is that he`s so lacking in critical thinking skills that he just blurts out the underlying assumptions of today`s conventional wisdom, stating its stupidities in their Platonic form. To Gladwell, the long, laborious, and expensive development of the computer isn`t a great accomplishment of Western civilization for which posterity should be grateful. No, it`s a civil rights issue. See, back in 1968, “our world” hadn`t “allowed” enough teenagers—especially not enough black and Mexican ones, to use state-of-the-art time-sharing computers.

Just think—if our world had allowed a million teenagers to be given the same opportunity of unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1868, we could have a billion Microsofts today!

One obvious cognitive problem that Gladwell suffers from is a complete inability think in terms of bell curves. He spends much time emphasizing how great a factor luck and family background plays in determining who is stuck being Tim Paterson and who gets to be Bill Gates. But it never seems to occur to him that he`s talking about the difference between the 99th and the 99.99999th percentiles.

If you actually want to develop a general theory of success, one that applies not to the outliers but to the 2nd through 98th percentiles, well, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics has been tracking the lives of 12,866 Americans since 1979 in its National Longitudinal Study of Youth. You can download and crunch the numbers yourself.

Social scientists constantly publish new results from this vast project … to almost zero acclaim, because they keep coming up with the same boring, depressing, politically incorrect findings as the first major study of the NLSY data in 1994: Richard J. Herrnstein`s and Charles Murray`s The Bell Curve.

What they find is that success in life correlates with all the usual suspects: IQ, race, work ethic, finishing high school, not having kids out of wedlock, health, luck, staying off drugs and out of jail. That kind of stuff.

These factors won`t predict for you exactly which guy with a high SAT Math score is going to turn out to be Bill Gates and which ones are going to turn out to be just Tim Patersons.

That`s because Bill Gates is one of those outliers that statisticians warn you about.

But these factors do predict quite accurately which ethnic groups will do well on average and which ones won`t. And that is what Gladwell`s book is ultimately supposed to explain (but doesn`t).

You might think that corporate executives interested in how the world works would hire Charles Murray to come speak to them, no doubt for much less than Malcolm Gladwell`s mid-five figure`s fee.

Of course, very few do, because paying Murray could be used as prima facie evidence in a discrimination lawsuit against the corporation.

Not surprisingly, the lightweight journalist hates the heavyweight social scientist, with an animus so deranging that he libeled Murray in the pages of The New Yorker last December. I noticed Gladwell`s slander and mentioned it to Murray, who had his agent call The New Yorker`s editor David Remnick, who quickly posted this humiliating retraction:

“CORRECTION: In his December 17th piece, “None of the Above,” Malcolm Gladwell states that Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, in their 1994 book “The Bell Curve,” proposed that Americans with low I.Q.s be “sequestered in a `high-tech` version of an Indian reservation.” In fact, Herrnstein and Murray deplored the prospect of such “custodialism” and recommended that steps be taken to avert it. We regret the error.

The internet makes possible a new kind of social science journalism, allowing writers to quickly do their own quantitative research rather than merely rely upon biased sources.

But unfortunately, Gladwell is a very old-fashioned journalist.

For example, Gladwell devotes 47 pages to propounding the argument of an airline consultant named David Greenberg that (in Gladwell`s exaggerated version): “The single most important variable in determining whether a plane crashes is not the plane, it`s not the maintenance, it`s not the weather, it`s the culture the pilot comes from.”

Greenberg argued that in a highly deferential culture like Korea, co-pilots were afraid to speak up when their commanding officers were flying the plane into a mountain. Thus, in 2000, after a series of crashes, Korean Air hired Greenberg to train its cockpit crews in the more broadly participatory style that American airlines have espoused since the invention of “Crew Resource Management” in 1979. And Korean Air stopped having so many crashes.

Gladwell grandly entitles this notion of the dangers of excessive deference “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes.” He illustrates it with a long account of a Colombian airliner that crashed on Long Island in 1990 because the first officer never made clear to the surly New York air traffic controllers that they were running out of fuel and needed emergency priority to land.

