Monthly Archives: October 2013

Review: David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

The full title is David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

Malcolm Gladwell has been criticized by some scientists for cherry-picking anecdotes and not understanding the statistics behind the research he presents (Pinker) and of overgeneralization (Chabris), so I was a bit skeptical before picking up one of his books for the first time. However, with these criticisms in mind, I would recommend the book. More sympathetic reviews from which I also learnt a lot are those of Tyler Cowen  and Andrew Gelman .

[SPOILER alert]

Uneven conflicts and unconventional methods
Gladwell writes that David and Goliath is about two ideas about uneven conflicts: That “much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty. And second, that we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong,” since being an underdog can give advantages. Gladwell’s retelling of the tale of David and Goliath is intriguing, I wonder where he got that version from. In short, the outsider David breaks the rules and norms of single combat by using his stone-slinging skills to defeat the giant. Gladwell refers to calculations of the force of a slinged stone. Power and strenght deceive. A similar example is the success of Lawrence of Arabia in leading Arab forces against the Ottoman Turks during World War I. Lawrence, like David, did not have a stake in the military establishment, so he was free to use unconventional methods. Gladwell goes on to tell of other succesful underdogs.

But if unconventional strategies are so effective, why do not everyone use them? First, many do have a stake in the establishment, so feel bound to e.g. play basketball the way that is considered right. Second, underdog strategies are demanding. That is a reason why being bad at conventional methods can be good, since it leaves no other alternative.

Another question, that is not treated, is why the resourceful side does not realize that the opponent will employ an unconventional strategy and guard properly against it.

U-shaped relationships
Gladwell asserts that how difficult it is to parent has a U-shaped relationship with money, because if one is very rich, it is difficult to provide one’s children with the sort of struggle that builds a good character. Class size is also purported to have some optimal intermediate level. The discussion of the competitiveness of the school environment is one of the few places where Gladwell explicitly says that it probably produces mixed effects, although he focuses on the negative effects of comparing oneself to the top. Apparently the distribution of published papers early in economists’ careers is extremely skewed towards those at the top of their class, despite the fact that there is huge selection into the top programs to begin with. A novel, for me, explanation of the high suicide rates in certain highly developed countries also has to do with comparisons: Where most people are happy, it is even more difficult to be unhappy, driving more people over the edge.

Desirable difficulties
People with dyslexia are apparently well represented within certain measures of success. Is dyslexia therefore maybe desirable? Here Gladwell does say that most people cannot master all the difficult steps for it to be a “desirable diffuculty” but he also says that “those who can are better off than they would have been otherwise, because learning out of necessity is inevitably more powerful than the learning that comes easy.” However, even the succesful ones do not wish it upon their children, since they also suffered much because of it, suggesting that even for them it might not have been a net benefit.

Seen from the right perspective, the strength distribution in some of the conflicts, like the one between David and Goliath, is actually the opposite of what we often think.

The political, last part of the book does not hang well together with the rest. Civil rights in us, advocacy for harsher punishments, brutal approach by British in north Ireland, rescuing of Jews by Huguenot village.

In response to criticism, Gladwell has claimed that he is primarily engaged in storytelling. I would guess that Gladwell sees some of himself in the (dyslexic) lawyer David Boies, about whom he admiringly writes that he unlike his competitors does not get bogged down in excessive detail. And I must say that at least in this book, he is quite careful about not strictly committing statistical fallacies, by using words such as “many,” “much, “can,” etc. I like that trait, but he often implies much more by the context. If one is used to evaluate arguments critically, this is annoying, but not too big a problem. It may also not be a problem if one is “perfectly aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the narrative form,” as Gladwell believes his readers to be. A think that is too optimistic, but even if it is not, stories can be too smooth, a point both Chabris and Gelman are getting at. Gladwell should know this, as his book is itself an attack on ideas that are too simple.

Is the book worthwhile? Yes. Through good storytelling it provokes a fresh thinking through of things that are often considered settled.

Monthly book roundup – September

Books finished in September:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty by Nina Munk. Recommended. 

The story of Jeffrey Sachs’ rise (and fall?). Sachs became a celebrity as an economic shock therapist in Bolivia in the late 1980’s and then in Poland and Russia. He then turned his considerable attention to poverty and in particular Africa, wanting to jump-start economic development there. He often argued on the basis of cost-effectiveness, as with the case for controlling malaria, but seems to have been consistently overoptimistic about how to obtain and keep up funding. In addition to disregarding advice on how to implement his changes, in particular on creating local ownership, controlling corruption and creating accountability. Add to this a lack of any strategy for measuring results, it is no surprise that the debate about the impact of Sachs’ highly advertised Millennium Villages have become heated. A piece (by Michael Clemence and Gabriel Demombynes, both involved in the debate) about what can be learned about the need for transparency from that controversy can be found here.

In the book, Sachs comes off as motivated and engaging, but also as righteous, preachy, and someone not tackling criticism or dealing with real-world constraints. Sachs drew much criticism for the effects of his shock therapies, but I believe his approach there was the right one: Acknowledging that there are trade-offs and costs that must be incurred, but that the alternative is worse. When trying to do too much, one may easily end up getting done nothing.

Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (Issues of Our Time) by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Appiah traces the history of cosmopolitan ethics to try to stake a course between cultural relativism and value fundamentalism. He does not present clear-cut answers, but believes mutual understanding will ensue if both (or all) sides participate in conversation – both in its original meaning of living together and of the current meaning of discussing – and get used to each other. Then we may actually learn from our differences. And presumably also extend our moral circle. Perhaps this is naive, but perhaps not. I particularly liked the part where he reminds us that people with different beliefs often appeal to evidence the same way, e.g. by employing explanations that they cannot account for in detail, invoking authorities, and bringing up new facts that needs explaining. He is perfectly clear that modern science most often provides better explanations, thanks to its institutional structure that has been built and has persisted for a long time.

Experiments in Ethics (Mary Flexner Lecture Series of Bryn Mawr College) Kwame Anthony Appiah. Experimental philosophy is a rapidly growing new discipline, in which philosophical concepts and intuitions are investigated empirically. Appiah begins his book with an exposition of the well known fact that today’s narrow conception of philosophy is a very recent phenomenon, philosophers from antiquity to the 18th century worked in what is today known as science, and all this work fell under the label of philosophy. For example, the “natural philosophies” of Copernicus and Kepler were included a survey of “Philosophies.”

Appiah uses this to show that philosophers were no strangers of experiments, and draws the line to today’s experimental philosophers by stating that experimental thinking was also part of their repertoire. David Hume explicitly claimed to be engaged in “experiments” in his works. Although it is not altogether clear what exactly Hume intended with his use of the word, he was always committed to data.

I was not aware that Thomas Schelling was an early investigator of modern “behavioral economics” topics like the reference point and the win-loss distinction.

I like that Appiah discusses the uncertainty present in “trolley” scenarios, too few people consider that, in my opinion essential, element in these cases. Although he loses me after that.

Jonathan Haidt has become famous arguing that people reason from intuitions and emotions to moral judgment. Appiah cleverly suggests that Haidt himself may be doing the same in some of his cases of whether a particular act is a moral offense (such as having sex with a dead chicken, and then cooking and eating it). People’s reasons for why these things constitute a moral offense are not very informative, but are other reasons?


Ratings and additional books are in the library.