Malcolm Gladwell on Bill James

James turns out to be not just the most important writer/thinker on baseball of our generation but also — completely unexpectedly — to have read more books in the true crime genre than maybe anyone else alive. In Popular Crime he works his way though every major true crime story of the last 200 years — from Lizzie Borden to JonBenet Ramsey — making (as one would expect) all kinds of brilliant, wildly entertaining and occasionally completely nutty Jamesian observations. Why Popular Crime wasn’t a huge bestseller, I have no idea. OK. Maybe I do. It’s 496 pages …

That is from Gladwell’s dialogue with Bill Simmons, much of which covers talent allocation and talent spotting, channeled through the medium of sports, and how technology, talent, and fame interact.


Someone still takes Malcolm Gladwell seriously?

I would. But, I take the dog pile on my lawn seriously. And I mean that seriously, not comparing anyone to a dog pile. Everything can be taken seriously. Even comedy for example. I'm not saying he is a comedian.

"Someone still takes Malcolm Gladwell seriously?".
Is it just me that finds that comment, coming from someone called 'Beefcake the Mighty', a tad ironic?

I have enough experience reading comments from Beefcake (and various other GWAR-inspired handles) to not take him seriously, but in Gladwell's case the stopped clock is right.

Well, even if you think X is often wrong (sub 50% insight?) it's pretty bad when you actually stop testing that. I don't like the haters on any X. It seems like they are often angry about hearing things they know, anyway, rather than things that are wrong. "X has no right to tell uninformed people Y, because I already know Y" etc.

I think it has more to do with the Igon Value Problem more than anything else.

Goddamn right.

For a while in the 1980s Bill James was a fantastic writer, aside from his interesting baseball insights. His annual Baseball Abstracts and his big book, The Historical Baseball Abstract, were the work of a wordsmith right up there with Roger Angell and Tom Boswell. Later, his interests (particularly his business interests) broadened, while his writing seemed more hurried, and less crafted. His New Historical Baseball Abstract was filled with interesting analyses, but his writing style was much more mundane.

I still go back periodically and reread his annuals. As I get older they remain my best link to fading memories of those years.

I loved reading those old Abstracts, and couldn't wait for the new one every year.

Working with lots fewer and weaker tools than we have today, brought the analysis of basebal into the scientific era. He insisted that things "everyone knows" be tested against actual data, and he developed his own ideas and backed them with data as well.

Popular Crime was a mess. Tried to be three different books without succeeding at any of them, and it reads like the publisher said "Pencils down" to James and the editor before they were done. The book has its moments, but is wildly uneven.

Simmons is a hack and Gladwell is a knockoff artist . . . I can't decide if having these clowns discuss "talent" is ironic, satiric, or just absurd. has a nice expose on Mr. Gladwell up.

Here is some criticism of Malcolm Gladwell and his writing from the left:

and from the right:

The first criticism is pretty in depth and comprehensive. The second is pithier and funnier. Admittedly I have always found Gladwell's writings too pedestrian to get through and I paid rather less attention to both critiques than I would, for example, to criticisms of Bill James.

But to respond to the first comment, obviously alot of people take Malcolm Gladwell seriously, but maybe they are mistaken.

I stopped reading the nakedcapitalism piece as soon as they started describing movement conservatism as "far-right". Clearly, is to be taken even less seriously than Gladwell.

In-depth and comprehensive? Their whole argument seems to be that Gladwell published views they do not like and was mildly conservative as a young man. That does not mean he is wrong. Take his comment on tobacco and social security. Yes, obviously, banning tobacco means social security is going to have to pay out a lot more. Tobacco kills people. Did he say anything wrong? He is not wrong is he? So what are they so upset about it?

It is true that Gladwell is not that bright and gets stuff wrong. Enron for instance. But so what? Everyone does. That does not mean that everything he writes is wrong. Or that he is the spawn of Satan as nakedcapitalism seems to think.

But then their standards were set out early - some guy's brother accuses him of saying that Blacks are genetically inferior. He denies it. God knows anyone who has got in the middle of a sibling spat knows better than to believe either side. Yet they do. That undocumented smear by an alienated brother is enough for them to condemn him as a racist - even though, as they admit, he was happy to work with Gladwell for years despite his Afro-Caribbean background. In other words, they are full of it. Worse than Gladwell.

A cheap, quick, shoddy smear job.

I don't like Gladwell, but the nakedcapitalism article is completely idiotic. Gladwell gets money from people we don't like! Ooooh! Gladwell knows people who know people who said things we think are mean! Ooooh!

Typical religious left revival session stuff. Stirs up their masses, but not much else.

Ted Frank notes:

"Popular Crime was a mess."

Unfortunately, that's true. I tried to extract and summarize the valuable parts of the book in my review for Taki's Magazine:

The funny thing is that Simmons and Gladwell, while similar in intelligence, are very different as thinkers. I know Simmons mostly from his big book on the NBA, and while I don't know much about pro basketball other than the NBA in the 1970s, Simmons strikes me as having quite good judgment. His writing typically grows out of old arguments with his buddies, from which he has developed a broad repertoire of reality checks for basketball theories: He has by now a lot of different ways to think about simple box score statistics (Simmons isn't educated in high end statistical techniques, but he can squeeze a lot of insights out of old-fashioned stats); he reads old Sports Illustrated articles from way back when to get the opinion of experts who were there; he reads player memoirs looking for useful quotes and anecdotes about other players; and he watches a lot of old basketball games on cable and Youtube. Simmons has his biases and weaknesses, but he's always got in the back of his head the worry that his old college buddies are going to rip to shreds any bad idea he tosses out there.