Yet is Colombia truly a “high deference” culture? Judging by its drug lords, jungle rebels, and military coups, it might seem a rather aggressive culture. Perhaps that Colombian co-pilot held his tongue not out of deference to a bunch of lowly air traffic controllers, but out of the Colombian`s traditional macho pride.

Or maybe he had poor English language skills and couldn`t think of the right phrase. Who knows? At this point, it`s all speculation because everybody is dead.

Is “cultural deference” the single most important variable in airline safety, as Gladwell claims? Let`s try a simple reality check: Does Japan, a famously polite and deferential country, have a disproportionate number of crashes?

I spent a few hours poking around on the Internet and found AirSafe.com, which lists every “fatal event” involving a scheduled airliner. According to the rigorous definition they employ, there were 45 fatal airline events on Earth between the beginning of 2004 and October 2008. I entered all 45 into an Excel spreadsheet and looked at the results.

  • First, not one of the 45 crashes involved a Japanese airline.

This is not to say that excessive deference to captains might not be a problem. After all, American airlines have been fighting it for almost 30 years. But apparently it`s the kind of problem that a highly competent country like Japan can train its aircrews to avoid.

  • Second, my spreadsheet quickly suggested a far more general “ethnic theory of plane crashes”—one that Malcolm Gladwell would never, ever mention.

The International Civil Aviation Organization summarizes the number of departures by region, allowing us roughly to estimate rates of crashing per flight.

North America (the U.S. and Canada) accounts for 42 percent of the world`s airline departures, but only seven percent of the fatal events on AirSafe`s list of 2004-2008.

But Latin America has only seven percent of the departures, but 18 percent of the fatal crashes, since 2004. Thus, airlines headquartered in Latin America have been 16 times as dangerous as airlines based in North America.

Africa and the Middle East, lumped together, are 42 times as dangerous as North America—with five percent of all departures and 33 percent of all crashes.

In summary, First World airlines are fairly safe.

In contrast, the old Second World (the ex-Soviet Union) looks quite dangerous, with nine crashes among its airlines.

And the Third World (Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, South Asia, and Southeast Asia) is, unsurprisingly to VDARE.COM readers, highly dangerous relative to its small number of departures. Third World airlines accounted for 29 of the last 45 fatal events.

None of this is astonishing. Third World and ex-Soviet countries are much more dangerous in general (here`s a website that tracks Third World bus plunges), most likely due to lower levels of general competence.

Still, that`s a rather important thing to know. Wouldn`t you say? Useful when booking your next overseas trip?

Malcolm Gladwell`s books are sold in vast quantities in airport bookstores to frequent fliers. So you might imagine he`d want to clue his loyal readers in on how to minimize the danger of dying in a crash. But that would involve violating the taboos against political incorrectness—which could make him as popular on the corporate speaking circuit as Charles Murray.

Forget it!

And “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes” is perhaps the best chapter in Gladwell`s new opus.

“Rice Paddies and Math Tests” isn`t the worst chapter, either, but it`s still lame.

Gladwell argues that the reason Chinese kids are good at math is because they work hard.

Math requires hard work, no doubt. But discounting aptitude this completely is something that only somebody as bad with numbers as Gladwell would do. Anybody with any skill at math knows that, no matter how hard you try, you`ll always run into somebody who is better at it than you are.

Why do the Chinese work hard? Because, according to Gladwell, their ancestors worked in rice paddies, which demand much more effort than the wheat fields harvested by lazy Europeans.

To explain why whites are so lazy, Gladwell contrasts the “autonomous” work of Chinese rice growers to the closely managed work of European farmers:

“The peasants of Europe worked essentially as low-paid slaves of an aristocratic landlord, with little control over their own destinies. Growing rice is too complicated and intricate for a system that requires farmers to be coerced and bullied into going out into the fields each morning. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, landlords in central and Southern China had an almost completely hands-off relationships with their tenants: they would collect a fixed rent and let farmers go about their business.”

Malcolm apparently believes that European aristocrats would, in the manner of Parris Island drill sergeants, wake up their tenants each morning and force them out of their beds!

