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Way back in 2005, 2006, and 2008, when Malcolm Gladwell was wildly esteemed, I pointed out the fundamental flaws in his thinking. 

This led Malcolm, in his disastrous 2009 debate with Steven Pinker, to denounce me in the New York Times as an evil source of data about (of all things) NFL quarterbacks: “Sailer, for the uninitiated, is a California blogger with a marketing background who is best known for his belief that black people are intellectually inferior to white people.”

By 2013, however, everybody hates Malcolm, so it’s worth reading Gladwell’s defense of himself.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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From my book review in Taki’s Magazine:

Structured around the dismantling of the profitable notion pushed by self-help seers such as Malcolm Gladwell that 10,000 hours of monomaniacal practice is the secret of success, David Epstein’s The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance is one of the best books on human biodiversity in recent years.  

Beyond undermining Gladwellian blank-slatism, Epstein extols the sheer pleasure of noticing humanity’s variety for its own sake. On his book’s penultimate page, he writes:  

…sports will continue to provide a splendid stage for the fantastic menagerie that’s human biological diversity. Amid the pageantry of the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, make sure to look for the extremes of the human physique.…It is breathtaking to think that, in the truest genetic sense, we are all a large family, and that the paths of our ancestors have left us wonderfully distinct. 

Epstein, a Sports Illustrated reporter, builds upon the work of journalists such as Jon Entine (Taboo) and me in taking an evenhanded look at the roles of both nature and nurture.

Read the whole thing there.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Law professor Ian Ayres did a study once showing that car salesmen tend to drive tougher bargains with black shoppers than with white shoppers. Malcolm Gladwell explained in Blink that this was only because the car salesmen didn’t realize they were being prejudiced, and would stop as soon as they read Blink and realize they are leaving money on the table. Judge Posner and I  disagreed, arguing that, in our experience, car salesmen were more cynical than Gladwell assumes. The good folks at just spent $3.5 million to buy 30 seconds of Super Bowl air time to settle this long running argument by showing us what car salesmen see when they look at black shoppers.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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From the St. Petersburg Times:

Can a complete novice become a golf pro with 10,000 hours of practice?
By Michael Kruse, Times Staff Writer  

On his 30th birthday, June 27, 2009, Dan [McLaughlin] had decided to quit his job to become a professional golfer. 

He had almost no experience and even less interest in the sport. 

What he really wanted to do was test the 10,000-hour theory he read about in the Malcolm Gladwell bestseller Outliers. That, Gladwell wrote, is the amount of time it takes to get really good at anything — “the magic number of greatness.” 

The idea appealed to Dan. His 9-to-5 job as a commercial photographer had become unfulfilling. He didn’t want just to pay his bills. He wanted to make a change. 

Could he stop being one thing and start being another? Could he, an average man, 5 feet 9 and 155 pounds, become a pro golfer, just by trying? Dan’s not doing an experiment. He is the experiment. 

The Dan Plan will take six hours a day, six days a week, for six years. He is keeping diligent records of his practice and progress. People who study expertise say no one has done quite what Dan is doing right now. … 

Here’s how they have Dan trying to learn golf: He couldn’t putt from 3 feet until he was good enough at putting from 1 foot. He couldn’t putt from 5 feet until he was good enough putting from 3 feet. He’s working away from the hole. He didn’t get off the green for five months. A putter was the only club in his bag. 

Everybody asks him what he shoots for a round. He has no idea. His next drive will be his first. 

In his month in Florida, he worked as far as 50 yards away from the hole. He might — might — have a full set of clubs a year from now.

Of course, if he practices for 10,000 hours and doesn’t become a successful touring pro, that won’t prove Gladwell wrong, that will just prove this guy Didn’t Practice Right. The 10,000 Hour Rule is unfalsifiable.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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In recent years, David Brooks of the NYT has taken up Malcolm Gladwell’s rhetorical straw man device of writing as if the conventional wisdom in 21st Century American media circles consists of a cartoonish caricature of my ideas. Gladwell and Brooks then go on to refute Sailerism to vast applause.

Not surprisingly, Brooks writes in the NYT:

It’s become fashionable to bash Malcolm Gladwell for being too interesting and not theoretical enough. This is absurd. Gladwell’s pieces in The New Yorker are always worth reading, so I’ll just pick out one, “Offensive Play,” on the lingering effects of football violence, for a Sidney award — in part to celebrate his work and in part as protest against the envious herd.

