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Gladwell and Chabris, David and Goliath, and science writing as stone soup

The only thing is, I’m not sure who’s David here and who is Goliath. From the standpoint of book sales, Gladwell is Goliath for sure. On the other hand, Gladwell’s credibility has been weakened over the years by fights with bigshots such as Steven Pinker. Maybe the best analogy is a boxing match where Gladwell stands in the ring and fighter after fighter is sent in to bang him up. At some point the heavyweight gets a little bit tired. (Recently Gladwell had a New Yorker column defending dopers such as Lance Armstrong, so I suspect he’ll have Kaiser Fung coming after him again, once the current lucha with Chabris is over.)

Chabris took his swing at Gladwell a few days ago, as I reported here.

Yesterday was Gladwell’s turn. I have a lot of sympathy for the Blink-man here: he writes these bestsellers and puts himself out there, so he’s a target. If Gladwell’s books were generic business-bestseller pap of the be-yourself-and-be-tough variety, he wouldn’t get hassled. It’s because Gladwell has this impressive track record of putting out these intellectual earworms—the tipping point, blink, the 10,000 hours—that he gets this attention.

Chabris’s claim is that Gladwell’s latest big idea is ill-defined or false. My inclination is to side with Chabris (or, perhaps I should say, Gorilla-man) on this one—for one thing, in his reply yesterday, Gladwell didn’t really defend the science of his claims, he gave more of a procedural defense of his method of storytelling. But I give Gladwell credit for presenting enough of an idea in his book that there was something worth shooting down.

Stone soup

As those of you who are social scientists surely already know, ideas are like stone soup. Even a bad idea, if it gets you thinking, can move you forward. For example: is that 10,000 hour thing true? I dunno. We’ll see what happens to Steven Levitt’s golfing buddy. (Amazingly enough, Levitt says he’s spent 5000 hours practicing golf. That comes to 5 hours every Saturday . . . for 20 years. That’s a lot of golf! A lot lot lot lot of golf. Steven Levitt really really loves golf.) But, whether or not the 10,000-hour claim really has truth, it certainly gets you thinking about the value of practice. Chris Chabris and others could quite reasonably argue that everyone already knows that practice helps. But there’s something about that 10,000 hour number that sticks in the mind.

What makes the “10,000” number so sticky? I wonder if it involves just the right level of complexity to resonate with people. If somebody tells you that, to be good at something, you have to practice for 5 years (say), then the natural reaction is: OK, sure, that makes sense, no big deal. But if they tell you, “10,000 hours,” then you have to think about it: Hmmm, 40 hours a week for 50 weeks is 2000 hours, so that’s 5 straight years of work. Or 2 and a half years if you’re working at it 16 hours a day. Hmmm, how many hours was Larry Bird standing out there shooting baskets as a kid? Etc. The “10,000 hours” thing is just obscure enough to be interesting.

Here’s another example. A few years ago, I criticized the following passage from Gladwell:

It’s one thing to argue that being an outsider can be strategically useful. But Andrew Carnegie went farther. He believed that poverty provided a better preparation for success than wealth did; that, at root, compensating for disadvantage was more useful, developmentally, than capitalizing on advantage.

I argued that Gladwell was making a statistical fallacy:

At some level, there’s got to be some truth to this: you learn things from the school of hard knocks that you’ll never learn in the Ivy League, and so forth. But . . . there are so many more poor people than rich people out there. Isn’t this just a story about a denominator? Here’s my hypothesis:

Pr (success | privileged background) >> Pr (success | humble background)
# people with privileged background << # of people with humble background Multiply these together, and you might find that many extremely successful people have humble backgrounds, but it does not mean that being an outsider is actually an advantage.

Commenter Aaron Veenstra added:

Part of the issue here may also be how we define “success.” If we think of SES as a 1-10 scale and I’m born at 9, I don’t have much room to improve. Indeed, I could recede a notch to 8 and still look pretty successful, even though I would seem to have squandered some of what I started with. Conversely, if I’m born at 3 and work my way up to 6, my position relative to my starting point is much better than the 9 -> 8 person, but the 8 may still be more successful.

