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Sunday, 30 March 2014


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I'm not an expert on Gladwell, but from what I have read, I don't consider him asthe last word - or necessarily even a good alternative to some common errors. Using the class size example, I have a problem with the analysis. It totally fails to consider a number of signficant factors which can affect any such "optimum size" - if and when one exists. For example:
-Subject matter- quantitative (algebra, math logic), or ideational (politics, literature) or ...Not all subjects can be taught in the same way.
-Learning ability of the students - not all can learn at the same speed.
-Learning/cognitive style - some are better verbal learners, some better visual learners, etc.
-Teacher's teaching methods ('style').
-Class duration - student attention span.
-Learning environment, and external distractions.
And those are the most obvious. There are more. Gladwell's most useful point is that many of the commonly accepted 'rules' of operating or behaving are overly inclusive, but he tends to make similar generalizations which aren't more valid, or thorough - just inverted or otherwise different.

Gladwell can be fun but irritating for many of the reasons already stated by others. Pinker I like less. I enjoyed The Language Instinct but his later books kind of died in a torrent of unpleasant speculation for me. Now Oliver Sacks, there is someone I can really read.

Interestingly, there's a term for ingesting too much water in the right manner: water poisoning.

While Gladwell can be entertaining and thought provoking, I think you're giving short shrift to Pinker by saying that they're both just writing about their own ideas and beliefs. Pinker's arguments are far better researched and supported than are Gladwell's.

The entertainment business is very, very profitable.

Every time I try to read something Malcolm Gladwell's written, I find myself giving up the third time I find myself thinking, "Well, d'uh."

Re class sizes. I was a secondary school teacher for nearly 40 years and involved in studies of school size and class size in Australia. I think most of the debate on this gets it wrong. It is a critical issue, but not in the way people usually think or the way studies usually try to measure outcomes related to class size. The critical factor is the quality of the relationship between the teacher and the individual students. Where a teacher knows the students well and also knows the families of the students (and the students know that the teacher knows this) a teacher can handle classes of 50-60 plus in many situations. Where the teacher doesn’t know the students and their families, the size of the group that a teacher can effectively work with drops dramatically. In modern secondary schools, teachers are increasingly spread across a wider number of students. ie., in the course of a week a teacher may be in education settings with over two hundred individual students. In this case, the teachers and student remain relatively anonymous to each other and the quality of the relationship deteriorates proportionately. I’d suggest that about eighty is the maximum number of student/family relationships that a teacher can manage in total.
There is a lot more to this than I can expand on here, but in general (and there are many other variables that need to be considered), the total number of students/families that a teacher is involved with in all educational settings in their total teaching program is more important than the size of the class. Schools ought to be organized to ensure that most teachers are working with around 80 -100 students in total at any one time. Ie, more teacher time with fewer different class groups rather than spreading teachers thinly across greater total number of students.

I find this line of critique with respect to Gladwell more interesting, actually, than those who criticize him for being a popularizer. Science needs popularizers, but the question is, who is served by one simplification or another--


I also like Gladwell's writing. I have read most of his books. I do however put on a heavy "what is he leaving out" filter, the grey areas, contradicting data, etc. But then again, in my old age I seem to have that filter on most of time when I read. Sign of old age curmudgeon or wisdom?

Another (On-Topic to photography, hence off-topic to this discussion :-) example of a U-curve was put forward by Donald Norman in his quite rightly famous book "The Design of Everyday Things". His point is that the complexity of use of any technology over time - from its invention - takes on a U-curve.

Imagine Mathew Brady and his US Civil War pictures using wet-coated plates, necessitating having a horse-drawn darkroom with him at all times. Then move forward in time to, say, the Nikon F or the Pentax MZ-5, which were simple, portable, and able to support your creative/visual ideas in a completely transparent manner. To me, this represents the bottom of the Complexity Curve - any photographer will be able to pick one of these up and start shooting.

Today, cameras come with so many settings, buttons, and options that you need a several-hundred-page-long manual to be able to fully exploit them. Which is often not even provided in printed form. Which, again, means that most people just leave it in "Green Mode" and never proceed any further.

I agree with the class size argument. I teach one-week professional engineering short courses to working engineers about 3 times a year in various places. I've had classes of 5 and 40 and everything in between. For me the sweet spot is 15 to 25; I put up with more because the payday is much better but a large class wears me out. A too-small a class and everyone clams-up. Teaching a class, on your feet, for 8 hours a day is as much a performance as anything. Getting and holding the attention of a roomful of people is a constant drain. And, the larger the class the more likely you'll have a PIA or two. This can be extremely disruptive and is sometimes very tricky to handle.
I haven't read Malcolm's new book yet, but I will. I think some of his arguments and methodology that are dismissed because he isn't rigorous enough miss the point that truly brilliant people can often see the truth in an ocean of uncertainty and it is so obvious to them that a detailed proof seems superfluous.