Gladwell’s problem isn’t that he’s “not theoretical enough.” Gladwell is relentlessly theoretical. For example, he entitled one chapter in his bestseller Outliers “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes.” Gladwell’s problem is that most of his countless theories are so wrong that a few minutes of reflection can debunk them.

Note that the one Gladwell article Brooks specifically endorses is one that I endorsed in a post entitled “David Brooks’ lonely struggle against the Sailerite conventional wisdom.” Unlike Gladwell, Brooks is smart enough and sly enough to know he doesn’t want to get in a headlong battle over simple matters of fact, so he chose to endorse a Gladwell article pre-approved by me.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Malcolm Gladwell begins his latest tussle with Steven Pinker with these confidence-inducing words:

In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Stephen Pinker responds to my description of him as occupying the “lonely ice floe of IQ fundamentalism”:

If you’re going to wrestle with Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker over who is a more credible authority on cognitive science, you should probably try to learn how to spell his first name, especially after the “igon values” fiasco.

By the way, that reminds me of why I’m going to go to my grave still using the adolescent-sounding name of “Steve.” I noticed when I was a kid that it was hard for other people to remember whether my name was spelled “Steven” or “Stephen.” For some reason, they just didn’t care about the matter as much as I did. So, I eventually chose “Steve” to simplify matters for everybody.

Similarly, few can remember what the vowels in my last name are: Sailor? Saylor? Seiler? So when choosing my email address way back in 1996, I just left out the vowels from my last name: SteveSlr.

That’s the kind of guy I am: just trying to be helpful.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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As many have pointed out, Malcolm Gladwell stuck to his guns over his obviously false assertion that there’s “no connection” between draft rank and NFL quarterback performance in his attack on Steven Pinker because that was just a proxy for IQ and race.

Now, Gladwell goes on the attack against Pinker on IQ with exactly what you’d expect: the usual point and sputter about Six Degrees of the Pioneer Fund and all of that:

Pinker, Round Two

Still, you’ve got to admit that Gladwell has a point: if people can make more accurate than random predictions about which college quarterbacks will be better than other college quarterbacks, then they can make predictions about more politically incorrect things, too. Thus, Gladwell wages relentless war upon predictions, upon quantitative thinking, upon science, indeed, upon that ultimate evil: knowledge.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Why is it worth thinking about Malcolm Gladwell?

Because Malcolm takes the politically correct conventional wisdom (you can’t make useful predictions about people, heredity doesn’t matter, just environment and effort, etcetera etcetera) seriously enough to apply it in all sorts of situations where a more prudent hack would shy away, making him the a One-Man Reductio ad Absurdum of fashionable thought.

Malcolm is the mirror image me. I’m always looking for novel ways to poke holes in the ruling discourse, to point out that the ideological emperor has no clothes; and Malcolm’s always looking for ways to validate what passes for thought in polite society.

Of course, we end up demonstrating the same thing, as shown by the differing responses we get. Poor Malcolm gets laughed at because he gets so many things wrong, while I get sputtered at because I get so many things right.

With his complaining letter to the New York Times having received a terse thumping at the hands of Steven Pinker, Malcolm Gladwell revisits the question of whether or not draft position is correlated with an NFL quarterback’s career on his blog.

Without admitting it, Gladwell seems to have given up former position that NFL achievement “can’t be predicted,” there’s “no connection,” etc. etc. He now seems to be saying that, when you take into account the higher pay of higher draft picks, NFL teams aren’t economically optimizing their draft picks, which is a wildly different thing. Gladwell blogs:

There’s a second wonderful paper on this general subject by Cade Massey and Richard Thaler—Thaler being, of course, one of the leading lights in behavioral economics—called “The Loser’s Curse.” … The key here is that all NFL teams operate under a strict salary cap. So a player’s real worth to a team is the extent to which his performance exceeds the average performance of someone making his salary. … In fact, according to their analysis, the most useful draft picks are in the second round, not the first: that’s where surplus values tend to be highest. …

It is important to note here that we are talking about relative value. Personnel decisions in the NFL have clear opportunity costs: if you pay $15 million for a quarterback who only gives you $10 million of value, then you hve $5 million less to pay for a good linebacker. As they write: “To be clear, the player taken with the first pick does have the highest expected performance . . . but he also has the highest salary, and in terms of performance per dollar, is less valuable than players taken in the second round.”