But now consider the stone soup principle. Suppose that Gladwell is offering nothing but some well-arranged stories and an empty statement that sometimes a humble background can be helpful in achieving success. Still, that can get you thinking, right? As long as you don’t take his points too literally, you might get something out of it.

Similarly, when Gladwell claimed that NFL quarterback performance is unrelated to the order they were drafted out of college, he appears to have been wrong. But if you take his writing as stone soup, maybe it’s valuable: just retreat to the statement that there’s only a weak relationship between draft order and NFL performance. That alone is interesting. It’s too bad that Gladwell sometimes has to make false general statements in order to get our attention, but maybe that’s what is needed to shake people out of their mental complacency.

Here’s an example of how Tyler Cowen takes Gladwell’s stones and makes a delicious soup out of them:

Quite possibly [David and Goliath] 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.

Read the above paragraph slowly. Cowen is, like me, a canny writer who will sometimes imply things but is careful about what he actually is stating. You’ll notice that Cowen is not saying that Gladwell is revealing any general statistical patterns, but rather that he (Gladwell) presents examples which get you thinking in ways that you otherwise might not have done.

To put it another way, Cowen’s review and Chabris’s review are completely consistent with each other, despite having completely different tones.

Gladwell’s villains

It’s sometimes said that a good story needs a villain. To his credit, Gladwell does not go around creating human villains to bash. (I remain annoyed at Dubner and Levitt’s invocation of unnamed “some academics” as a foil in their celebration of a sports bookie. It wasn’t enough for them to just say how cool this guy was; they had to pander to the crowd by postulating a (hypothetical) silly academic as a contrast.)

My impression is that, in Gladwell’s stories, the villains are not bad guys, they’re bad ideas. So, in the football example, the villain is the idea that top draft picks will always perform the best. In the 10,000 hours example, the villain is the idea that some people are successes and others are failures, and there’s nothing you can do about it. In the Andrew Carnegie story, the villain is the idea that all that matters is privilege. Sometimes the stories have human heroes (for example, in Gladwell’s (statistically) misleading story of divorce expert John Gottman), Gladwell does not seem to be in the habit of casting people as villains.

I like that.

And I also like that Gladwell writes, “I have tremendous respect for the work that Chabris does. I have written about it admiringly in The New Yorker.” It would be easy for Gladwell to lash out, but he doesn’t. He just doesn’t seem to be a hater.

David responds to Goliath (or was it the other way around?)

Finally, I’d like to briefly comment on Gladwell’s response to Chabris’s review. Gladwell starts off with an anecdote that, a few years ago, Chabris and a coauthor published a criticism of one of Gladwell’s earlier books, and when Gladwell disagreed with the criticism, they offered to debate him. Gladwell writes, “But that seemed silly. I didn’t want to debate them. I just wanted them to read my book all the way to the end.”

Gladwell appears to still have this position, of not wanting to debate, in that even in his recent reply to Chabris, I don’t really see him responding to Chabris’s scientific points, it’s more that Gladwell is defending his style of storytelling.

I bristle a bit at Gladwell’s defense because I think he’s missing the point. Nobody is criticizing storytelling. Stories are great, and they’re a key way we understand the world. Here’s what Gladwell writes:

All writing about social science need not be presented with the formality and precision of the academic world. There is a place for storytelling, in all of its messiness.

I agree 100%. And I suspect Chabris does as well. Here’s the problem. What Chabris is saying (I think)—and, in any case, what I’m saying—is that the messiness of reality is a key way that stories work in conveying information and overturning our preconceptions.

When I wrote that some of Gladwell’s stories are over-smoothed, my problem was not that Gladwell was not academic, or that he had too much messy reality in his books. Rather, my problem (and, I think, Chabris’s as well) was that Gladwell’s stories were not messy enough! Fables are fun, but the real world can be much more interesting.

