When I was a teenager, I got into chaos theory (yes, I was that cool). It taught me two things. One, I should not be a mathematician and, two, statistics can be misleading so you should always be wary when someone tries to use them to prove their point.
I’ve been putting off writing this review of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers because it made me so angry while reading it. Halfway through, I wanted to toss it out the window. I thought this rage might go away if I let his points sink in a while, but it hasn’t. I still can’t think or write coherently about Outliers because of how stupid it is. So if this article is disjointed, excuse me and blame Gladwell. All you need to know is that if you have even the slightest ability to think logically, you should not read this book.
Outliers is Gladwell’s attempt to explain success by combining statistics with stories of natural talent, hard work, and opportunity. His basic idea is that talent and hard work alone are not enough to make anyone great at anything. If that sounds obvious, it’s because it is. For some reason, Gladwell is utterly amazed that hard-working, talented individuals statistically do better than the rest when given an opportunity. This is the first part of Outliers that angered me. He just can’t get over how talent and determination are not the only factors in achieving greatness.
The second part of Outliers that I found offensive was the patronizing tone Gladwell uses. It’s as if he expects the reader to feel ridiculous that they didn’t think of something so obvious. Like, hey, write a book about everyday facts of life and make millions. Touche, Monsieur Malcom.
Then there’s the italics, the icing on the crap cake that is Outliers. Don’t get me started on Gladwell’s use of italics.
Gladwell starts Outliers with some eerie stats about how most of the players on the two best junior hockey teams in Canada are born in the early parts of the year. He claims that if you look at “any elite group of hockey players […] 40 percent of the players will have been born between January and March, 30 percent between April and June, 20 percent between July and September, and 10 percent between October and December”. This is based on work done by a Canadian psychologist and it sounds amazing. Gladwell, however, says it’s not because young hockey players in Canada are grouped by the year they were born and so kids born in January will be older and more developed than kids born in December. These bigger kids will then get scouted to play for better teams where they will receive better coaching, thus giving them an advantage to better develop their talents. What’s the real reason that Gladwell’s claim is amazing? It’s not true.
Gladwell says (with those fucking italics, in case you didn’t notice, dummy) that “any” elite group of hockey players will fit the Outliers/Canadian whack-job shrink model. So just out of curiosity, I decided to look at the rosters of the teams Gladwell uses to “prove” his point, the Medicine Hat Tigers and the Vancouver Giants. Guess what percentage of the players were born in the first three months of the year. Less than 40 percent for both teams. Shocking, I know. How about the 2010 Canadian National Olympic team? They’re pretty elite, right? The percentage of players born between January and March is 13%. That’s not quite 40%. And on six randomly chosen NHL teams (the first six on the nhl.com scoreboard when I looked), the average percentage of Canadian players born between January and March is 26%. Point is, Gladwell is a hoser and the theory is bunk.
Not letting simple facts stand in his way, Gladwell next adds other examples of “opportunity” to his young Aquarius Canucks. He explains that having to play eight days a week in Hamburg made the Beatles a better band. This is the so-called 10,000 hour rule you may have heard about. 10,000 hours is apparently how long it takes for a naturally talented person to become really great. Hence the Beatles went to Germany, played all day and all of the night, and then hit it big in the US. This works if you’re a Beatle, but Gladwell conveniently fails to mention what to do if you’re a Rolling Stone, a Beach Boy, or a Jackson 5. Basically, Gladwell spends tens of pages to say what three words can: practice makes perfect.
