Thursday, December 18, 2008

outliers

Once apon a time I just knew I wouldn't like Borat. Usually when I'm sure I won't like a movie I just don't watch it and this stragey has served me well. But when people started talking about how it was this devestating critique of American society I just couldn't contain my disagreement. Ah! But of course I couldn't understand the critique if I didn't watch it! So I watched it, and I as not surprised.

You can see where I'm going with this. I haven't read Outliers, or the Tipping Point (I started it, but quickly gave up), or Blink, yet I'm not a Malcolm Gladwell fan. I'm confident I won't be impressed by Outliers. Usually I wouldn't care, but I feel obiged because of what a guru he's often presented as, so I guess I'll have to read the book.

It's easy to pinpoint where he lost me as a potential fan. It was here. He's responding to criticism from Megan McArdle. I didn't (and still don't) like the tone of his post. But I still can't really believe how he tried to resolve the disagreement, which was basically that this random blogger was disagreeing, not with him, but with two "exceedingly prestigious" Harvard economists.

I have two problems with this. First, he shouldn't pretend that these were not also his conclusions as he seems to when he says, ""Gladwell" does not attribute Irish success to falling birth rates. David Bloom and David Canning do." but what I really don't get is how he planned to respond when he discovered that another two economists disagreed. Would he be astonished? Would he immediately abandon his position?

Anyway, I enjoyed this post by Clive Crook which sounds about right to me. There's a definite tone here too, but that's ok because I agree with him:
The man has a nose for interesting tales, I grant you, but his unfailing combination of intellectual parasitism, credulity, false modesty, and self-importance repels me. In “Tipping Point”, “Blink” and those of his New Yorker pieces I have read, the formula is always the same: find a scholarly opinion; sanctify said opinion with Gladwellian approval (transforming it from a disputed theory to something “we now know”)...

... As for the idea that nature and nurture are both involved in determining one’s success or failure–am I asked to believe that this is a new insight, for heaven’s sake? I learn from other reviews that Gladwell has also arrived, through the research for this book, at the discovery that “practice makes perfect”. Yes, I was surprised too; once again conventional wisdom is turned on its head. There is a rather important academic paper about it.

3 comments:

Trevor Black said...

I avoided reading `Rich Dad, Poor Dad' for a long time. When I read it, I read it only because a certain Mr Torr had told me that it was particularly valuable to read stuff you disagree with.

I still don't like Robert K, and as I read his book, I liked him less. But I do think I gained something from reading his book.

I find Gladwell's style magnetic. Even though all the points you bring up are valid. He does try and leverage people's status to validate ideas. He is also very good at telling a story, so trying to stay skeptical while reading his work is tough. His work is also formulaic. Well, not formulaic, but I am pretty certain that if you gave me an article or a paragraph that he had written, I would be able to identify him as the author without knowing.

To the extent that I `hear his voice' narrating the text when I read.

I think if you read his stuff with a heavy dose of skepticism, there is value... and it does make you think. Are his ideas that original...maybe not. But he does have tremendous skill as a story teller.

And that is compelling... for me.

I used to read 2/3 books a year. I read all 3 of his in the last year.

Along with Freakonomics and Loosing My Virginity, Tipping Point is probably the book that sparked what is probably going to be a lifelong affair with reading.

Stuart said...

I do think people should read stuff they disagree with, though that isn't as helpful as it sounds. there is just so much stuff out there, ho do you choose which stuff you don't agree with to read?

It's cool that people like gladwell inspire people to get interested in stuff that they otherwise wouldn't know of, that's great. My post is mostly a response to people getting over excited but what a superhero he is.

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