For example, Chabris criticizes Gladwell for touting a 40-person study on Princeton students without mentioning the failure of “a replication attempt with a much larger and more representative sample of subjects.” In his response, Gladwell replies that the truth is not so clear: the authors of the original study “say that the version of desirable difficulty that they explore has been confirmed on numerous other occasions.”

OK, so maybe Chabris was too quick to slam the original Princeton study. I don’t know. But the point is that to just report that study as truth without mentioning the controversy over its non replication . . . that’s over-smoothing. It makes the story less interesting, less messy, less real.

So, what I’m really hoping is that Gladwell rereads his own response:

There is a place for storytelling, in all of its messiness. . . . narratives sometimes begin in one place and end in another.

Try resisting the urge to tie every story into a bow. Let some of the loose ends hang out. I think that’s what Chabris is trying to say.


  1. Tal Linzen says:

    The stone soup approach seems to me to be the norm in the humanities, especially in the European tradition. For example, Michel Foucault is known for playing fast and loose with historical facts in his writing, but that’s entirely besides the point: you read him for his ideas, not for the history. Perhaps people like Gladwell are best thought of as thinkers in the humanistic tradition rather than as science writers. (It would still be useful, of course, to have some kind of disclaimer on the back cover clarifying that any empirical claims in the book should be taken as rhetorical devices rather than as actual facts about the world.)

    • Eric says:

      Would it surprise you to know that empirical claims–supposing they are actual facts about the world–are also rhetorical devices?

      • Anonymous says:

        Guess what, do some research and you will see that Gladwell is from a conservative think tank background. His ridiculous causation analogies are full of this type of spin. For the public who believes this nonsense Gladwell is only to happy to “innocently” make the same wrong connection as the average ignorant man does. Freak Economics author steve Leavitt does it in a more obvious matter than Gladwell, but they are both the same. Gladwell is nothing more than a Con man for corporations and the world’s elite. He makes me sick, down to that ridiculous costume he wears – mad scientists right down to the crazy hair.

      • araybold says:

        Eric: Based on what Tai Linzen actually wrote, [s]he would apparently not be in any way surprised by what you state here.

    • Conor says:

      I generally agree with your point, though it did hurt me deeply to see Foucault and glad well in the same paragraph…

  2. JC says:

    The problem is that some critics are evaluating Gladwell’s work by a standard that Gladwell himself does not use, nor does the content of his book suggest is valid.

    He takes some interesting ideas that make you think differently and then writes about them in compelling ways. The fact that others infer too much based on his storytelling is their problem, not Gladwell’s. The same misinterpretation happens to many other authors telling social science stories.

    What does Chabris want, a disclaimer on the front cover? “The stories contained within this book should not be considered universal truth. Applying them in such a manner is not advised.”


    • Andrew says:


      I agree that a disclaimer on the book cover would be silly. But I suspect I’d agree with Chabris that, instead of presenting that n=40 Princeton study uncritically, Gladwell would’ve done better to discuss the failed replications as well, to give a more nuanced story.

      • Wei says:

        So, the difference is in the style. Which one is good story-telling? You may treat the nuance in scientific study as interesting as a case in front of Sherlock. Clearly, Gladwell does not think so.
        Thinking is hard. (pretending to be thinking is satisfying.) Uncertainty is bad (for non-Bayesian at least.)

        To be fair, Gladwell is one of the best writer out there. Maybe that is what annoying us: is this the best science writing by non-scientists? But again, I know sometimes scientists writing in similar story-telling style.

        • HI says:

          There are better science writing by non-scientists. James Gleick comes to my mind. And there are others. The difference is that Gleick is more interested in actually describing the subject matter, while Gladwell is more interested in telling stories and lessons.

    • Rahul says:

      Ironically, the anti-intuition platform that gives Levitt leverage (I won’t mention Gladwell since I’m not a fan) is the same sort of thing that gives prominence to so many of his critics.

      Yet another Frekonomics praising review will be boring. But to find fault attracts more attention. To a point.

      It is always easy to criticize than create and I doubt there ever will be a book written that can address all these nitpicking critiques and then not be so deadly boring that no one wants to read it.

