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Chabris on Gladwell in the WSJ
In the Wall Street Journal, psychometrician Chris Chabris dumps on Malcolm Gladwell in a review of Gladwell's latest book.
Malcolm Gladwell too often presents as proven laws what are just intriguing possibilities and musings about human behavior.
By CHRISTOPHER F. CHABRIS
... The idea that difficulty is good when it helps you and bad when it doesn't is no great insight.
In a recent interview, Mr. Gladwell suggested that the hidden weakness of "Goliath" enterprises is their tendency to assume that the strategy that made them great will keep them great. But there are prominent examples of companies that failed after not changing direction (Blockbuster and Kodak) as well as ones that succeeded (Apple deciding to stick with a proprietary operating system rather than shift to Windows). There is no prospective way to know which is right, despite what legions of business gurus say. Sticking with what has worked is far from irrational; indeed, it is the perfect strategy right up until it isn't.
One thing "David and Goliath" shows is that Mr. Gladwell has not changed his own strategy, despite serious criticism of his prior work. What he presents are mostly just intriguing possibilities and musings about human behavior, but what his publisher sells them as, and what his readers may incorrectly take them for, are lawful, causal rules that explain how the world really works. Mr. Gladwell should acknowledge when he is speculating or working with thin evidentiary soup. Yet far from abandoning his hand or even standing pat, Mr. Gladwell has doubled down. This will surely bring more success to a Goliath of nonfiction writing, but not to his readers.
Interestingly, Gladwell revives Thomas Sowell's 1970s critique of the tendency of affirmative action to mismatch students. (I wonder if Gladwell left out the affirmative action part.) Chabris writes:
This is an entertaining book. But it teaches little of general import, for the morals of the stories it tells lack solid foundations in evidence and logic.
One of the longest chapters addresses the question of how high-school students choose colleges. The protagonist is a woman with the pseudonym of Caroline Sacks, who was at the top of her class in high school and had loved science ever since she drew pictures of insects as a child. She was admitted to Brown University and the University of Maryland; she went to Brown, her first choice of all the colleges she visited, with the goal of a science degree.
Ms. Sacks ran into trouble early on in her science courses and hit a wall in organic chemistry. There were students in her classes who seemed to effortlessly grasp concepts she struggled with, and she got discouragingly low grades. She switched her major and looks back with regret, saying that if she'd gone to Maryland, "I'd still be in science."
Is Brown really a Caltech-style sink or swim school? It may well be in the harder subjects, but I just don't know.
In this conclusion she may be right. Mr. Gladwell reports data showing that, no matter what kind of college students attend, those who start a science major in the top third of the ability range of students at their own college (judged by their SAT scores) are much more likely to graduate with a science degree than those in the bottom third—the odds are about 55% versus 15%.
I used to be a 100% true believer in Sowell's argument, but now I can also see a lot of advantages of going to an elite rich school if you can get in. A lot of state flagship schools are sink or swim in the STEM fields, while rich private schools (Brown is the least rich Ivy) have more hand-holding resources.