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By (April 1, 2009) 9 Comments

Outliers: The Story of Success

by Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown and Co, 2008

Malcom Gladwell and his handlers are not about understatement. From the dust jacket of his most recent book, we learn, for example, that:

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell changed the way we understand the world. In Blink he changed the way we think about thinking. Outliers will transform the way we understand success.

In the same spirit of modesty, let me say from the get-go that my goal in this piece, which focuses on Outliers, is to demonstrate at once how wildly overstated such just-jacket claims are and how egregiously incomplete, insubstantial, and unconvincing Gladwell’s explanation of success actually is. His methodology stinks too, and, from his dust-jacket photo (credited, we are told, to one Brooke Williams), he appears to need a haircut.

Casting himself as an original thinker able to see what others haven’t seen and go where others haven’t gone, Gladwell flatters middle-brow, fad-chasing non-reader readers lucky enough to have discovered him. By reading Gladwell, that is to say, they can bask in the author’s reflected originality too. He is upbeat, with a liberal optimistic view of human beings and human possibilities. His message is that by working hard and by getting the structural arrangements right, we can do nearly anything (everything!). The news of his originality and the delivery of his message are made in casual and friendly prose. Indeed, in some ways he seems the liberal, secular analogue to the feel-good Protestant minister/entrepreneurs driving the TGIS (Thank God It’s Sunday) suburban mega-churches around the country—only Gladwell preaches to readers of The New Yorker rather than to “up with people” Christians seeking another easy form of salvation.

Do my comments seem harsh? I don’t mean them to be. I’ll be the first to admit that, once you start, it’s hard to put down Outliers, although not due to the author’s thesis. Gladwell writes well and is a good story teller. It’s just that he doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about, and he hasn’t the vaguest notion about what constitutes evidentiary proof in an argument.

First things first. From his book’s title, one would assume that Gladwell’s subject truly is “outliers.” Indeed, he starts his book—in classic middle-school essay form- with two standard dictionary definitions of the word: (1) something that is situated away from or classed differently from a main or related body; and (2) a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample. Fair enough, but in his book, Gladwell treats not only true “two-plus”-standard-deviations-from-the-mean outliers such as Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, Robert Oppenheimer, Mozart, and the Beatles, but also Korean airplane pilots who with practice and coaching are able to fly more like American pilots, poor kids from the Bronx who in 8th grade are performing at or above grade level in math, and a poor Jewish immigrant, who, after settling in New York City with his wife in the late nineteenth century, ultimately became successful in the garment industry and raised successful children. Even if Gladwell prefers conflation, there’s a difference, after all, between true genius—great and original creative ability in some area—and the above-average children of Lake Wobegon.

Gladwell is obviously a clever fellow, and, this being the case, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that such conflation is both intentional and necessary to his real goal, which is not truly to explain outliers, but to debunk the notion that they are any different, really, from you or me. As the author puts it on the final page of the book, outliers:

are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky—but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.

The most we can say for Gladwell’s view is that the factors he cites may at times be necessary to explain some outliers, but such factors are always insufficient. And one hardly has to steep oneself in the works of Karl Popper or Carl Hempel to understand this point. Indeed there are far easier (and more pleasant) paths to enlightenment: One need only listen to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A Major or to the Beatles’ White Album, take in the grainy footage of Willie Mays’ catch and throw in the 8th inning of Game 1 of the 1954 World series or Michael Jordan’s performance in Game 6 of the NBA finals in 1998 to conclude that the outlier, in the end, is an outlier after all.

* * *

Outliers is divided into two principal parts. In Part One, entitled “Opportunity,” Gladwell attempts to debunk several notions, viz., that geniuses are born not made, that individuals succeed largely through their own initiative, and that pluck trumps luck in explaining life outcomes. In Part Two, called “Legacy”), he tries to show how important history and culture are in promoting or impeding success of one kind or another.

