Malcolm Gladwell, the New Yorker and the Science of the Bloomin’ Obvious
February 14, 2011 Leave a comment
The New Yorker comes out with five double-issues every year and I always buy them. Malcolm Gladwell contributes to this fortnight’s issue. Now, those not familiar with at least one of Gladwell’s books are few (The Tipping Point was on the American bestseller lists for five consecutive years). I don’t need to go too much into his writing other than to say that Gladwell’s books deal heavily with the unexpected implications of research in the social sciences, and make frequent and extended use of academic work, particularly in the areas of psychology and economics. The implications of this is that we have a lot of irritating people who read his books and suddenly think they are academics afterwards, but that aspect is for another post.
Malcolm Gladwell is a journalist and has no academic expertise in the areas he writes in, but credit to him I say for bringing insights from diverse fields in a pop format for the masses. This is despite the annoying members just mentioned, many of whom work in Waterstone’s or happen to be suburban yummy-mummies.
Yet I still have gripes, I do.
I first encountered Gladwell by reading his book Outliers a few years ago, which is essentially about success and statistical anomalies. It has some nifty insights about the economic success of minorities and such, with the result that this famous mulatto’s work was castigated by some as racist. This is complete nonsense, but it was championed by The New Republic, which has been trying desperately to make such allegations stick to Ron Paul and other critics of Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve, such as economic historian Tom DiLorenzo recently. ‘Outliers’ also provides a good introduction on the relation of birth-dates and talent, a topic that has been done to death subsequently in books like The Talent Code.
Good points aside, Outliers contains some perfect examples of what always sours Gladwell’s work somewhat. That is, his tendency to present obvious facts as groundbreaking ‘new discoveries’ that the author has just brought to his readers seeking to break out of Waterstone’s. In the book we are introduced to two contrasting examples of men with super-high IQs and obvious talent. One is Christopher Langan, who possibly has the highest IQ of any person alive. He comes from a broken home and lacks much in the way of social savvy and graces. He never made much out of his life except by appearing on quiz shows. Langan is contrasted to atomic scientist Robert Oppenheimer, who utilised the confidence that comes with being born into an elite family into ability to ‘play the system’ and grab every opportunity by the balls.
Gladwell uses a California study which shows the long-term career success of a group of equally “gifted” children hinged heavily on class, nurture and a strong family than just IQ. So, social skills and a loving family are vital for young people? Amazing. No wonder The Independent says in a book review:
‘’Not for the first time, you wonder why Gladwell does not yet hold a tenured professorship at the University of the Bleedin’ Obvious’’.
Now back to the New Yorker. Remember the New Yorker? This is a
song post about the New Yorker. Gladwell opens up his most recent article (titled ‘The Order of Things’, which deals with college rankings) pointing out oddities in the way ‘Car and Driver’ rank their best sports cars. He makes a good point that Car and Driver assigns a mere four percent of a sports car’s total score to exterior styling. Of course, as Gladwell points out than no buyer of a Porsche or Lotus ‘ever placed so little value on how it looks’. The magazine uses largely the same ratings system for sports cars as SUVs and family sedans, and of all magazines they should know better. In their defense, however, looking over back issues I can see Car and Driver do clearly show you what rating they give to sports cars on looks and make extensive recommendations to buyers concerned especially for aesthetics. Yet the paternalistic writer wants to guide the masses through their daily travails, and his next target is college rankings.
US News & World Report publishes one of the best-read college rankings. Gladwell devotes a special focus to colleges 41-50 on the list, particularly Penn State (sharing spot no. 47 with University of Illinois) and Yeshiva University at 50th place. Mr. Gladwell, like many before him, shows the flaws in comparing such different institutions in the manner the ranking does. Penn State, he must point out, has a famous football culture while Orthodox Jewish YU does not, though it can now boast a popular male vocal group. New Yorker readers would never have known this without Gladwell to guide them, apparently. I wonder how many kids from Washington Heights attending shiurim with Rabbi Schachter regret not going to their second choice, Penn State in rural Pennsylvania, as it came slightly higher on a general ranking?
Its all presented as great detective work, and this kind of thing goes on throughout the article – like when he points out what a good option University of Alabama is for a law school when low tuition costs are made a serious factor. The brilliant journalist offers suggestions for the price conscious that amount to ‘perhaps look at colleges other than Harvard/Yale and so on’. Will an aspiring engineer or scientist ever overlook MIT because it comes one spot behind Harvard in an NY Times ranking? Will Orthodox Jews flock to Penn State when they realise it is cheaper than YU and 3 places higher in US News & World Report?
Is this worthy of the New Yorker? Remember this is the magazine viciously mocked for elitism in Family Guy, though one wonders what elitism means for its core viewership, the teenagers and dorm room stoners who juggle between this and Adult Swim.
Another New Yorker contributor, Patricia Marx, is capable of writing fascinating and unique pieces on buying eyeglasses and cars in New York. What a humorist like Marx could have done with the huge topic of college choices is a glorious prospect. One wonders if the pop journalist Malcolm Gladwell has his name on the cover of this artistic and journalistic institution merely for the sake of increasing off the shelf sales.
For your entertainment, here is the excellent Malcolm Gladwell piss-take that is: The Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator.
Also, as we are talking about The New Yorker, I should mention a restaurant with a New Yorker theme appeared not long ago on Golders Green Road. Avoid the place at all costs. The salt beef sandwich I had was very dry, and possibly microwaved. A hearty salt beef sandwich with mustard on rye is my culinary heaven, but that meat should be moist, warm and dripping. There was great matzo ball soup and the service was lovely, but they really disgraced a Yiddish staple. On top of that, the portions are fairly small.