      • Andrew says:


        Yes, ultimately one has to judge the details of the critiques. Mere existence of a critique (or, for that matter, mere existence of a blurb) is not enough. And, as noted, it is a strength of Gladwell’s writing that he gives people something chewy to argue with.

        • Rahul says:

          Yes. Put differently, the stupidest / laziest critic can easily raise more critiques than the best author could ever hope to address.

          So long as we keep that in mind, it’s all good.

          A watertight, fully defensible, entirely consistent book would be as interesting as a typical legal contract.

        • Rahul says:

          …to stretch this point, it takes me far less brain n effort to be sarcastic and criticize Andrew’s blog posts than the effort Andrew needs to actually write a good blog post. :)

      • Steve Sailer says:

        The notion that Gladwell promotes counter-intuitive ideas is mostly his own marketing spin. In reality, the reason he keeps getting paid vast sums by corporations and the like to give speeches is that he just applies the dominant ideology of our day to ever sillier extremes. Nobody has a name for the reigning mindset, just as fish don’t need a name for being wet, but “Multi-culti capitalism” gives a flavor.

        Thus, in “Blink,” when Ian Ayres showed that car salesmen try to rip off blacks and women, Gladwell says that shows that car salesmen are leaving money on the table because they don’t understand their unconscious prejudices. After all, as we all know, the sexes and the races are absolutely alike and only the benighted believe there are any average differences, so salesmen could make even more money by consciously suppressing the patterns they’ve noticed which, by definition, can’t exist.

        When Judge Posner and I both objected in 2005 that car salesmen are just psychologically exploiting women and blacks based on decades of evidence of how to maximize profits, Gladwell was baffled, and responded that “Sailer and Poser [sic] have a low opinion of car salesmen”!

        Capitalism good! Noticing things bad!

        Gladwell is the wettest fish in the whole world.

        • Phil says:

          For his next trick, Steve will explain that before 1947 there were no blacks capable of helping a major league baseball team.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Gladwell’s current humility is a recent development following intensifying criticism. (In other words, he’s learning from his mistakes, which is admirable.) His 2008 bestseller “Outliers,” for example, was conceived of as a Major Statement about Society:

    • araybold says:


      Chabris himself addresses this issue at some length. His point is that Gladwell’s work is influential, and the people who are influenced by it generally do not understand the very shaky foundations on what they take for wisdom rests.

      Maybe that’s not Gladwell’s fault, though one wonders the extent to which he realizes and exploits the fact that his particular fame depends partly on his lack of rigor. There comes a point where saying “don’t take me seriously” is not enough to avoid the taint of appearing disingenuous.

      Even if it is not Gladwell’s fault, Chabris is not wrong in pointing it out.

  3. jonathan says:

    Thing is, if you move on the spectrum away from replicable science, you really need to wonder about the truth of nearly everything we’re told. Some goofball argued this week that Jesus’ existence was made up by Rome. I’ve read goofball arguments that claim the ancient Bible happened in Arabia. (In that regard, given the number of Biblical names in parts of the US, maybe it happened in Minnesota. That must be true because it’s in the lyrics to Highway 61 Revisited: Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?” / God says, “Out on Highway 61”. Move ahead a thousand years. They uncover this Dylan song and conclude this is where the Binding of Isaac occurred.)

    I read Procopius’ Secret History. Over the years I’ve read most of the primary sources about various eras. Truth is: we know squat. Nearly everything we know about Alexander may be completely wrong. We know very little about Augustus, one of the most important people in all history, but you can pick up biographies about him. They slice and dice the same bits to come up with a picture that actually reflects the author’s image of Augustus but likely not the real one. I often read historical economic papers. It’s fascinating to see how little we know. (I have to mention a favorite paper I found in obscure book of essays about Colonial NE: the role of pigs in destabilizing colonist/native relations and how they became a material factor in King Philip’s War. Poorer white people lived on the margins and they couldn’t afford to pen and feed pigs so they’d let them run loose. The pigs would eat native food crops and violence – against pig and people – would ensue. Court cases followed, with natives and whites bringing suit, and arrests for assault and murder. Think about the weirdness and what it meant: the richer colonists were unwilling to enforce penning of pigs and were likely unwilling to subsidize the costs and the poorer colonists had no choice – and may have preferred the arrangement anyway because penned pigs still take time from other things … and that led to war. The Gladwell moral would be: “Bacon does not make all things better”. See? It’s counter-intuitive because everyone says “Bacon makes everything better,” and the story is an odd and perhaps entertaining illumination. And since you’ll never look into this, you don’t even know if I’m making it up. (I’m not btw.)