These Da Vinci Code-quality howlers pop up repeatedly in Outliers.

Nonetheless, Gladwell is certainly right that rice farmers work hard. Not surprisingly, though, he fails to mention the even more relevant contrast to rice farming: the “female farming” cultures of tropical Africa, which demand mostly just hoeing by women, with very little labor from men. By Gladwell`s logic, that might explain a lot about African-American culture, but he wouldn`t go there even if he ever thought of it.

Rice growing makes the Chinese hard working, which, in Gladwell`s theory, makes them good at math.

(Of course, vast numbers of Chinese live in the wheat belt, around the Yellow River. Indeed, that`s where Chinese culture originated. But never mind that…)

Is Gladwell arguing, as geneticist Henry Harpending and evolutionary theorist Gregory Cochran document in their upcoming book The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution, that the life or death Malthusian struggle to grow enough food to survive caused humans to evolve rapidly in recent millennia?

Is Gladwell theorizing that rice growing selected Chinese genes for hard work and/or math?

Of course not! It`s all a cultural legacy from working in the rice paddies, he says.

No nature, just nurture. Nobody here but us chickens.

Let`s try a reality check. Why don`t the rice paddy cultures of Southeast Asia, such as Cambodia and Indonesia, produce math wizards? There has been a sizable Filipino population in California for several generations, but very few make it to Cal Tech.

It`s a puzzlement. At least to Gladwell.

We journalists don`t have to be smart. But we do have to be clever in understanding what makes us money in modern America.

For example, there`s a huge market for books offering non-genetic explanations for the lower intellectual performance of blacks—look at how over 1.5 million copies have been sold of Jared Diamond`s rather boring Guns, Germs, and Steel. Stephen Jay Gould`s anti-IQ book The Mismeasure of Man has been similarly successful.

Gladwell`s insight, however, is that the market for these books is largely driven not by blacks searching for arguments for why they aren`t really less intelligent on average. After all, blacks aren`t prominent in the publishing and book promotion businesses. Instead, most of the excitement about these books is generated by Jewish media figures looking for arguments about why Jews can`t possibly be smarter on average than gentiles.

Thus, Gladwell includes a chapter focusing on a famous Jewish lawyer, “The Three Lessons of Joe Flom”, that makes the curious (but no doubt popular) claim that Jews became so successful in the professions by the middle of the 20th Century because they were lucky to have parents who were garment workers in the sweatshops of New York. Therefore, any group could be as successful as Jews if they just had the same opportunities.

He argues:

“Or consider the fate of the Mexicans who immigrated to California between 1900 and the end of the 1920s to work in the fields of the big fruit and vegetable growers. … [Historian Daniel Soyer writes] `If you are working in a field in California, you have no clue what`s happening to produce when it gets on the truck. If you are working in a small garment shop … you can see exactly what the successful people are doing …` “[pp. 148-149]

In fact, Mexican stoop laborers aren`t as stupid as Gladwell assumes: they quickly learn what happens to “produce when it gets on the truck” and eventually leave the fields and get jobs at the warehouse and at the grocery store. This process has been going on for a century. However, it hasn`t produced many famous litigators.

Moreover, it doesn`t occur to poor Gladwell that a huge number of different ethnic groups have been garment workers at one point or another—but only Jews have emerged from the sweatshops to, say, dominate Hollywood.

For example, Los Angeles has had a large garment industry staffed by Mexicans for generations. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union organized a strike by several thousand Mexican women in downtown LA in October 1933. In 2001, there were 120,000 workers in the LA apparel industry, almost all of them immigrants.

But you don`t read as much about the Mexican sweatshop workers of Los Angeles as you do about the Jewish sweatshop workers of New York.

Why not?

Because a lot of the old Jewish apparel workers` kids grew up to be writers, academics, and professionals. That isn`t true of Mexican garment workers kids.

Bottom line: Malcolm Gladwell has made a huge amount of money in this decade telling people what they want to hear.

Unfortunately, Americans can`t afford ignorance, lies, and wishful thinking anymore.

[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His new book, AMERICA`S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA`S “STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE”, is available here.]