Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Curlypet has a new book out

A very popular writer in Leftist circles is the curly-headed Malcolm Gladwell. His shallow erudition and superficialty seem to suit Leftists well. Oversimplification is a Leftist stock-in-trade after all. Sadwell has made something of a name for himself by downplaying, in traditional Leftist style, the importance of genetics to human ability and achievement. And his new book, "Outliers" just out continues that tradition. In an era when hardly a day goes by without new evidence of some genetic influence on people being recorded in the academic journals of medical genetics and behaviour genetics, Sadwell has to be fast and loose to maintain his position. And fast and loose he is.

I have pointed out the many holes in one of his effusions here. David Brooks has a useful review of his latest book here and there are a few scathing comments on it here.

Gladwell's basic point in his new book appears to be that you need a combination of opportunity, ability and hard work to achieve success in any field. How is that original? I imagine that they were saying the same in ancient Sumeria -- and I certainly would not argue with it as a rough generalization. Gladwell's only contribution seems to be in stressing how hard successful people have worked for their success -- and that is sometimes true. But it isn't always true. Let me speak of the field that I know best: Writing academic journal articles. I have a talent for that. In my heyday, I was getting papers published at roughly the rate of one a fortnight. The academic average is about one a year. So did I work hard at it? Not by comparison with my colleagues. They would often labour for a year over a paper and then have it rejected as not good enough for publication! By contrast, some of my papers were written in one day and were immediately accepted for publication. And very few of my papers took more than a few days to write. So Sadwell is overgeneralizing. If you are a classical violinist or pianist, sure it takes hours of practice daily but in other fields you just have a talent for something or not.

And in good Leftist style Sadwell stresses that a fortunate environment is important for success -- i.e. we have to thank "society" for our achievements. Bill Gates grew up into a privileged family and part of his success stems from that. But what about the millions who grew up in privileged families and ended up good for snorting cocaine only? Environment has some minimal role but it is clearly the least important factor. And the same applies to hard work. What about the millions of kids who dutifully do their piano or violin or ballet practice and end up acclaimed only by their mothers? You can't get away from the fact that exceptional achievement comes from exceptional ability and all Sadwell's fancy footwork cannot hide that. So Sadwell achieves the rather remarkable feat of being at once platitudinous and wrong.

In closing, below is part of an introduction to Sadwell from one of the great British skeptics at The Register:
Have you ever had the nagging sense that there's something not quite right with the adulation that follows Malcolm Gladwell - the author of Tipping Point? But you couldn't quite put your finger on it? We're here to help, dear reader. Gladwell gave two vanity "performances" in the West End - prompting fevered adulation from the posh papers - the most amazing being this Guardian editorial, titled In Praise of Malcolm Gladwell.

It appears that we have a paradox here. A substantial subclass of white collar "knowledge workers" hails this successful nonfiction author as fantastically intelligent and full of insight - and yet he causes an outbreak of infantalisation. He's better known for his Afro than any big idea, or bold conclusion - and his insights have all the depth and originality of Readers Digest or a Hallmark greeting card. That's pretty odd. So what's really going on here? Who is Malcolm Gladwell? What's he really saying? Who are these people who lap it all up? And what is it that he's saying that hold so much appeal? Let's start with the first two first.

Gladwell is a walking Readers Digest 2.0: a compendium of pop science anecdotes which boil down very simply to homespun homilies. Like the Digest, it promises more than it delivers, and like the Digest too, it's reassuringly predictable. The most famous book Tipping Point, takes an epidemiological view of social trends and throws in a bit of network theory. You won't draw anything more profound from this than "we're all connected" - gee! - and you certainly won't get the drawbacks of epidemiology - much of which is now indistinguishable from junk science. A good book to write would be about how how epidemiology became so debased so quickly: it's now merely a computer modeling factory for producing health scares, or in the case of British foot-and-mouth disease, catastrophic policy responses that cost billions of pounds. John Brignell's The Epidemiologists does just that. (For good measure, Milgram's Six Degrees theory, has subsequently been debunked since Tipping Point appeared. Gladwell could have done that himself using a bit of investigative research of his own - but he probably wouldn't have liked the conclusion.)

The next book, Blink published in 2004, asks (in his own words) - "What is going on inside our heads when we engage in rapid cognition? When are snap judgments good and when are they not? What kinds of things can we do to make our powers of rapid cognition better?" But he ends up pursuing the idea that rationality is overrated - and with only speculative cognitive science to go with, it isn't suprising that this book, too, doesn't get to any conclusion. And the message of the new one? Genius takes hard work. Again, it's something bleedingly obvious, but which leaves deeper questions unanswered. Take two geniuses: George Best and Tesla. What did they offer? Why do we admire them so much? There's obviously much more to each of them than perspiration - but we don't find out, and the book is as flattening and reductive as the others.

Perhaps it's Gladwell's stunning oratory that draws the crowds? Perhaps he's such a magnetic performer, that you go for the ride, not the destination? But when we see a example of the Master at Work - the evidence seems to suggest otherwise. Here's an excerpt of the master strolling the stage at Ted - a presentation called Malcolm Gladwell on Spaghetti Sauce. Gladwell blathers at great length about an obscure market researcher called Howard Moskowitz. Who? On his own website, Howie calls himself "a well-known experimental psychologist in the field of psychophysics". Yet Gladwell describes Moskowitz' market testing of varieties of soup as if he was an unsung genius of the 20th century. All this takes up 15 minutes, but it's so repetitious and predictable, it seems to take about three times as long. (So much for the dazzling oratory Guardian leader writers admire.)

More here

Posted by John Ray. For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. For a daily survey of Australian politics, see AUSTRALIAN POLITICS Also, don't forget your daily roundup of pro-environment but anti-Greenie news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH . Email me (John Ray) here

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