    In one week many years ago, I read a sort of revisionist look at the primary sources of Calvinist. It pointed out that the image didn’t match the actuality of what happened: it wasn’t much of a theocracy, if you go by actual expulsions, fines, etc. I then picked up William Manchester’s book about the era and read about how bad it was in Geneva. I don’t see Manchester as a real historian; he worked mostly from secondary sources. But where is the line when nearly everything is a secondary source? Which Jesus resurrection tale do you prefer? Even within the oldest Mark? Is it the oldest known versions which say the tomb was empty and stop there or the one(s) with verses added in a different style that bring up actual resurrection?

    A Babylonian legal code says this: if a house falls down and kills the son of the owner, then the son of the builder must be killed. All about balancing things. But was that real? Or was it theological? There is no evidence for either but the suspicion is the latter, that this was a theological statement about the ordering of the world, not an actual legal code which killed sons. So this is a source about what? And a story about what?

  4. Haile Unlikely says:

    I agree almost completely with all of this.

    One issue, however: you cite a previous post in which you criticized Gladwell for making a statistical fallacy in a passage in which Gladwell stated that Andrew Carnegie believed that poverty provided better preparation for success than wealth did.

    I admittedly do not recall the context of this passage, and that may change things to some degree, but this passage from Gladwell in and of itself contains no statistical fallacy by Gladwell.

    In this passage, Gladwell states that Andrew Carnegie believed X. If Andrew Carnegie believed X, than Gladwell’s statement (“Carnegie believed X”) is true. If Carnegie did not believe X, then Gladwell’s statement is false. Whether X is true or false has no bearing on the question of whether or not Carnegie believed X. Gladwell’s larger argument, of which he was citing Carnegie as an example, may have been based on a statistical fallacy, but the passage you cited as a statistical fallacy is not itself one. Further, if Carnegie believed X, that can be of substantive interest irrespective of whether X is true (in this case, I don’t think we actually know whether X is true or not).

    In other words, I’m not arguing with your point, but I do not think the passage that you cited actually illustrates your point.

    Finally I didn’t interpret Gladwell’s argument as: Pr(success|humble background) > Pr(success|privileged background).

    It interpreted it as: Pr(success|humble background) is greater than a lot of people assume it is, followed by an assertion that somebody else of some note (i.e., Carnegie) believed Pr(success|humble)>Pr(success|privileged). I might be wrong, but I do not sense that we actually disagree here.

    • Andrew says:


      Could be. I think it’s a borderline example. It seems to me that Gladwell is quoting Carnegie approvingly, but I agree it’s just a quote.

    • jrc says:

      My econo-interpretation of that statement wasn’t about probabilities, but about effectiveness. Something like this:

      Let V() be a function that determines the value to a company/society of a particular person.

      Let Wb be the person’s level of wealth at birth, and let Xb be everything else that matters about a person at birth for earnings/value-added (innate intelligence, ability to self-discipline, skills, determination, preferences, truth-speaking etc.), with Wa/Xa being those values at adulthood. I think he’s saying something like:

      E[V(Xa |Xb=X, Wa=high, Wb = low)] > E[V(Xa | Xb=X, Wa=high, Wb = high)], the difference having to do with something about the distribution of Xa for those with high/low Wb and the same Xb (“Truthtelling is easier from a position of cultural distance.”)

      So its not that the probability of being wealthy changes (everyone knows that family wealth at birth strongly predicts wealth in adulthood), its that people who were born poor but make it big are more valuable people precisely because they have had to develop a different set of “Xa”, one that allows them to interact with the world in valuable, novel, or interesting ways that people with Wb=high usually can’t (“compensating for disadvantage was more useful, developmentally, than capitalizing on advantage”).