Gladwell’s entire project is based on the flawed assumption that there is an appreciable number of sentient beings living today who believe that success is due entirely to individual traits and efforts and that history, culture, wealth, timing, and luck, etc., play no part in determining life outcomes. Can anyone spell “straw man?” I use the construction “sentient beings living today” intentionally, for in building his straw man, Gladwell specifically references only the story of Joseph in the Bible, a nineteenth-century fictional character (Horatio Alger), the ceremonial oration of a minor nineteenth-century political figure (Robert Winthrop, great-great grandfather of John Kerry) dedicating a statue of Benjamin Franklin, and, alas, Jeb Bush. As for most everyone else, there is general agreement today that nature and nurture are both involved, even if people disagree about relative proportions. This said, let us proceed to take on Gladwell on his own shaky ground.

Part One consists of five chapters organized around stories, based either on anecdotes or, at most, unsystematic research, the intent of which is to prove that outliers (including “geniuses”) are products mainly of environmental factors of one kind or another.

Thus, in one much-talked-about chapter he argues that the eligibility cut-off date for age-class youth hockey in Canada (January 1) advantages boys born in the first quarter of the year, who are bigger, stronger, and more mature than cohorts born later in the year, and that this initial advantage (and advantages accumulating therefrom) explain why so many NHL hockey players were born in January, February, or March.

This pattern is interesting as far as it goes–he says it also holds true for soccer and baseball but not for basketball–and late in the chapter he suggests that much the same process occurs in schools: Kids born earlier in the calendar year are more mature than those in the same grade born later in the year. The former therefore outperform the latter early on, and subsequent advantages accruing from such early differences accumulate over time to the great disadvantage of those unlucky enough to be born late in the year. It should be noted that he actually cites one paper in an economics journal in support of his argument about the relationship between maturity and educational attainment.

After privileging matters mensal in explaining athletic and educational success, Gladwell devotes several chapters (again, based largely on stories and anecdotes) to debunking our notions of genius. He argues that it’s largely socially constructed, and that success is due more to factors such as wealth, family background, luck, hard work, cultural capital, etc. than to individual factors such as brains, creativity, or temperament. Bill Gates, for example, was smart, but, according to Gladwell, succeeded as much because he was rich, went to a fancy private high school, and was lucky pretty much across the board. Similarly, a related set of environmental factors explains most of the success of another, lesser-known legend in IT, Bill Joy, programming whiz and co-founder of Sun Microsystems. And the Beatles succeeded as they did largely because they practiced and performed so much during a year-and-a-half stretch the group spent in Hamburg in the early 1960s. Hmmn.

What’s wrong with this picture? Let me start by pointing out that other rock groups presumably spent time in Hamburg (among other places) during the same period, while many others practiced, practiced, practiced without getting to Carnegie Hall, much less becoming the greatest rock group ever and selling over a billion records. Or perhaps I should mention that, according to Gladwell’s own factoids, Bill Gates was born on October 28 and Bill Joy on November 8. And Joy entered the University of Michigan in 1971 at the ripe old age of sixteen. I guess they were somehow able to overcome the profound educational disadvantages that purportedly arose and accumulated from the fact that they were born late in the calendar year.

Those who live by the anecdote die by the anecdote. For all the problems with social scientific method and practice—an at times near fetishization of method, arid and often impenetrable jargon, a certain smugness among some practitioners—it is far preferable to Gladwell’s tendentious m.o., which, paraphrasing Woody Hayes, is based on “three anecdotes and a cloud of dust.” Auden was on to something with his admonition in “Under Which Lyre” that “Thou shalt not sit with statisticians nor commit a social science,” but he never had to deal with Malcolm Gladwell. And even Auden, I think, would have appreciated the general concept of representativeness and understood that data is not the plural of anecdote.

* * *

The four chapters (and the epilogue) in Part Two of Outliers touch in one way or another on the role of culture and cultural legacies in shaping, if not determining group behavior. According to Gladwell, Appalachian whites have long been prone to violence because the first whites in the region were predominantly Scotch-Irish coming from “cultures of honor” in the lowlands of Scotland, northern England, and Ulster. Until recently Korean pilots were involved in a lot of plane crashes (relatively speaking) because Koreans are very deferential to authority, as measured by the Dutch psychologist Geert Hostede’s PDI (“Power Distance Index”). Most low-income African American and Hispanic kids at one particular middle school in the Bronx are performing at or above their grade level in math because school officials have been able to create institutional mechanisms (long school days and school years primarily) that allow the students to transcend cultures that inhibit educational attainment. And my favorite: Asian kids, especially East Asian kids, do well in math wherever they ultimately reside because they come from cultures that have grown rice for a long time.

