Saturday, September 28, 2013

Book Review of 'David and Goliath' by Malcolm Gladwell.  Review by Christopher Chabris, a psychology professor at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y

I have some previous comments on Malcolm Gladwell here and here.   Gladwell too often presents as proven laws what are just intriguing possibilities and musings about human behavior.  I think his reputation as a serious thinker owes more to that bush of African hair on his head than anything else. "Affirmative" racism is a most pervasive poison in American discourse  -- JR

David Boies is the super-lawyer who represented IBM against the U.S. government, the U.S. government against Microsoft, Al Gore against George W. Bush and gay marriage against California's Proposition 8. A man at the top of his profession, presiding over a firm of 200 lawyers, he would seem to be a metaphorical Goliath. But Malcolm Gladwell sees this literal David as a figurative David too, because Mr. Boies came from humble origins and faced mighty obstacles to success.

We learn in Mr. Gladwell's "David and Goliath" that Mr. Boies grew up in rural Illinois, where he was an indifferent student. After he graduated high school, he worked construction. He went to college mainly because his wife encouraged him to. But the small university he attended near Los Angeles happened to have one of the country's premier debate programs. Mr. Boies traveled more than 20,000 miles to participate in debate tournaments. He left college early to start law school at Northwestern, became editor in chief of its law review and transferred to Yale, where he received his law degree.

One of Mr. Gladwell's best sellers, "Outliers" (2008), was about how outsize success results from arbitrary advantages and disciplined practice. Bill Gates was lucky enough to have a computer terminal in his high school when personal computers didn't yet exist; the Beatles laboriously honed their craft in Germany before hitting the London scene. So is the story of David Boies just another case like these—of a guy who stumbled into a rigorous debate program that inculcated the skills and provided the training he would need to out-argue his law-school peers and reach the top?

Not in this book. 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.

You read that right. In a section on what Mr. Gladwell calls "the theory of desirable difficulty," he asks: "You wouldn't wish dyslexia on your child. Or would you?" You might if you were aware that Mr. Boies himself attributes his success to his dyslexia, as do Gary Cohn, the president of Goldman Sachs, and Brian Grazer, the Hollywood megaproducer. Examples like these are the main source of evidence Mr. Gladwell marshals for the claim that dyslexia might actually be a desirable trait. Difficulty reading is said to have forced Mr. Boies to compensate by developing skills of observation and memory, which he exploited in the courtroom. It's an uplifting story; what seems on the surface to be just a disability turns out, on deeper examination, to be an impetus for hard work and against-all-odds triumph.

Mr. Gladwell enjoys a reputation for translating social science into actionable insights. But the data behind the surprising dyslexia claim is awfully slim. He notes in passing that a 2009 survey found a much higher incidence of dyslexia in entrepreneurs than in corporate managers. But this study involved only 102 self-reported dyslexic entrepreneurs, most of whom probably had careers nothing like those of Mr. Boies or his fellow highfliers. Later Mr. Gladwell mentions that dyslexics are also overrepresented in prisons—a point that would appear to vitiate his argument. He addresses the contradiction by suggesting that while no person should want to be dyslexic, "we as a society need people" with serious disadvantages to exist, for we all benefit from the over-achievement that supposedly results. But even if dyslexia could be shown to cause entrepreneurship, the economic analysis that would justify a claim of its social worth is daunting, and Mr. Gladwell doesn't attempt it.

To make his point about the general benefits of difficulty, Mr. Gladwell refers to a 2007 experiment in which people were given three mathematical reasoning problems to solve. One group was randomly assigned to read the problems in a clear typeface like the one you are reading now; the other had to read them in a more difficult light-gray italic print. The latter group scored 29% higher, suggesting that making things harder improves cognitive performance. It's an impressive result on the surface, but less so if you dig a bit deeper.