The way that this is profound news to Gladwell is, as I’ve said before, irritating. At this point in the book, his don’t-you-see tone, his italics, and his shock and awe at the obvious really got to me. The next chapters on opportunity were more of the same. He actually writes, “successful people don’t do it alone. Where they come from matters. They’re products of particular places and environments.” No shit, Sherlock. Being born in Canada instead of the Caribbean was a big help to Sidney Crosby’s hockey career. When children or stoners find this stuff amazing, it’s ok. They have excuses. What’s Gladwell’s? Who knows, and really, who cares? (In case you were wondering, Crosby was born in August)
The rest of the book reads like it was written by someone who was caught in a lie and then trie to lie their way out of it. Chapters Six and Seven continue with more of the obvious. The basic idea is, well, pretty basic: people from certain cultures act a certain way and these cultural rules can lead to problems when their cultures clash. To sum up, when in Rome…
In Chapter Eight, Gladwell argues that Asians are better students than Westerners for two reasons. One, the way they say numbers makes it easier to do simple math in their heads. Two, rice farming is a year-round, painful job which demands determination. Therefore, centuries of growing rice to survive means lots of determined Asians. Gladwell even tries to pitch ancient Chinese sayings against ancient Russian sayings to prove his point. The one that he relies on (and leads the chapter with), “No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich” goes up against the Russian “if God does not bring it, the earth will not give it.” Number of days in a Chinese year = 354. If he botched the Chinese saying so bad, chances are he botched the Russian one too. I wonder why didn’t he just use a good old English saying like “no pain, no gain”. Oh, right.
Gladwell also lists international test scores to prove his point that since Asians have better number-words and sayings, their students do better on tests. But there are two reasons why he’s full of crap here. First, mainland China doesn’t even take part in the test he uses, but that doesn’t stop him from saying “the fact that Taiwan and Hong Kong rank so highly suggests that the mainland [China] would probably also do really well”. Yes, and because Sweden, Finland, and Russia do well in international ice hockey tournaments, one would think Norway is also good at hockey. So go ahead and bet on them this Olympics. (On a side note, in the very next paragraph after the quote above, Gladwell admits that no one knows if students in northern China are any good at math. But that’s not enough to stop a little speculation, now is it?)
The second reason Gladwell is full of it in his surmises is because he only mentions one of the two major international student tests, the TIMSS test. Why wouldn’t he give the results for the other test, the OECD’s PISA test? Well, simply put, because he’s a hack. But more importantly, the results from the PISA test don’t exactly fit his conclusions. The top ten countries in the math section of the PISA results is full of countries with awful sayings and no history of growing rice, like Finland and Canada.
Wait a minute, if the Canadian hockey players born in January were also doing well in the PISA test, then that means… nothing. That means nothing.
That’s the major problem with Outliers (besides those italics). Gladwell tells about some interesting people, cultures, and anomalies (and misleadingly begins a terrible book off with hockey), but when he tries to tie these things together, he runs into trouble. The relationships between the different aspects of his theory are strenuous at best and so they make his conclusions seem false (which they are). The sheer obvious nature of all of this is the last nail in the coffin for Outliers. It’s too bad because this book came highly recommended and I really wanted to enjoy it. Maybe Gladwell’s next book, tentatively titled Shit Rolls Downhill, will be better.
UPDATE March 15, 2014: Thanks to a discussion on reddit and /u/erroristswin for helping me realize that it is completely arbitrary to split the Canadian players into teams as Gladwell does. If his theory about 40% of Canadian players in “any elite” league is to be tested, the group of players should be taken as a whole. So in the spirit of being complete (and because it took all of an hour to check, including the time spent learning LibreOffice), I decided to check if Gladwell’s theory holds up when it’s done correctly. We already know it doesn’t for teams, since that is what I did above (because I didn’t realize it was the wrong way to do it).
I grabbed the full rosters of every NHL team from nhl.com. These players may not play every game, but they’re on the roster, so they’re on my list. Which means that my list is basically every NHL player for the 2013-14 season. After I made the list, I filtered out all the players not born in Canada. Then I sorted the players based on their birth dates and calculated which percentage of players were born in which month. Here’s what I found:
||# of players
||% of players
So the theory doesn’t hold up. Surprised?
Up next: The Fellowship of the Frog by Edgar Wallace. Check it here.
This article originally appeared on Better Than Sliced Bread.