Sunday, September 29, 2013

New Gladwell book is more junk

Psychology professor Christopher Chabris trashed a new book in a paywalled review:
Malcolm Gladwell too often presents as proven laws what are just intriguing possibilities and musings about human behavior. ...

Mr. Gladwell enjoys a reputation for translating social science into actionable insights. But the data behind the surprising dyslexia claim is awfully slim. ...

The overarching thesis of "David and Goliath" is that for the strong, "the same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness," whereas for the weak, "the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty." According to Mr. Gladwell, the secret of Mr. Boies's greatness is neither luck nor training. Rather, he got where he did because he was dyslexic.
I question whether David Boies is such a great lawyer, as he has famously lost some big cases. He lost Bush v Gore by arguing for a non-uniform recount, when a uniform recount might have won the election for his client. He lost Napster. He bungled the antitrust case against Microsoft by emphasizing embarrassing emails and failing to make arguments that would result in a meaningful remedy. Most recently he failed to convince the US Supreme Court that there was a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, even tho that seemed to be the belief of Kennedy and the four liberals.

Gladwell is famous for spreading a number of bad ideas, such as his 10,000 rule, debunked by a recent book on the sports gene (but Gladwell still defending it), and the value of reshirting. I posted below how a lot of people believe in academic redshirting, in spite of evidence to the contrary.

Another review of Gladwell's new book points out evidence against athletic redshirting as well:
In his 2008 bestseller, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell famously identifies an “iron law of Canadian hockey: In any elite group of hockey players — the very best of the best — 40% of the players will have been born between January and March.” Gladwell explains this phenomenon through the relative age effect — the theory that Jan. 1 cut-off dates mean that kids born early in the year are bigger and stronger than those born later; the stronger kids make the team, practice more and the gap inexorably widens. So, if you want to produce the next Crosby, aim for January. Seems straightforward, right?

According to the sociologists Benjamin Gibbs, Jonathan Jarvis and Mikaela Dufur, it’s anything but. In a study published last year in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, the trio argues that if you redefine “elite,” Gladwell’s theory crumbles. Gibbs and his team looked at Canadian-born players on NHL All-Star teams and Canadian Olympic hockey rosters from recent years. They found that, on average, just 17% of those players were born in January, February or March. On Canada’s 2010 gold medal-winning team, a mere 13% adhere to the “iron law.” An early birth date may be advantageous if your goal is simply reaching the NHL. However, at “the most elite levels of play, the relative age effect reverses.” In other words, to achieve true hockey greatness, an early birthday is a disadvantage.
Steve Pinker describes Gladwell as having an Igon Value Problem. That is, he is a good story-teller who interviews experts and regurgitates anecdotes without really understanding them.

Gladwell has made millions of dollars on his books. Readers are somehow suckered into believing that he has profound insights into human behavior. He is one of the most highly paid speakers in the world. And yet his lessons are self-contradictory and contrary to common sense. The New Yorker is famous for publishing this sort of writer. Jonah Lehrer is another example.

In his defense:
I feel pretty badly for Malcolm Gladwell. Everyone from Steven Pinker to Steve Sailer criticizes his writings. He seems like a soft-spoken, genuinely kind man who is trying to encourage everyone to try their best in life, even if they don’t have the natural talent. (Not saying his detractors are saying otherwise. I understand why they do it, as the truth should matter more than good intentions.)
So I guess his books sell because people like what he has to say, whether it is right or not.

Pinker also has a new book of previous essays, Language, Cognition, and Human Nature. It includes his Why nature & nurture won’t go away where he explains how academics falsely promote the blank slate. While most liberal prefer nuture over nature, JayMan cites the evidence for genetic determinism, and denies free will. In particular, many political beliefs are highly heritable.

Update: Slate has a new article on academic redshirting:
The practice has become even more controversial in recent years over claims that some parents do it for the wrong reasons: They redshirt their kids not because their kids aren’t ready for school, but because, in the age of parenting as competitive sport, holding them out might give them an academic, social, and athletic edge over their peers. If little Delia is the star of kindergarten, they scheme, maybe she’ll ride the wave all the way to Harvard. Gaming the system this way, of course, puts other kids at a disadvantage.
I fail to see how it can be wrong to get your kid a better education. Other parents could do the same thing, if they wanted. Just because a decision is an advantage to one kid, does not mean that it is a disadvantage to others. And as the article explains, the redshirting studies indicate that it is not even an advantage:
In 2006, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Southern California analyzed national data collected over many years from 15,000 26-year-olds. They compared what became of kids who had been redshirted to what became of kids who had been young for their class but not redshirted. They found that the redshirted kids performed worse on 10th-grade tests, were twice as likely to drop out of school, and were less likely to graduate from college; the only advantage to redshirting was that redshirted kids were marginally more likely to play varsity sports in high school. (Journalist Malcolm Gladwell made this “relative age effect” famous in his book Outliers when he pointed out that many professional hockey players were born between January and March and thus had been the oldest on their school hockey teams; however, this effect does not seem to exist for football, volleyball, and basketball or any women’s sports.)

Other research suggests that redshirted kids are less motivated and engaged than their younger peers in high school and that they are more likely to require special education services. And in a 2008 review, David Deming, an economist of education at Harvard University, and Susan Dynarski, an education and public policy expert at the University of Michigan, concluded that redshirted kids also tend to have lower IQs and earnings as adults. This latter finding is probably linked to the fact that redshirted teens are more likely to drop out of high school than non-redshirted teens. Redshirted kids tend to have lower lifetime earnings, too, because they enter the labor force a year later.
Update: Gladwell replies:
What is going on here? The kinds of people who read books in America seem to have no problem with my writing. But I am clearly a bee in the bonnet of some of the kinds of people who review books in America. I think this has to do with the way in which my books are written. I write in the genre of what might be called “intellectual adventure stories.” ...

habris should calm down. I was simply saying that all writing about social science need not be presented with the formality and precision of the academic world. There is a place for storytelling, in all of its messiness. My point was that the people who read my books appreciate this. They are perfectly aware of the strengths and weakness of the narrative form. They know what a story can and can’t do, and they understand that narratives sometimes begin in one place and end in another.
Okay, his readers like his storytelling. Just don't take him too seriously.

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