Outliers: Missing Pieces

Cover of OutliersTitle: Outliers

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Publication Date: 2008

LC Classification: BF637.S8G533

Okay, so I’m leaving tomorrow and have another book to write about that I actually care about, so I just want to pound out something quickly about Outliers. This will be short. It’s a book meant to popularize certain ideas about statistics and success. Specifically, Gladwell is interested in how unpredictable circumstances make success possible for certain people. He uses examples including the Beatles and Bill Gates.

I know that there are lots of people who actually know about statistics and sociology and so forth who have lots of problems with this book.  The math that it takes to really understand such things is not really my strong point; every time I try to do any statistics, I always have to look things up and practice for a while before doing it for real. So I haven’t really internalized those things well enough to critique the book on those grounds, although I did notice that in many places throughout the book he doesn’t do a real statistical analysis, but rather compiles a list of people he finds significant and shows some similarities among them.  How they compare to less-successful people in similar fields isn’t really covered, so I don’t put much stock in most of the mathematical parts of this book. So when Gladwell claims that the Beatles were successful because they got lots of practice playing in Hamburg, I don’t question the usefulness of this experience for the Beatles, but I wonder about all the other bands who played in Hamburg.  Surely they didn’t all become the Beatles?

There is an exception to this: his observation about athletes born at particular times of the year having greater success, which I was able to confirm with my resident collector of baseball statistics.

Mathematical foibles aside, there are some things in the book that I found enjoyable, persuasive, or at least interesting.  I enjoyed the first chapter, which points out that even small structural decisions, like the date that begins the school year, arbitrarily privilege some people over others.  Gladwell claims that it takes ten thousand hours of practice for someone to achieve expertise, and while I’m not sure that he proves this is the case, I’m always up for someone pointing out that people who are good at things tend to be people who have practiced a lot (and that whether this happens depends both on dedication and on the luck that brings opportunities about).   I found the analysis of high-IQ individuals interesting, although it operated from a lot of assumptions that I didn’t think were necessarily warranted. Gladwell assumes that the reader respects IQ as a valid measurement, and introduces the idea that some people with high IQ’s don’t enjoy great financial success as if the reader is supposed to be shocked by this.  (The reader is not shocked.)  There’s a comment in this section which  implies that the best colleges are the ones chosen by students with high IQ’s, which is certainly not a measure that it would have occurred to me to use.  And then there’s the part where he laments that the math professors whose interactions with Chris Langan went poorly would have reacted to him more positively if they had known he was good at math—maybe they would have, but that’s…kinda bad, if true?  Anyway, the point of this section is that academic success depends on social skills, the acquisition of which is linked to socioeconomic class. I knew that, but it’s a nice takeaway for the popular audience of this book, although in the context I don’t know how seriously people will take it.

The bit about the bankers had similar strengths and weaknesses.  Gladwell writes about Jewish lawyers in New York in the twentieth century, and how their exclusion from the most prestigious fields of law ended up in their favor when the types of law that were considered valuable in society changed.  Gladwell has a lot to say about this, but what was interesting about it is that, in a book about how success depends on circumstances which are often out of our control, this is the only place that he explicitly discusses discrimination and marginalization.  (There’s a little bit about class privilege when he discusses Chris Langan, but he isn’t explicit about how this is systematic, so it’s just about Langan and does he deserve success for his mental gifts even though he is kind of a jerk.)  But in this one place in which marginalization is discussed, it’s so that Gladwell can show that there exists a situation in which it can be an advantage.  And that’s compelling and enjoyable, of course, because he turns it into a triumphant underdog story, but it forecloses the possibility of his discussing how opportunities are made available to people on the basis of privileged characteristics.  Almost all his examples of extraordinary success are white men, and that’s definitely not a coincidence.

This exists in the same book in which Gladwell explains feuding towns not only by means of their culture but by recourse to the culture of their ancestors in Scotland and sheep herding or something; there was an opportunity for him to discuss how culturally-sanctioned violence perpetuates itself, but he has to find some economic cause even if it is a bit of a reach, because he is an economist.  So it’s not surprising that he’s reluctant to take on systematic social biases, but it’s a pretty major piece missing from his analysis.

So yeah, there are certainly criticism to be made here.  I do, however, admire Gladwell’s ability to make this stuff accessible and engaging.

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