In other words, Malcolm is now, effectively, admitting that he was wrong in his New Yorker article and in his snit of a letter to the New York Times.

But he immediately goes on:

What Massey and Thaler are saying, in essence, is that NFL general managers are not rational decision-makers. [Emphasis Gladwell's]

Malcolm uses words in a Manichean black-white way so that he can tell himself he’s always right. He’s unable to think relativistically, which makes him popular, but means he makes a fool out of himself when he runs into a meticulous thinker like Pinker or Charles Murray.

Potential correlations between draft order (reversed so that correlations are positive) and achievement run from:

-1.00 (perfectly irrational: intentional self-destructiveness: e.g., using your #1 draft pick to announce, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg is our Quarterback of the Future”) to

0.00 (perfectly random: drawing of names from a hat) to

+1.00 (perfectly rational and competent, e.g., making Peyton Manning the #1 pick and not picking Ryan Leaf at all).

When Gladwell says that draft order and performance were “not connected,” he was saying the correlation was 0.00. Well, you don’t need to know much about football to say it’s probably not 0.00. You just need to know that when human beings set out to select other human beings, the correlation with the selected humans’ accomplishments is usually above 0.00 and below 1.00.

When, however, you add market-derived costs to the equation, so that a first round pick costs more than a second round pick, with each pick priced at what it’s seen as being worth, then you don’t expect a high correlation. In fact, in a competitive market, the correlation would tend toward zero under perfect rationality. It’s like buying stocks: Apple has a better track record at making money in recent years than AIG, but that doesn’t mean you’d make more money buying Apple stock today than AIG stock. Public information about Apple and AIG has already been included in the price.

But Malcolm’s not buying any of this technical mumbo-jumbo:

That’s why I think its so useful in this particular discussion. Those who believe that draft position is a good predictor of quarterback performance are essentially voting for the good judgment of the people who make draft decisions. And what Berri and Simmons in particular—and Massey and Thaler in general—remind us is that that kind of blind faith in the likes of Matt Millen and Al Davis simply isn’t justified.

Malcolm’s critics suffer from “blind faith” …

What Massey and Thaler are actually saying is that NFL decisionmakers suffer “biases” that cause them to overvalue first round draft choices economically. In other words, they aren’t perfectly rational, which I suspect isn’t Big News. Thaley and Massey content that if the NFL executives used the full power of the data to predict individual performance, they would make better decisions.

You’ll notice, however, that this is more or less the opposite of Gladwell’s claim in his New Yorker article that “there is no way to know who will succeed at it and who won’t.” Thaley and Massey say there are better ways than the ones being used now.

And, of course, Thaley and Massey’s findings don’t validate Gladwell’s analogy in his original article about inability to select good teachers ahead of time. Spending too much on the highest potential jobseekers is not exactly the problem with unionized school systems.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Education, Gladwell, IQ 
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In the New York Times here.

You’ve already seen Malcolm Gladwell’s letter, with his ad hominem attack on me as a crimethinker. I’d half-assumed that the NYT would cut that part out in the interests of saving space, but they left it in.

From the NYT:

Steven Pinker replies:

What Malcolm Gladwell calls a “lonely ice floe” is what psychologists call “the mainstream.” In a 1997 editorial in the journal Intelligence, 52 signatories wrote, “I.Q. is strongly related, probably more so than any other single measurable human trait, to many important educational, occupational, economic and social outcomes.” Similar conclusions were affirmed in a unanimous blue-ribbon report by the American Psychological Association, and in recent studies (some focusing on outliers) by Dean Simonton, David Lubinski and others.

Gladwell is right, of course, to privilege peer-reviewed articles over blogs. But sports is a topic in which any academic must answer to an army of statistics-savvy amateurs, and in this instance, I judged, the bloggers were correct. They noted, among other things, that Berri and Simmons weakened their “weak correlation” (Gladwell described it in the New Yorker essay reprinted in “What the Dog Saw” as “no connection”) by omitting the lower-drafted quarterbacks who, unsurprisingly, turned out not to merit many plays. In any case, the relevance to teacher selection (the focus of the essay) remains tenuous.

As a commenter pointed out, this debate over NFL quarterbacks is really a stalking horse for the debate over IQ and race, which, in turn, influences practically every other concept about how the world works. (See Gladwell’s 2008 bestseller Outliers for examples.) Political correctness is essentially anti-knowledge.