First, the study involved just 40 people, or 20 per typeface—a fact Mr. Gladwell fails to mention. That's a very small sample on which to hang a big argument. Second, they were all Princeton University students, an elite group of problem-solvers. Such matters wouldn't matter if the experiment had been repeated with larger samples that are more representative of the general public and had yielded the same results. But Mr. Gladwell doesn't tell readers that when other researchers tried just that, testing nearly 300 people at a Canadian public university, they could not replicate the original effect. Perhaps he didn't know about this, but anyone who has followed recent developments in social science should know that small studies with startling effects must be viewed skeptically until their results are verified on a broader scale. They might hold up, but there is a good chance they will turn out to be spurious.

This flaw permeates Mr. Gladwell's writings: He excels at telling just-so stories and cherry-picking science to back them. In "The Tipping Point" (2000), he enthused about a study that showed facial expressions to be such powerful subliminal persuaders that ABC News anchor Peter Jennings made people vote for Ronald Reagan in 1984 just by smiling more when he reported on him than when he reported on his opponent, Walter Mondale. In "Blink" (2005), Mr. Gladwell wrote that a psychologist with a "love lab" could watch married couples interact for just 15 minutes and predict with shocking accuracy whether they would divorce within 15 years. In neither case was there rigorous evidence for such claims.

But what about those dyslexic business titans? With all respect to Messrs. Boies, Cohn and Grazer, successful people are not the best witnesses in the cases of their own success. How can Mr. Boies, or anyone else, know that dyslexia, rather than rigorous debate training, was the true cause of his legal triumphs? His parents were both teachers, and could have instilled a love of studying and learning. He also had high SAT scores, which indicate intelligence and an ability to focus. Maybe his memory was strong before he realized he had trouble reading. Perhaps it's a combination of all these factors, plus some luck. Incidentally, Mr. Boies's SAT scores and debate training aren't mentioned in "David and Goliath." I learned about them from his 2004 memoir, "Courting Justice."

In Mr. Cohn's case, dyslexia is said to have made him willing to take risks to get his first job in finance, as an options trader. Suppose he weren't dyslexic—isn't it likely that he would have still been a bit of a risk-taker? I know of no scientific evidence for a correlation between risk-taking and reading difficulty, and even if there were one, taking risks might just as well lead to bad outcomes (like those prison sentences) as to good ones.

A theorem of mathematics implies that in the absence of friction, any knot, no matter how complicated, can be undone by pulling on one end of the string. The causes of success in the real world are nothing like this: Resistance abounds, and things are so tangled up that it is virtually impossible to sort them out. Mr. Gladwell does no work to try to loosen the threads. Instead he picks one and, armed with the power of hindsight, just keeps yanking on it. Why are the Impressionist painters renowned today? Because they set up their own exhibitions to gain greater visibility in the 19th-century Paris art scene. "David and Goliath" discusses no other possibilities. Why did crime go down in Brownsville, Brooklyn over the past decade? Because the local police worked hard to increase their legitimacy in the minds of the community members. Nothing else is seriously considered.

None of this is to say that Mr. Gladwell has lost his gift for telling stories, or that his stories are unimportant. On the contrary, in "David and Goliath" readers will travel with colorful characters who overcame great difficulties and learn fascinating facts about the Battle of Britain, cancer medicine and the struggle for civil rights, to name just a few more topics upon which Mr. Gladwell's wide-ranging narrative touches. This is an entertaining book. But it teaches little of general import, for the morals of the stories it tells lack solid foundations in evidence and logic.....

One thing "David and Goliath" shows is that Mr. Gladwell has not changed his own strategy, despite serious criticism of his prior work. What he presents are mostly just intriguing possibilities and musings about human behavior, but what his publisher sells them as, and what his readers may incorrectly take them for, are lawful, causal rules that explain how the world really works. Mr. Gladwell should acknowledge when he is speculating or working with thin evidentiary soup. Yet far from abandoning his hand or even standing pat, Mr. Gladwell has doubled down. This will surely bring more success to a Goliath of nonfiction writing, but not to his readers.


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