      Of course, I’ve only read the excerpts you quoted, so this is just my interpretation of that tiny piece of a larger argument I have no knowledge of. So I could be way off base here, but based on what you quote, I just don’t see this as being about probabilities of high wealth at all, just the value or effectiveness of rich people from different backgrounds – that poverty is a “better preparation for success” in that coming from poverty makes you a better rich person. For what its worth, I’m not sure I buy either argument, but the empirical question in my version is not related to probabilities of success, but to value added (to a company or a society).

  5. Herb Simon beat Gladwell to the punch on the 10,000 hours thing.

    Herb used to cover this in great detail in his intro cog sci classes at Carnegie Mellon — he was one of those old-school masters of understanding experimental data (and formulating experiments, like his chess memory error analysis of de Groot’s original experiments).

    I think a hair battle would be more fruitful. Def Leppard, Steven Pinker, and Malcolm Gladwell.

  6. Graham Peterson says:

    Magnanimous and well-thought.

  7. […] Update:  Andrew Gelman weighs in with a great post on popular science as stone soup. […]

  8. […] The Gladwell debates continue. Chabris writes a second piece. Gladwell responds. Andrew Gelman weighs in. […]

  9. […] nice thought from Andrew Gelman: “Ideas are like stone soup. Even a bad idea, if it gets you thinking, can move you […]

  10. Øystein says:

    On the one side, Gladwell seems to be careful about not committing statistical fallacies, by using words such as “much”, “many”, “can” etc. On the other side, he does imply much more by the context. If you’re a scientist used to evaluate critically what is actually being said, you don’t like this, but it is not a big problem. It is also not a problem if you are “perfectly aware of the strengths and weakness of the narrative form,” as Gladwell in his reply says he believes his readers to be. I think he is too optimistic.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      “On the one side, Gladwell seems to be careful about not committing statistical fallacies, by using words such as “much”, “many”, “can” etc.”

      Actually, Gladwell is weak at putting in qualifiers. That’s how he made a fool out of himself in his debate with Steven Pinker in the New York Times in 2009 over the drafting of NFL quarterbacks. He could have easily backed off just a bit and said he didn’t mean “can’t predict,” he meant that it’s surprisingly hard to predict.

      Unfortunately for Gladwell, he really did believe economist Dave Berri’s misinterpretation of draft results. Berri had shown that among NFL quarterbacks with at least 500 passes in their careers, high draft picks are no better on a per play basis than low round draft picks. But, clearly, high round draft picks are much more likely to get 500+ passes even if they turn out to be worse than expected, while low round picks only get 500+ passes if they turn out to be quite a bit better than expected. The low round picks who turn out in training camp and practice to be as mediocre or worse than expected never get that much playing time (many never get to play in the NFL at all). Berri made a simple apples to oranges comparison fallacy, but Gladwell couldn’t get it.

      That’s why he threw a public temper tantrum over Pinker’s 2009 review, which was the Tipping Point for his reputation.

      The Occam’s Razor explanation of Gladwell is that he is wonderfully, fearlessly open to ideas, and is excellent at presenting evidence for them in a readable manner, but that he’s not that bright at evaluating hypotheses. (I’m using “not that bright” relatively, of course. New Yorker subscribers likely average above the 95th percentile in IQ.)

      That’s why Gladwell gets into drawn-out public tiffs with people whom it ought to be apparent to him are obviously smarter than he is, such as Pinker, Richard Posner, and Charles Murray.

      This willingness to go into ring with heavyweights would be an endearing trait, except that Gladwell also has a nasty habit of playing the race card over IQ, such as with Pinker (“[Pinker] is unhappy with my spelling (rightly!) and with the fact that I have not joined him on the lonely ice floe of I.Q. fundamentalism”) and Murray. Of course, in these brainwashed times, saying dumb but politically correct stuff about IQ makes him look smarter to all but the very best informed.

