Friday, October 04, 2013

David and Goliath - who do you cheer for?

I have just reviewed Malcolm Gladwell’s new book for Nature. I had my reservations, but on seeing Steven Poole’s acerbic job in today’s New Statesman I do wonder whether in the end I gave this a slightly easy ride. Steven rarely passes up a chance to stick the boot in, but I can’t argue with his rather damning assessment of Gladwell’s argument. Anyway, here’s mine.

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants
Malcolm Gladwell
Penguin Books

We think of David as the weedy foe of mighty Goliath, but he had the upper hand all along. The Israelite shepherd boy was nimble and could use his deadly weapon without getting close to his opponent. Given the skill of ancient slingers, this was more like fighting pistol against sword. David won because he changed the rules; Goliath, like everyone else, was anticipating hand-to-hand combat.

That biblical story about power and how it is used, misused and misinterpreted is the frame for Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. “The powerful are not as powerful as they seem”, he argues, “nor the weak as weak.” Weaker sports teams can win by playing unconventionally. The children of rich families are handicapped by complacency. Smaller school classes don’t necessarily produce better results.

Gladwell describes a police chief who cuts crime by buying Thanksgiving turkeys for problem families, the doctor who cured children with a drug cocktail everyone thought to be lethal. The apparent indicators of strength, such as wealth or military superiority, can prove to be weakness; what look like impediments, such as broken homes or dyslexia, can work to one’s advantage. Provincial high-flyers may under-achieve at Harvard because they’re unaccustomed to being surrounded by even more brilliant peers, whereas at a mediocre university they’d have excelled. Even if some of these conclusions seem obvious in retrospect, Gladwell is a consummate story-teller and you feel you would never have articulated the point until he spelt it out.

But don’t we all know of counter-examples? Who is demoralized and who thrives from the intellectual stimulus depends on particular personal attributes and all kinds of other intangibles. More often than not, dyslexia and broken homes are disadvantages. The achievement of a school or university class may depend more on what is taught, and how, and why, than on size. The case of physician Jay Freireich, who developed an unconventional but ultimately successful treatment for childhood leukaemia, is particularly unsettling. If Freireich had good medical reasons for administering untested mixtures of aggressive anti-cancer drugs, they aren’t explained here. Instead, there is simply a description of his bullish determination to try them out come what may, apparently engendered by his grim upbringing. Yet determination alone can – as with Robert Koch’s misguided conviction that the tuberculosis extract tuberculin would cure the disease – equally prove disastrous.

Even the biblical meta-narrative is confusing. So David wasn’t after all the plucky hero overcoming the odds, but more like Indiana Jones defeating the sword-twirling opponent by pulling out his pistol and shooting him? Was that cheating, or just thinking outside the box? There are endless examples of the stronger side winning, whether in sport, business or war, no matter how ingenious their opponents. Mostly, money does buy privilege and success. So why does David win sometimes and sometimes Goliath? Is it even clear which is which (poor Goliath might even have suffered from a vision impairment)?

These complications are becoming clear, for example in criminology. Gladwell is very interested in why some crime-prevention strategies work and others don’t. But while his “winning hearts and minds” case studies are surely a part of the solution, recent results from behavioural economics and game theory suggest that there are no easy answers beyond the fact that some sort of punishment (ideally centralized, not vigilante) is needed for social stability. Some studies suggest that excessive punishment can be counter-productive. Others show that people do not punish simply to guard their own interests, but will impose penalties on others even to their own detriment. Responses to punishment are culturally variable. In other words, punishment is a complex matter, and resists simple prescriptions.

Besides, winning is itself a slippery notion. Gladwell’s sympathies are for the underdog, the oppressed, the marginalized. But occasionally his stories celebrate a very narrow view of what constitutes success: becoming a Hollywood mogul or the president of an investment banking firm – David turned Goliath, with little regard for what makes people genuinely inspiring, happy or worthy.

None of this is a problem of Gladwell’s exposition, which is always intelligent and perceptive. It’s a problem of form. His books, like those of legions of inferior imitators, present a Big Idea. But it’s an idea that only works selectively, and it’s hard for him or anyone else to say why. These human stories are too context-dependent to deliver a take-home message, at least beyond the advice not always to expect the obvious outcome.

Perhaps Gladwell’s approach does not lend itself to book-length exposition. In The Tipping Point he pulled it off, but his follow-ups Blink, about the reliability of the gut response, and Outliers, a previous take on what makes people succeed, similarly had theses that unravelled the more you thought about them. What remains in this case are ten examples of Gladwell’s true forte: the long-form essay, engaging, surprising and smooth as a New York latte.

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