For example, if NFL experts can’t predict better than random which college quarterback will outperform which in the NFL, then why should we believe that, say, the SAT is any good at predicting who will benefit most from college? Why not therefore let the races in equally?

The correlations between draft position and NFL success (0.33 to 0.52) are quite similar to the correlations between, say, SAT score and freshman year in college GPA. Both sets of correlations would be much, much higher if it weren’t for restriction of range — e.g., pro quarterbacks are chosen only from college quarterbacks, and Harvard students are people who got into Harvard.

IQ-denialism is the “rotten core” (to use Stephen Jay Gould’s phrase in a more accurate context) of the modern conventional wisdom. He who says A must say B, as Lenin liked to say. And Malcolm is naive enough to illustrate that. Gould, for example, wasn’t dumb enough to follow his logic in Mismeasure of Man to its conclusions (e.g., he taught at Harvard, which uses IQ-like tests to select Gould’s students), but Malcolm, in contrast, is a true believer.

Gladwell’s basic problem is that he doesn’t understand normal probability distributions.

The NFL quarterback problem is, roughly, this. There are about two million males who turn 22 each year. At, say, four standard deviations above the mean in current quarterbacking ability, there are 63 individuals, which is about the number of starting quarterbacks who run out of eligibility each year from Division I or the better lower division colleges. It’s not a perfect depiction of the task, but you could approximate it as that NFL teams are looking for the one individual who will turn out to be five standard deviations above the mean — the best NFL quarterback of his age cohort.

That gives us a simple way to calculate how good a job NFL teams do of picking quarterbacks: is the first quarterback chosen in a year’s draft turn out to have the best career?

I have a database of the NFL career statistics of the 278 college quarterbacks drafted in the 1980s and 1990s (which gives us enough time to see how they turn out. Notice how a month ago Vince Young, the 2006 #3 overall pick, looked like an epic bust, but now maybe he’ll turn out okay?)

Using one single-number measure —’s Career Approximate Value number — for all the quarterbacks drafted from 1980 through 1999, we see that the first quarterback chosen proved to have the highest Career Approximate Value out of his draft class nine times out of 20. (And the “mistakes” include picking John Elway over Dan Marino; three times the first quarterback chosen proved to have the second best career of his draft cohort.) On average, almost 14 quarterbacks were chosen each year, so being right 45% of the time is a lot better than random.

Moreover, the second quarterback drafted turned out to be the best quarterback of his year five out of 20 times.

To some extent, Career Approximate Value is biased by higher draft picks being handed more playing time. If we use a higher measure of excellence to weed out the plodding mediocrities, number of Pro Bowl selections in a career, then the first quarterback picked wound up with more Pro Bowl honors than anybody else in seven of the 20 drafts, and tied for the most twice (Elway and Marino from 1983 with 9 each, and in 1980 none of the 17 quarterbacks drafted ever went to a Pro Bowl).

Also, the absence from the draft database of quarterbacks who are undrafted would bias this correlation upward somewhat. To estimate the impact, I checked the careers of four undrafted QBs who are inspiring NFL underedog success stories — Kurt Warner, Jeff Garcia, Jake Delhomme, and Jon Kitna — and their inclusion wouldn’t change these results much even if they had been drafted, since they all went undrafted in years in which the first quarterback drafted wasn’t the best.

Gladwell’s innumeracy shouldn’t be such a fatal problem for the articles published under the lucrative Malcolm Gladwell brand name. Many successful authors have research assistants who help the face of the organization concentrate on doing what he does best. For example, I once met the research assistant to the octogenarian crime novelist Elmore Leonard. The assistant’s job was to put in the shoe leather work scouting locations, studying old newspapers, interviewing people who have jobs that will feature in the book and so forth, so that Leonard’s novels can have very realistic, very detailed senses of time and place.

Similarly, Malcolm could well afford to hire a young research assistant who understands quantitative analysis.

Why doesn’t he?

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Gladwell, IQ, Sports 
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Terry McDermott blogs for the Columbia Journalism Review:

Criticism of Gladwell Reaches Tipping Point

… I should add here that my hatred of Gladwell is boundless, at least the equal of any critic, but I, a much more rigorous (and therefore slower and much poorer) writer, at least know its source – pure unadulterated jealousy.

