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Bummer Boy takes on Gladwell, Part 1

Since Will Richardson dubbed me IWB Bummer Boy, and my one blog post (so far) about Edubloggercon ’09 came off as cranky, I figured I’d stay in role and finally churn out my long promised take on Malcolm Gladwell and specifically his newest book, Outliers.

I’ve had some quick back-and-forth with some folks on Twitter about Outliers, and the main theme of those arguing against me has been that I shouldn’t take Outliers as any serious work of social science.  I should understand Gladwell’s work as a collection of loosely-tied, interesting stories.  To that, I say “HOGWASH!”

The New York Times refers to Outliers as “The Sociology of Success.”  Gladwell himself subtitles the book “THE [emphasis added] Story of Success.”  In other words, Gladwell suggests quite explicitly that he is proposing a theory to explain success.   I simply do not know how to understand the book as anything other than a serious effort to develop an explanatory model.  That, to me, is a social scientific effort.

My contention, then, is that Gladwell’s work is the result of (weak) inductive thinking/reasoning.  In other words, Gladwell is attempting to ascribe “properties or relations to types based on an observation instance (i.e., on a number of observations or experiences)…” (Wikipedia).  Or, as is quoted in Wikipedia, Gladwell attempts to take us “”beyond the confines of our current evidence or knowledge to conclusions about the unknown.”  That process is depicted in the following figure.


SOURCE: Trochim, 2006

I won’t write a treatise on inductive reasoning, but I encourage you to read the Wikipedia article.  It’s quite well-written, IMHO.  If you’re into philosophy, I’d also encouarage you to read David Hume’s text on the problem of induction, which is referenced in the Wikipedia article.

My problem here is that Gladwell relies on incredibly weak induction.  Over and over, he uses a single case as a premise for his ultimate conclusion.  For example, he uses the case of Christopher Langan to make the point that genius alone does not lead to success.  Langan is a guy with an IQ of 165 who works on a horse farm in Missouri.  He has a higher IQ than Einstein, yet he works on a horse farm.  Gladwell’s logic, then, is that since Langan did not become highly successful, it must be that IQ is not enough.  In other words, here’s the logic:

  • Langan has a really high IQ
  • Langan was never in an environment that provided an opportunity to capitalize on his IQ
  • Langan did not become successful
  • Therefore, nobody with a high IQ can succeed without the right environmental circumstances.

As Lev Grossman of Time magazine wrote, “Gladwell’s weapon of choice when assaulting myths is the anecdote.”  I would add that Gladwell’s weapon of choice when reaching all of his conclusions is the anecdote.  In other words, if he can find one case that fits his thinking, he readily draws a conclusion by generalizing from that one case.  Over and over again, he states a conclusion and backs it up by telling a story.

There is a place for inductive thinking in the social sciences.  In fact, as Trochim points out, social science research often involves a cyclical process involving both deductive and inductive thinking.  But, some inductions are stronger than others.  For example, if you observe something very frequently, you might reach a conclusion that is reasonably probabilistic. That is a strong induction.

A real example:  Imagine if Martians had come to Earth for the first time and landed at Edubloggercon ’09.  They would have observed nearly 100 edubloggers, all of whom were light skinned.  From that premise, they could have concluded that all edubloggers are light skinned.  THAT would have been a strong induction.

[TOMORROW: Part 2, where the fun stuff happens]

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12 Responses to “Bummer Boy takes on Gladwell, Part 1”

  1. Maybe Langan’s goal in life was to become a horse farmer… so, are we judging his “success” by society’s standards or by the fact that he might be doing what he wanted to do?

    I had issues with some of the topics in his keynote, too, but I’ll wait to see what you post in part deux.

  2. Ira Socol says:

    I’m all for good anecdotes, and I’m all for observational research. ISm, on the other hand, really opposed to the faux research paradigm. The causal declaration (which Gladwell makes over and over) followed by the “it’s not really science” claim. Because if you’re claiming cause without really strong evidence do is all a favor and call yourself a novelist.

    The plural of anecdote are data, but adding up unconnected stories does not even express a pattern which might lead to induction.

    I think the concept of looking at outliers is really interesting. But because they are, indeed, outliers it is essential to do the real observational work to start to theorize what might connect these disparate stories. Gladwell doesn’t seem to do that work, yet he clearly makes causal claims.

  3. Will Richardsonw says:

    Wondering if you have the same analysis of Ken Robinson’s “The Element” which follows this structure as well. Read it?

  4. I take Gladwell’s point. But I also felt the same thing you did, Bummer Boy, when I was listening in on MG’s keynote through Twitter. He was, as far as I could tell from the Tweets, making a hasty generalization (you of all people might like the Fallacy Files)

    There were similar stories of going a bridge to far a few years back when neuroscience was all the rage in education circles. John T. Bruer’s piece, Education and the Brain: A Bridge to Far, makes a good critique.

  5. I’m moderately fond of Mr. Gladwell, but I was more than a little offended at the idea of a recycled speech. I followed his examples and anecdotes, and I think he’s on the right track, but it would have been nice to see some actual data.

  6. [...] of the keynote is here, here, and here.  Scott McLeod posted a few more useful links, including this critique by “Bummer Boy”. Liz Davis wonders how to put Gladwell’s ideas into [...]

  7. [...] Part 1, I took a philosophical approach to my critique of Malcolm Gladwell and his book, Outliers.  I [...]

  8. I still contend you deserve to be called “Dr. Bummer Boy”

  9. Will,

    I’ve read Robinson’s The Element and have one fairly substantial concern about the book. While Robinson spends the entire book discussing the idea that people learn, behave, and perform best under certain circumstances (i.e., when they’re in their “element”) – he makes little mention of Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence theory. In fact, he only discusses Gardner in passing with one or two measly paragraphs.

    Why not give credit where credit is due?

    Or perhaps I’ve missed something in the book? It just seemed to me that if you’d seen Robinson’s TED talk and read Howard Gardner’s work, then you’d already heard the overall message of The Element.

    Regardless, great series of posts, Jon. I also really enjoyed your reflections on NECC (with Bri) and your summary of EBC.

  10. Jon Becker says:

    Darren (and Will), to be honest, I’ve not read The Element (nor, BTW, have I read any of Gardner’s books; tough I’ve read many articles by him). I think one huge difference between Robinson and Gladwell is expertise. Robinson’s been involved in arts education nearly all of his professional life. He is a credible writer on issues of learning.

    Expertise/credibility is important to me. So is “doing your homework.” Darren, if there is so much overlap with Gardner’s ideas, and Gardner’s theories are valid/reliable, then I think Robinson would have an obligation to give more credit to Gardner.

  11. [...] can quibble about the quality of Gladwell’s work, and I’m on record with a negative take on some of his work. But, what I won’t stand for are individuals given a stage and a big audience (of educators!) [...]

  12. john says:

    I think I might have seen your site a few years ago, but I’m not sure

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