McDonalds sell a lot of hamburgers too. Me, I prefer food.

This reaction kind of summarizes my problems with Gladwell: (http://scienceblogs.com/principles/2009/05/05/malcolm-gladwell-is-no-charles/)

Mike, you seem unconcerned with his persistent tendency to misrepresent speculation as scientific fact, while I think it is toxic. I worry that those who would dismiss something evolution as "just a theory" are emboldened by the tendency of certain public intellectuals like Gladwell to couch tentative conclusions, unfounded inferences, and outright guesses in the language of certainty.

I read Gladwell as a lesson in persuasive writing. Right or wrong, Gladwell knows how to communicate his points. And, he's one of the few writers in America that influences both liberals and conservatives.

You know, I probably wouldn't have a problem with Gladwell if he was just writing about his own ideas and beliefs. But in doing so he couches said musings in science! (the exclamation point signifying the popularity of the idea of science, not actual, boring, rigorously-completed-in-a-lab science).

So we're left with very well written thought experimentation that describes its conclusions in scientific terms like "laws" and "rules." And it's apparently my fault as the reader for equating Gladwell's use of Various Capitalized Laws with scientific laws. In a book that continually refers to scientific studies....

At the very best I can conclude he's misleading. I don't begrudge him the money, just the spread of misinformation.

I would argue that any author that generates inteligent discussion has done a good job. I would expect that 99.9% of Social Science literature is just authors presenting old ideas in a different way, why should Galdwell be different? Oh yeah, he is famous...

Regarding the class size argument, the Union factor comes into play. While most teachers believe that unions are pressing for higher wages, in reality unions fight for more teaching jobs irrespective of salary. Unions gain their strenght from the number os members, not how much each member earns in wages. In fact, if teaching was a highly paid profession there would be no need for Teachers Unions. Does that sound a bit Gladwellian?

Dear Mike,

Add my voice to Derek's and Nicholas'–– Gladwell is not thought-provoking… At least not in any good way. Any time I have encountered his ideas in a field where I had even some very modest familiarity, it's been clear that his notions vary between naïve at best and dangerously wrong at worst. As the saying goes, he's just smart enough to be dangerous. He sells superficially-appealing snake oil. The only difference between him and the genuine charlatan is that I do believe he believes in his own snake oil.

This U-shaped curve is just the latest example. On one level it's utterly naïve and simplistic––a reduction of the long-known observation (and mathematically provable statement) that if the extremes constitute a really lousy ideas, and somewhere between them there is a good idea, then somewhere between them there is a most-good idea. On the second level, it's dangerous because it defaults to the most simplistic assumption, which is that the shape of that curve will be a U. In complex real-world systems, it is almost never a U. It can take almost any shape between those bad extrema and usually has more than one peak and valley along the way.

How is that dangerous? Because it leads people to generate hyper-simplistic nonsense which they then attempt to apply to the real world. Remember the infamous Laffer Curve of voodoo economics?

It is terribly easy to find examples that do support Gladwell's generalizations. That's because the world is a marvelously complicated place; you can find some example somewhere to support almost any simplistic theory. The question is whether such theory is valid more often than it is not (and, of lesser importance, whether you have a way of distinguishing between those situations). In the case of Gladwell, far more often his theories are not.

It doesn't matter if it's the 10,000-hour silliness, the reason for outliers, or U-shaped curves. It's a waste of time and intellect. It's all dangerous in its overwhelmingly erroneous simplicity.

It doesn't make people think. It makes them believe dumb and wrong things.

pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
-- Ctein's Online Gallery http://ctein.com 
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I agree with all the commenters above who argue that simplification and popularization is great, but unsound "sciency" speculation hurts more than it helps.

Personally, I have not tried to take Gladwell seriously since the following review by Pinker (in all honesty I have not read the book, or much of Gladwell at all): http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/15/books/review/Pinker-t.html , which includes the classic lines:

"[Gladwell] quotes an expert speaking about an 'igon value' (that's eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong."

Gladwell is addicted to confirmation bias, he sets up to prove his point, as opposed to someone who studies data then makes a point applying an accepted and verified set of rules. Tha doesn't mean he is always wrong.

What makes me cringe is your reference to three strikes law. I'm lucky to live in a country where it would be illegal, Spain. Our constitution states that the purpose of incarceration is the rehabilitation of the delinquent. The cruelty, senselesness and perversity of the US penal & judicial system is infinite it seems. I doubt there is another civilized counttry where you can serve a life sentence for minor faults like dealing with 30 grams of Marihuana (legal here), or shoplifting three belts.


The social end economic costs associated with such a perverse system always amaze me.

Seems the "common sense politics" traditionally at the core fof the US political system doesn't work in this...

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