Alan Marchant's Reviews > Outliers: The Story of Success

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
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May 29, 10

bookshelves: nonfiction
Read in May, 2010

My first Gladwell book (The Tipping Point) turned out to be an insubstantial bag of candy corn. So when Outliers came as a gift, I determined to waste my time only on alternate chapters, but to evaluate each essay carefully.

Intro. Gladwell concludes that the noted health of Rosetto, PA, in the early 1900s was caused by its close-knit Italian culture. But the medical literature, carefully ignored by Gladwell, shows that Rosetto was not actually healthier than average. The temporarily low death rate was caused by the pre-immigration diets of residents and the delayed impact of poor diet on mortality.

Chap. 1. The theme of Outliers is that personal success is a result not of innate talent, hard work, and good choices, but by "hidden advantages, extraordinary opportunity, and cultural legacies." Gladwell argues that IQ is strongly affected by arbitrary age cutoffs in Elementary school admission. The truth is quite different: the "Matthews Effect" is significant only for the very youngest children and disappears entirely by middle school.

Chap. 3. Gladwell speculatively mines the primitive science of Lewis Terman to argue that IQ is not a factor in personal achievement. He flagrantly misrepresents Pitirim Sorokin's critique of Terman. And he ignores the modern assessment of culturally unbiased "core intelligence" and its strong statistical correlation to many types of achievement.

Chap. 5. Gladwell constructs a tissue-thin Horatio Alger story about a pitbull corporate lawyer - then rips it apart with his bare hands! He argues that Jewish lawyers dominate the pyramid of corporate law in NYC because 1) lucky discrimination locked them out of the big dinosaur law firms; 2) the Depression and flu pandemic depopulated NYC public schools at a critical time; and 3) they inherited secret lessons of entrepreneurship from their parents experiences in the sweat-shops of the garment district. This is antisemitism veiled in stupid condescension.

Chap. 7. This chapter describes a pattern seen in commercial plane crashes: a series of unfortunate random events exacerbated by poor responses by the flight crew. Gladwell's point is that poor flight crew response correlates with the cultural baggage of the crew - specifically passivity and respect for social hierarchy. To his credit, Gladwell admits that crew members are easily trained to ban their cultural biases from the cockpit.

Chap. 9. Gladwell describes the experience of KIPP schools with intensive education of inner city NYC kids. With zero evidence, he concludes that the success of children from other neighborhoods is due to parents who invisibly extend the school day into the evening and through the Summer. KIPP itself undercuts Gladwell's thesis by arguing that educational success results from individual initiative. Educational studies show that most of the sustained benefit from a KIPP education comes in the first year (5th grade) when many students drop out because of the difficulty of the regimen.

Gladwell's Conclusion: since notable success (and failure) is caused by "pure accident, lucky breaks, and arbitrary advantages," society would benefit from much tighter government control assuring that everyone receives such breaks. Yeah: control over school policy, 12-month/10-hour school schedules, control over youth sports, control over college admission and professional hiring, regulation of dangerous cultural experiences.

My Assessment: liberal hubris abetted by impenetrable journalistic laziness.
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message 1: by Dandv (new)

Dandv How exactly did Gladwell misinterpret Sorokin's findings about the Terman study?

Terman himself admitted in '47 that "we have seen that intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated", and his gifted kids had ordinary jobs as adults.


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