*David and Goliath*

by on October 2, 2013 at 7:48 am in Books, Education, History, Political Science | Permalink

Quite possibly it is Gladwell’s best book.  His writing is better yet and also more consistently philosophical.  For all the talk of “cherry picking,” the main thesis is that many qualities which usually appear positive are in fact non-monotonic in value and can sometimes turn negative.  If you consider Gladwell’s specific citations of non-monotonicities to be cherry-picking, you’re not understanding the hypothesis being tested.  Take the book’s central message to be “here’s how to think more deeply about what you are seeing.”  To be sure, this is not a book for econometricians, but it so unambiguously improves the quality of the usual public debates, in addition to entertaining and inspiring and informing us, I am very happy to recommend it to anyone who might be tempted.  It also shows Gladwell’s side as a regional thinker like never before.  And the moral lesson of the work — don’t write people off — is very important indeed and we are far from having fully absorbed it.  The same can be said for the second moral lesson of the book which is don’t overrate your power.

1 prior_approval October 2, 2013 at 8:04 am

‘Quite possibly it is Gladwell’s best book.’

Is this the moral equivalent of saying Freidman is underrated?

‘The same can be said for the second moral lesson of the book which is don’t overrate your power.’

Which reminds me of this quote from Sen. Tom Coburn in the Post – ‘“What they’re going to do, they’re going to dig in harder until the pain becomes so bad they yell uncle,” he said. “And it isn’t going to be pain from the president, it’s going to be pain from their own constituents.”’ Tantrums always feel powerful at the start.

2 prior probability October 2, 2013 at 8:17 am

The review in last week’s Entertainment Weekly was far less charitable

3 Ted Craig October 2, 2013 at 8:37 am

So was the WSJ:


BTW, I’ve noticed psychologists are much more critical of Gladwell than economists.

4 Z October 2, 2013 at 9:33 am

Maybe because psychologists hear much more BS on a daily basis. They are better at spotting it.

5 Alexei Sadeski October 2, 2013 at 11:22 am

Economists have to read Krugman…

6 Corey October 2, 2013 at 8:48 am
7 William October 31, 2013 at 6:50 am

Here’s a similar review of a specific chapter: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=8123

8 S October 2, 2013 at 8:44 am

” If you consider Gladwell’s specific citations of non-monotonicities to be cherry-picking, you’re not understanding the hypothesis being tested”

Some hypotheses can be tested with cherry picking??

9 ricardo October 2, 2013 at 9:42 am

Tyler’s statement can be read as claiming that, given the actual nature of the hypothesis being tested, what Gladwell is doing is not cherry-picking.

10 S October 2, 2013 at 10:07 am

Makes sense.

I had previously read the Chabris review, which spells out the thesis and points out cherry picking, so perhaps the least charitable interpretation was too tempting.

11 Becon October 2, 2013 at 10:49 am

The hypothesis “quality X is always monotonically positive” can be refuted with counter-example: “X is negative in the case of Y.” Hence X is not always monotonic.

12 Norman Pfyster October 2, 2013 at 11:45 am

The WSJ review’s accusation of cherry-picking is explicitly based on the premise that Gladwell is trying to say something more interesting than, “Sometimes a thing is good, sometimes it is bad.” In other words, the reviewer wanted to attribute to Gladwell a more meaningful project than what Tyler says is the hypothesis being tested, which isn’t terribly interesting.

13 Infopractical October 5, 2013 at 5:22 am

Nailed it. Thank you, Norman.

14 Skeptical October 2, 2013 at 9:24 am

I thought the New Yorker article on which it’s based was one of his worst – I wonder if he significantly changes his message in the book?

15 Steve Sailer October 2, 2013 at 4:55 pm

No, he uses his silly New Yorker article about how the girls basketball team full-court-pressed their way to glory early in the book. He may have cut out the wider claims about how full-court pressing is the underdog’s tool, however, because they were so badly debunked back in 2009:


But, yes, it probably is Gladwell’s best book.

16 Floccina October 4, 2013 at 3:40 pm

girls basketball team full-court-pressed their way to glory

It is funny that he sites a willingness to rudely go outside of norms as a great example of success.

