Review of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell gives us two books in one.

On the one hand, we have an entertaining collection of vignettes about people who were successful, and people who should have been successful but were not.

On the other, we have a book purporting to draw scientific conclusions from a selection of sociological data.

Let’s turn to each of these in turn, starting with the latter.

When Gladwell tries to be a scientist, he resembles Procrustes more than Frances Bacon. (In Greek mythology, Procrustes was a rather cranky host who either cut up or stretched out his guests to fit his iron bed. Therefore a “procrustean bed” refers to a theory for which data is manipulated in order to fit its premises. Frances Bacon, by contrast, known as “the Father of the Scientific Method,” systematized a way of knowing which fits the theory to the data rather than the other way around.)

procrustes07

Gladwell declares “success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities.” These circumstances include family background, ethnic heritage, who your parents are, who they know, how much money they have, what year you were born, and even when in the year you were born. He insists “The successful are those who have been given opportunities, and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”

The case studies supplied by Gladwell are not only cherry-picked to support his thesis, but the circumstances of each case study are also put through Gladwell’s conceptual sieve. For example, Gladwell compares the success of the famous genius Robert Oppenheimer to the lack of success of the obscure genius Chris Langan. Both were highly intelligent, but, Gladwell writes, Oppenheimer came from an upper class family with its accompanying advantages; he had more poise; he had more self-confidence; he knew how to interact with people in a positive way in order to get what he wanted. Gladwell gives an example to support his conclusions. The trouble is, Gladwell omits the fact that Oppenheimer’s imperious (and gratuitous) treatment of Lewis Strauss (Chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission) in the 1950’s is what led to his downfall: specifically, a hearing before the Security Board on charges of espionage, revocation of his security clearance, the loss of his job, and basically his removal from the American political process for the remainder of his life.

J. Robert Oppenheimer

J. Robert Oppenheimer

In another example, Gladwell turns to the children of hard-working New York Jewish immigrant garment workers. He claims that these children (born in a certain set of years to fathers born in a certain set of years) were most likely to be successful lawyers. What about all the similarly-situated children of children who did not become successful lawyers, or even successful? There were hundreds in New York at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. We never hear about counterfactual cases that could refute the theory. Moreover, when Gladwell runs out of demographic or ethnographic or socioeconomic reasons why a particular person made it and others did not, he drops down a level of analysis to the personal. In the end, Bill Gates was Bill Gates. Bill Joy (co-founder of Sun Microsystems) was Bill Joy. The Beatles were The Beatles, after all.

lgcvf003starr-harrison-mccartney-and-lennon-jumping-the-beatles-canvas-canvas

Gladwell’s leaps between levels of analysis are a part of his effort to conform the data to the theory. Another method he uses is a form of circular reasoning in which the premises are assumed to be true because the conclusion is true. (The background of Bill Gates led to his success because Bill Gates was successful. In fact, contrary to his initial expatiation on the peculiarities of Bill Gates’ circumstances, he opines that if only “a million teenagers” had the same early computer access Bill Gates had, we might have many more Microsofts today.)

A young Bill Gates

A young Bill Gates

In a related logical fallacy, he also tends to confuse correlation with causation. (Descendants of rice-paddy farmers in Asia excel at math.) But the fact that A precedes B does not necessarily mean that A causes B; B could have other causes. Gladwell also omits data on other A’s. By illustration, descendents of rice paddy farmers in other countries do not always excel at math. A in other cultures does not lead to B.

Sometimes, he will change the definition of his terms to enable his theories to be true. An example is his conviction that one element of success is to do “meaningful” work. He defines “meaningful” as work that offers “autonomy, complexity [i.e., it occupies your mind], and a connection between effort and reward.” Garment workers (sewing twelve hours a day or more), he claims, had meaningful work. Rice paddy workers (more long pain-staking days), he argues, had meaningful work. Meaningful work, in other words, is work that ends up producing successful people that can support Gladwell’s theoretical framework.

story

Last but not least, Gladwell’s theories are applied mainly to white men, but promulgated as universal. When Gladwell discusses the long periods of time in pre-modern Europe with no work to do (as the fields lay fallow or frozen), he certainly wasn’t thinking about women. When he lists all the preconditions for success, he never once mentions racism or gender discrimination. He finally alludes to racism and prejudice in the Epilogue, but only when telling the story of his Jamaican forbears.

Happily, Gladwell’s Outliers is also another book: a raconteur’s diverting set of anecdotes about some hard-working success stories: Bill Gates, Bill Joy, the Beatles, Canadian hockey players, Asian mathematicians, and the founding lawyers of the firms Skadden, Arps and Wachtell, Lipton. (There aren’t any women or blacks in his litany of successful outliers, but presumably such examples would open a whole can of worms that could eat into his central theory.) Gladwell also talks about outlying events, such as plane crashes – always an interesting subject – and gives background and details of the circumstances surrounding these occurrences.

It is this second aspect of the book that makes it, in the end, engaging. If one approaches the book not as a scientist but as someone who likes to hear stories about “outlying” people and events, this book is a pleasant way to pass the time.

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2008

Advertisements

About rhapsodyinbooks

We're into reading, politics, and intellectual exchanges.
This entry was posted in Book Review and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Review of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”

  1. In Outliers, I agree that Mr. Gladwell’s theories are not iron clad. Yet, at least he is spreading the word that meaningful work and dedication to improve one’s skills will result in success. It won’t just fall in your lap!

    It is refreshing to displace the concept of Luck when discussing successful people. Luck is the intersection of preparation and opportunity. People that work hard to better themselves will be ready for an opportunity when it presents itself.

    –Frances Moore-Jones, Author of Housekeeper Cards in English & Spanish

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.