      That said, while I haven’t read Gladwell’s new book, I have skimmed it, and it seems like an admirable step forward. He’s humbler, and he’s not as PC, He even goes back to his American Spectator conservative days to revive Thomas Sowell’s attack on affirmative action as causing mismatch by putting minority beneficiaries in over their heads at tough colleges / majors.

      The lesson I draw from this happy development is that criticism is good for people, both intellectually and morally.

  11. Sifu Tweety says:

    I argued that Gladwell was making a statistical fallacy

    I’ve often felt like there’s a common flaw in business writing where authors talk to successful lpeople about what makes them successful, but ignore the far larger and more informative pool of people who are not successful; maybe this should rise to the level of a named fallacy? The fallacy of the excluded failure, or something. This is an approach that would never fly in, say, civil engineering, where rigorous examination of failures is the whole method. I guess the golf guy could provide a notable case study when we fails to make the PGA tour.

    • Rahul says:

      Both are informative in their own way, right? Is there a reason to prefer analysis of failures over successes?

      As an aside, does this depend on the relative probabilities of success & failure? I believe the chance of failure in Civil Engineering is minuscule as compared to, say, business.

      • Sifu Tweety says:

        It definitely wouldn’t work in business the same way it does in civil engineering, where there are obvious best practices that work the vast majority of the time. But it seems like a lot of the time in popular (and some academic) writing about business those who have failed aren’t even considered.

    • Rory Sutherland says:

      “Survivorship bias” or simple “saliency bias” would be two names for this, if my memory serves me.

    • Manoel says:

      I guess it`s called survivorship bias, right?

    • Steve Sailer says:

      “there’s a common flaw in business writing where authors talk to successful lpeople about what makes them successful, but ignore the far larger and more informative pool of people who are not successful;”

      Gladwell’s 2008 bestseller “Outliers” elevated that tendency to a lunatic level by focusing on what lessons outliers should teach us about averages. Talk about missing the point of his own title …

  12. […] wonderful term ‘over-smooth’ comes from Andrew Gelman, in the best article I have yet seen on the Gladwell-Chabris […]

  13. Sonia says:

    No such thing as bad publicity (or at least hyper-critical commentary by people without the same level of success don’t count as such.) I didn’t even know he had a new book out. I just downloaded it.

  14. […] critics. (For those not up to speed, Chabris opens, Gladwell responds, Chabris has another go, Gelman comments, twitter goes nuts, and if you google, you’ll find plenty of other […]

  15. Steve Sailer says:

    Gladwell is important because, as his vast popularity illustrates, he was the exemplar of the dominant worldview of the Subprime Bubble era: profits and political correctness go hand in hand.

    • Popeye says:

      I don’t think someone who blames poor uneducated unskilled illegal immigrants for skyrocketing housing prices in California really has a good grasp on the Subprime Bubble era.

  16. […] the book. More sympathetic reviews from which I also learnt a lot are those of Tyler Cowen  and Andrew Gelman […]

  17. Charlie Euchner says:

    Gladwell has defended himself by saying that he just wants to start a conversation, that the stories are what matters, etc. But if he uses others’ work he needs to respect it enough to get it right. And if he tells stories he needs to respect his characters to draw them as truly as possible. I have long been a fan, though uneasy at his slippery ways at times. Now I realize that he has serious problems. For more, see Malcolm Gladwell’s rejection letter ( – See more at:

    • Andrew says:

      Huh? I don’t see the connection to the Richard III story.

    • Larry says:

      “Starting a conversation” is always the last line of defense of people who have been shown to be incorrect. The truth is sometimes things are right and other things are wrong; there is no conversation to be had. In fact, even having the conversation is a disservice to the correct side of the argument.

      Gladwell’s counter-intuitiveness is the same type of drivel that gives us claims like “global warming is good because plants need CO2”. Technically it’s true, but it ignores the fact that it only applies to some plants in some situations and that the expected negative impacts of global warming far outweigh any expected improvements.

      As this article states, ignoring things worsens the conversation, it doesn’t improve it.

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