In contrast, Gladwell has a much broader range of topics, and is wonderfully open to new ideas, but ... he has shown very little ability whatsoever to perform reality checks on the ideas he gets excited about. Gladwell is, essentially, a world-class Public Relations guy who brings lots of enthusiasm to sprucing up the ideas that other people (whether academics or corporate types) send him. But, unlike Simmons with basketball, Gladwell doesn't come from a background of arguing over ideas, so when does blunder into an argument, such as with Steven Pinker in the New York Times in 2009 over "igon values" and how NFL teams can't predict better than random how a college quarterback will do in the pros, Gladwell often gets spectacularly humiliated. Gladwell is used to dental supply salesmen telling him how brilliant his speech, not pointing out flaws in his thinking.

Moreover, by constantly looking for the Next Big Idea, Gladwell doesn't build up any knowledge base for himself the way Simmons has built up an impressive knowledge of NBA facts.

In summary, emulate Simmons more than Gladwell.

You don't mention anything about how each man writes, which is far more important than the quality of their thought.

Both have a genuine gift for writing things that people really enjoy reading. Their words convey likable personalities and their ways of discussing ideas make readers feel bright.

Simmons has an amazing gift, in print, for making the reader think he actually is an old college buddy, engaged with the reader in a funny argument or making a shrewd point with some absurd reference.

Gladwell is even better. He basically invented the style of writing that dominates idea driven non-fiction: the narrative segments, combined with anecdotes and sections about the ideas themselves — and all incredibly light. Jonah Lehrer, Tom Vanderbilt, and all the rest are just aping Gladwell. Even the professors who want to sell now, Ariely, Thaler, even Kahneman are doing Gladwell. (I realize Tyler thinks this writing is dumbing us down because it implies a storyline that actual life lacks, but it's damned fun to read.)

Is he as smart as Pinker? Are his books as accurate and informative? Obviously not. But he's a great writer.

Of course, when Gladwell tried blogging, unsupported by the whole New Yorker apparatus, the results were disastrous. The funniest was his hurt and baffled response to Judge Richard Posner and myself scoffing at his contention in "Blink" that the reason car salesmen charge women and blacks more is because they don't realize they are discriminating, and once they realize it, they will stop it and make higher profits. This led to a long debate on Gladwell's blog in which Gladwell stubbornly defended the ethics of car salesmen and denounced those of us who don't have high opinions of the morals of car dealers as racists.

I bring this up because it explains why Gladwell makes such a giant amount of money as a speaker on the sales convention circuit (e.g., New York magazine found a dental supply company that paid him $80,000 for one speech). He is the perfect embodiment of conventional wisdom. He is the unofficial minister of propaganda for politically correct capitalism. No firm will ever get in trouble with the EEOC for hiring Gladwell to give the sales force a speech. He is pro-business and pro-political correctness and that's a winning combination in the 21st Century. At least at making money on the lecture circuit ... At explaining how the world works, not so much.

This is why we keep Sailer around.

That, and the fact that he's a human being, deserving of respect.

Exactly. As much Gladwell would like to cast his "Igon value" mistake as a trivial misspelling, it indicates his limited understanding of the ideas he's writing about. His response to Pinker (on his blog) just confirms this. Gladwell doesn't rebut the substance of Pinker's arguments, he just tries to discredit the speakers. It's basically: "this is who I source, and this is who you source. The people I source are better than the people you source, so I'm right."

But this isn't necessarily a fault of his - he's a journalist, not an academic. And very few people will deny that he does that well. The problem isn't him as much as people who take him too seriously.

Gladwell makes so much money that he could afford to hire an assistant who knows how to think critically. Look at the division of labor in the Freakonomics pair: Levitt does the heavy lifting and Dubner does the Gladwell-style journalism. They have to split the profits between them, but the results are less laughable than in Gladwell's books.

The great thing about Simmons is that he still thinks and writes like a fan. Most sportswriters got to close and starting thinking of the athletes they covered as people and not as heros or villians. They start to care more about whether an athlete gives good interviews or treats the press with courtesy than about whether the team wins. Simmons is still a fan so he hates the opposition and loves his teams with the simple passion of a child. His great gift is the ability to show the reader that he cares as much or more about sports as they do.
The bad thing about Simmons is that he thinks like a fan. He believes in clutch hitting and that certain players are winners or losers. His Book of Basketball's thesis was that in order to be a great player you have to care more about winning than statistics. He called this "The Secret" even though it is what every coach from pee wee league to the majors tells their players. It is also bologna, winning comes from having better players, better coaches, and luck.

In this article

Linked previously at MR

Is provided the main takeaway of the book:

"James eventually dropped the idea, as the results were anticlimactic: In most cases, James found, the killer was caught not by clever police work but simply because a potential victim managed to escape."

We are the hosts to occupation. Deal.

I agree that Popular Crime was uneven. It was also idiosyncratic, as is to be expected from James. And it could certainly have been bettered with more time and a stronger editor.

It was still well worth the read. Very glad I read it. James notices lots of interesting things, and he has many takes on various aspects of popular crime that I don't think anyone else has noticed. Bottom line, there's plenty of insight within its pages, about crime, about human nature, and about critical thinking.

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