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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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