17 Z October 2, 2013 at 9:37 am

Gladwell has discovered that there is big money in making upper middle class people with esteem issues feel smart. His books are done so that the poser can pick up some nuggets on a bathroom break and sound clever at the next party. At best, guys like Gladwell popularize information normally bottled up in highbrow publications. At worst – and most of the time – they are just grifters peddling snake oil. Given the ridiculousness of his 10,000 hour book, I lean toward to the later, but I’m a little jaded.

18 Ray Lopez October 2, 2013 at 10:19 am

Then there’s the study that showed certain Jews in a certain sect or affiliation suffered from genetic diseases, but overcompensated by trying harder, and ended up statistically doing better than non-disease cohorts. So perhaps Gladwell is right. Not that I’ve ever read him.

19 Z October 2, 2013 at 11:41 am

Future archeologists will be baffled by our inability to understand the difference between correlation and causation.

20 Michael D. Abramoff October 2, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Ray Lopez’ miscalculation is worse than that, because the causation works the opposite way. Their doing statistically better – brain development – in heterozygotes resulted in a higher prevalance of recessive brain disease that manifests in a small number of homozygotic individuals. In other words, what he claims as root cause is actually effect, and what he claims as compensation is actually what was selected for. But I digress.

21 dearieme October 2, 2013 at 9:47 am

Why do Americans say “positive” and “negative” when they mean “good” and “bad”?

22 Cliff October 2, 2013 at 10:05 am

Because they know what the words mean?

23 Tarrou October 2, 2013 at 10:18 am

Because they don’t know what they mean. I spend half the first semester of Psych 100 trying to break freshmen of the idea that positive reinforcement is “good” or “reward” and negative reinforcement is “bad” or “punishment”.

24 Cliff October 2, 2013 at 1:20 pm
25 dearieme October 2, 2013 at 2:06 pm

Yep. You hear it too when an economist – no, I must mean a financial guru – says that some aspect of the economy is showing negative feedback.

26 Frank from Oyster Bay October 4, 2013 at 12:17 am

I concur with Tarrou. Feedback is distinctly different from reinforcement, as I learned in my first graduate engineering class. Feedback, as engineers used the term (a usage I suspect predates the social scientists’), describes a system which uses information about its output to adjust its operation. Positive feedback occurs when this adjustment is used to amplify the output: to do more of what the system had been doing. Negative feedback is the converse: the adjustment moderates the output, thereby constraining it to a certain range. The classic example of negative feedback is the flush toilet: as the water level in the tank rises, the float valve reduces (eventually to zero) the rate at which water fills the tank. Climate science identifies a positive feedback: as polar ice melts, more ground is exposed; being less reflective (lower albedo), the planet absorbs more heat, which in turn causes more ice to melt.

The terms “positive” and “negative” are used colloquially to mean “good” or “bad” but they are not equivalent. Negative feedback is a good thing in a toilet; positive feedback is a bad thing if you want your planet’s temperature to remain in equilibrium.

27 Andreas Baumann October 2, 2013 at 10:25 am

For the same reason they say “male” when they mean “man”, I guess.

28 prior_approval October 2, 2013 at 11:37 am

And why have all the Scots in my life invariably say ‘out with’ when they mean ‘without’?

Some mysteries are seemingly simple to explain by saying something along the lines of ‘language is fluid between distinct groups of users,’ but such answers tend to be too mundane to be acceptable to a certain audience. And Gladwell, for one, has made a good amount of money by pandering to that audience.

29 Cliff October 2, 2013 at 1:18 pm

I am really curious to know your conspiracy theory about Malcolm Gladwell. Is he on the GMU board or something?

30 dearieme October 2, 2013 at 1:56 pm

“outwith”: one word. Which is good.

31 CMOT October 2, 2013 at 10:17 am

As Tyler tries to increase his status as a Public Intellectual he’s really gotten in touch with the Things White People Like* side of his pesonality.

*Defined as “interests of North American “left-leaning, city-dwelling, white folk”.

32 Brian Donohue October 2, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Linking to Sailer belies this notion.

The truth is that Tyler is all over the place with his links, and sometimes, whatever he thinks on an issue is less interesting than the dialogue he facilitates here.

33 Eric S. October 2, 2013 at 1:14 pm

You just wait until Nate Silver launches his new site.

34 JohnC October 3, 2013 at 12:49 am

“Things White People Like…Defined as “interests of North American “left-leaning, city-dwelling, white folk.”