All of the above claims are questionable. Among historians, the “culture of honor” thesis is extremely controversial to say the least. The “culture of poverty” line has engendered a huge literature in the social sciences, most of which is critical of the notion. The frequent outbreaks of anti-government/anti-establishment rioting by South Koreans of all stripes—students, business and professional classes, farmers—over the past three decades suggest anything but deference. Regarding the alleged relationship among Asians, rice and math—or what I call the “rice made me do it” thesis—I have a bit more to say.

First, let me lay out Gladwell’s argument, or, to be more accurate, assertion. The author claims in Chapter Eight (“Rice Paddies and Math Tests”) that the Chinese, as well as the Japanese, Koreans, Singaporeans, and Hong Kongers, succeed in math because the cultural legacy of rice production—long, arduous hours of backbreaking work in rice paddies—conditioned these peoples to work hard enough and long enough to succeed in another rigorous “field,” mathematics. As Gladwell succinctly put it in November 2008 in an interview on NPR’s “All Things Considered”:

Rice farming lays out a cultural pattern that works beautifully when it comes to math…Rice farming is the most labor-intensive form of agriculture known to man. It is also the most cognitively demanding form of agriculture…There is a direct correlation between effort and reward. You get exactly out of your rice paddy what you put into it.

Thus, according to Gladwell, it is at once unsurprising and telling that American students believe that math skills are innate, while “Asian” students attribute their success in math to hard work, then work hard, then succeed.

Like the proverbial mosquito at a nudist colony, I don’t know where to begin. First, the logical train here never leaves the station, laden as it is with what statisticians call “semi-attached figures.” Here’s how Gladwell proceeds: Rice cultivation in Asia is labor intensive. Some studies have shown some Asians to be “task-persistent.” Students in some Asian countries (and Asian Americans from certain ethnic backgrounds) score well on math tests. Connecting the dots: rice cultivation takes a lot of hard work. Math takes hard work. Asians grow a lot of rice. Asians do well in math. Therefore they do well in math because of the fact that historically they grew rice. Huh?

We would also need answers to a few empirical questions before we could accept Gladwell’s rather blunt quasi argument. For starters, paddy rice has for millennia been the leading food crop on Java, in Thailand, in Burma, and in the Philippines. Do these peoples also excel in math? What about people from rice-growing parts of West Africa, in the Senegambian region in particular, where paddy rice has also been grown for millennia?

And back to the heart of Gladwell’s case, China. Do the inhabitants of rice-growing southern China outperform the inhabitants of northern China in math? As anyone with even a cursory sense of Chinese history knows, northern China for millennia has been a wheat/millet/small grain-producing region rather than a rice region. Do Beijingers get waxed by Shainghainese on international math tests? Gladwell buries this dicey (ricey?) issue in a footnote and claims that “we don’t know” if northern Chinese are good at math. We may not, but I’m sure that bureaucrats at China’s Ministry of Education (No. 37, Damucang Hutong, Xidan, Beijing) or administrators at either of China’s top two schools—Beijing University and Tsinghua University (both in Beijing)—might have something to say on the matter.

These are just a few of the questions that Gladwell might address before he makes wild claims about the complex relationship between rice, culture, and math. Much the same can be said about his other claims in Outliers, whether relating to success or genius. This is not to argue against the general proposition that environmental factors influence life outcomes or to suggest that geniuses are always born, never made. But even a social scientist like me realizes that attempts to render formulaic Mozart or Beethoven (or, for that matter, Michael Jordan or Willie Mays) are foolhardy. In so doing, Gladwell, Clockwork Orange-like, diminishes us all, for at the end of the day there is an ineffable mystery and transcendent quality to nonpareils and their achievements.

He might think about this, if only for a blink, before he flitters off to the new new thing.

Peter A. Coclanis is Associate Provost for International Affairs and Albert R. Newsome Professor of History and Economics at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has published widely in the fields of economic and business history, and is completing a history of world rice production and the international rice trade since the seventeenth century.

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