“Eat More Kale” paraphernalia = best example.

35 ac October 2, 2013 at 11:04 am

I have a hard time believing that this post is not a joke. Is this post a joke? Maybe my sarcasm detector is off.

36 Dan W October 2, 2013 at 11:18 am

Perhaps the best summation of the the twisted contortions that are Gladwell’s theorems is the the motto: Be Spontaneous

I tip my cap to Gladwell for figuring out how to profit by telling people things they want to hear. He does this by making the obvious seem special but herein is the lie. Because in Gladwell’s telling what makes his observations unique is actually a misrepresentation of the truth. There are general rules of success, such as being persistent, and Gladwell acknowledges these. But he then adds his twist which is to suggest that individual outcomes of success can be replicated. This idea is a lie mainly because individual traits and circumstances are not only unique but largely invisible to both the individual and observers. So how does one replicate that which cannot be seen? A better appreciation of this question would lead Gladwell to be a bit more humble in his prescriptions.

37 Ray Lopez October 2, 2013 at 11:46 am

“So how does one replicate that which cannot be seen?” My gawd man, do you realize what an apologist of the status quo you are? You are a venerable Edmund Burke but without the brilliance. Do you realize that the world of the hypothesis is the most exciting field of science? That’s where the real discoveries are made (or not, but the point is, that’s where science advances). You replicate that which cannot be seen by hypothesis that you test. The only valid criticism of Gladwell is that his data is sparse, not that his hypothesis is not brilliant. We’d never advance as a civilization if we adopt your backward conservatism.

38 Dan W. October 2, 2013 at 11:52 am


It is Gladwell who implies that a process exists that can mold a kid to be another Wayne Gretzky or Steve Jobs. As with any charlatan, much of what Gladwell writes is true. It is the last 10% that is so misleading and creates false hope.

39 Brian Donohue October 2, 2013 at 1:05 pm


veritable, not venerable.

Ordinarily I’d let this slide, but the bar is higher for a geek intellectual who is also also a veritable Adonis.

40 Ray Lopez October 3, 2013 at 4:28 am

As I speak three languages, I leave it to you as to what the proper English cliche is. Veritable = absolute; venerable = esteemed, seems about the same to me! 😉

41 Brian Donohue October 4, 2013 at 3:01 pm

Ray, referring to someone as a ‘venerable Edmund Burke’ suggests that Burke himself was not venerable.

42 chi October 2, 2013 at 11:21 am

“And the moral lesson of the work — don’t write people off — is very important indeed and we are far from having fully absorbed it.”

*writes post about ZMP workers*

43 zbicyclist October 2, 2013 at 5:58 pm

Yes, at a time when “illegal aliens” has been PC’d into “undocumented workers”, it seems insensitive to turn “unemployed people” into “Zero Marginal Product workers”.

In particular, this is because ZMP isn’t a characteristic of the worker, but a characteristic of the economic situation. Suppose you and I both have identical skills, but there’s only a productive job for one of us. If you have the job, I’m a ZMP worker. If I have the job, you are the ZMP worker.

44 Tom West October 2, 2013 at 10:26 pm

Thank you. It’s worth reminding people of that to help counter-act the “ZMP = unskilled, ineffectual or lazy” tendency that is the natural outcome of a desire to believe that virtue is rewarded.

45 Dan W October 2, 2013 at 11:36 am


Gladwell and Gilder (George) share an affinity for the spontaneity of life. They both recognize that free and unchained individuals can accomplish great things for themselves and others. Where they differ, and where Gladwell errs, is that Gladwell writes as if progressives share this understanding when in fact they oppose it. The doubt is then raised about whether Gladwell is ignorant of progressive ideology or if he knows exactly how freedom suppressing it is but he would rather not challenge it because progressives are his best paying customers.

46 Sergey Gurevich October 2, 2013 at 12:22 pm

To Dan W,
Can you expand on freedom suppressing progressive ideology? As opposed to?

47 Go Kings, Go October 2, 2013 at 1:20 pm

I think Bernard-Henri Levy’s Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism is a good place to find an answer and it should be comfortable since it’s written as a defense of leftist ideology by a leftist.

Another idea is that freedom means the freedom to imprint an individual stamp on one’s existence. Progressives deny that, holding individuals to their roots, segregating by a kind of cultural or biological determinism: black –> affirmative action, Hispanic-> immigration reform, gay–>marriage. This is why they’re particularly outraged when Clarence Thomas, Alberto Gonzalez et al start acting uppity instead of knowing their place. Free, self-formed individuals mess up the progressive cosmos. I admit that this isn’t a charitable observation and many progressives know better (like Levy).

48 Dan W. October 2, 2013 at 1:58 pm


The hallmark of progressive ideology is that the intellectual and political elite know the right formula by which members of society can thrive. They then prescribe this formula in rules and regulations to every member of society. They are the overseers and individualism and acting out of turn is strictly prohibited. There is no better illustration of this than Nanny Bloomberg and his war against fat & sugar, especially that found in pastries and large sodas. It may be a good thing for one to moderate one’s intake of such foods. But the nanny state claims higher authority, even the authority to deprive the individual of any autonomy on what choice he or she feels best.

So it is with education. Gladwell cites the education miracles of certain charter schools. The progressive education establishment then proceeds to ban or otherwise fight against such schools. If Gladwell really believed the stories he told he would be an advocate against the establishment. But no. Gladwell loves to tell the Cinderella story but when the Mother in Law multiplies in force against Cinderella Gladwell’s convictions go soft.

Simply put, Freedom requires the absence of coercion. Progressive ideology goes hand in hand with statism and is thus contrary to the principles of Liberty.

49 JWatts October 2, 2013 at 6:49 pm

You implied, but didn’t state the Progressive belief that the common man will make sub-optimal choices. And therefore, as you mentioned, for society to advance the common man’s choices must be restricted for the betterment of all.

50 Dan W October 2, 2013 at 8:08 pm

Who gets to decide those restrictions?

Harvard Professors?

Do you comprehend the hubris of claiming that others know what choices are for the betterment of society?

51 JWatts October 3, 2013 at 10:34 am

Who gets to decide those restrictions? Top Men

Do you comprehend the hubris of claiming that others know what choices are for the betterment of society? Probably not completely, no.

To be clear, I absolutely object to the idea that the State must keep the common man from making poor choices.

52 Go Kings Go! October 2, 2013 at 1:05 pm

This is the most damning positive review I’ve read within memory; from this the book sound like a collection of illustrated cliches, like Gladwell updated a few panels of Goofus & Gallant (or a few Horatio Alger synopses) with some modern tear-jerker stories.

53 Hoosier October 2, 2013 at 1:37 pm

After reading all of these comments Tyler’s statement that “the moral lesson of the work — don’t write people off — is very important indeed and we are far from having fully absorbed it.” rings more true than ever.

54 Steve Sailer October 2, 2013 at 5:03 pm

I’ve just skimmed the book at the store, but would agree it looks less derisible than Blink or Outliers. I’ve led the charge against Gladwell since 2005, and it’s good to see that he’s learned a little from the mounting tide of criticism he has faced.

55 Tom October 2, 2013 at 5:30 pm

Sly strategy, Tyler. Butter up the man who will likely review your book for the New Yorker in the next month or so.

56 huh October 2, 2013 at 8:09 pm

Is this review meant to be read in a Straussian way?

57 arbitraryaardvark October 3, 2013 at 12:41 pm


here is the ted talk 16 minute version of his book.

58 Infopractical October 5, 2013 at 5:28 am

“And for my next trick, I’m going to explain why children born with a parent in prison in the bottom socioeconomic quintile finish ahead of the children from stable homes in the top socioeconomic quintile…”

59 Derek October 5, 2013 at 2:36 pm

I’ve been a reader here for some time, and finally felt the need to leave my first comment.

I read some reviews that hate on this book. They’ll say they don’t like his pseudo-scientific claims. They’ll say he oversimplifies everything. They’ll question his theories, and arm themselves with pitchforks. They’ll say he cherry picks his stories.

But I believe those people have an agenda. An agenda where they decided they were going to hate this book before they even read it.

I’ll explain.

When I buy a Malcolm Gladwell book, I don’t expect in-depth analysis of hundreds of research studies. For that, I’ll turn to someone like Eliot Aronson, Dan Ariely, or some new blood like Adam Grant.

When I buy a Malcolm Gladwell book I expect to read compelling stories that bring a few pieces of key research to life. I also expect to be inspired by these stories. And in that regard, David and Goliath OVER DELIVERS.

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