Gladwell’s earlier books The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers have been publishing phenomena. Tipping Point alone has been on bestseller lists for five years. Gladwell in many ways is the social science equivalent of the New York Times foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman, another favorite target of critics whose books sell huge numbers. Both are popularizers, in some sense hucksters, adept at phrase-making and simplifying (and often over-simplifying) complex subjects. A key difference, however, is that when Friedman is wrong, he helps start wars. When Gladwell makes a mistake, he dilutes public understanding of science – not a good thing, surely, but he’s a feature writer; that’s what they do.

There is plenty of reason to criticize Malcolm Gladwell, but you get the sense that his chief flaw is being popular.

The comparison to Tom Friedman is a valid one.

Still, “being popular” correlates with being influential. That Malcolm is a tireless and influential proponent of wrong ideas is a problem, especially as his ideas take on (particularly in his most recent bestseller Outliers) an increasingly coherent and politicized form that reinforces and extends the dumbest tendencies in the conventional wisdom.

From the standpoint of the general welfare, there are two potential solutions for the Gladwell Problem: either Malcolm becomes less wrong or he becomes less influential. I would prefer the former solution, but Malcolm seems hellbent on the latter.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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Steven Pinker reviewed my new book “What the Dog Saw,” in the New York Times Book Review this past Sunday. I sent the following letter to the editor in response:

It is always a pleasure to be reviewed by someone as accomplished as Stephen [sic] Pinker, even if—in his comments on “What the Dog Saw” [which you can buy here] (Nov. 15)—he is unhappy with my spelling (rightly!) and with the fact that I have not joined him on the lonely ice floe of IQ fundamentalism. But since football has been on my mind these days, I do want to make one small observation about his comments.

I would suggest that the reason Gladwell is choosing to make a big deal over Pinker calling BS on Gladwell’s assertion that performance as an NFL quarterback “can’t be predicted” is because Malcolm senses that this minor issue is characteristic of his entire career as the foremost conduit to the public of wrong ideas.

He goes on:

In one of my essays, I wrote that the position a quarterback is taken in the college draft is not a reliable indicator of his performance as a professional.

“Not a reliable indicator” does not exactly get across what Malcolm actually wrote. Let’s keep in mind that Malcolm’s assertion in The New Yorker is quite uncompromising: there is no correlation:

This is the quarterback problem. There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired. … The problem with picking quarterbacks is that [U. of Missouri quarterback] Chase Daniel’s performance can’t be predicted. The job he’s being groomed for is so particular and specialized that there is no way to know who will succeed at it and who won’t. In fact, Berri and Simmons found no connection between where a quarterback was taken in the draft—that is, how highly he was rated on the basis of his college performance—and how well he played in the pros.

Pinker thinks of the term “can’t be predicted” in the standard statistical sense of predictions not being better than random, that NFL teams are so bad at drafting quarterbacks that they might as well throw darts. Unsurprisingly, that’s not true.

Gladwell is using it in the sense of, well, who knows?

Perhaps Gladwell is using “can’t be predicted” to mean “can’t always be predicted” — as in, “How about that Ryan Leaf pick? Whattabout Tim Couch?” But everybody already knows that when it comes to drafting quarterbacks the glass is part empty as well as part full. So, if Malcolm comes out and tells the truth (NFL general managers are a lot better than random at drafting quarterbacks, but also lot worse than perfection), then he doesn’t have much of a hook for his article.

But instead of Malcolm trying to laugh it off as him just being breezy and trying to hype his little magazine article, he instead gets all sanctimonious and tries to bring the hammer of academic authority down upon the head of Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology of Harvard U.

See, what makes Malcolm so successful as a speaker at sales conferences is that he believes his own hype. Many people can smell insincerity, but Malcolm is sincere. He believes whatever he’s peddling, no matter how obviously wrong it is.

Malcolm goes on in his letter to the New York Times:

That was based on the work of the academic economists David Berri and Rob Simmons, who, in a paper published the Journal of Productivity Analysis, analyze forty years of National Football League data. Their conclusion was that the relation between aggregate quarterback performance and draft position was weak. Further, when they looked at per-play performance—in other words, when they adjusted for the fact that highly drafted quarterbacks are more likely to play more downs—they found that quarterbacks taken in positions 11 through 90 [what Malcolm means here is the 90 draft positions of 11 through 100] in the draft actually slightly outplay those more highly paid and lauded players taken in the draft’s top ten positions. I found this analysis fascinating. Pinker did not. This quarterback argument, he wrote, “is simply not true.”I wondered about the basis of Pinker’s conclusion, so I e-mailed him, asking if he could tell me where to find the scientific data that would set me straight. He very graciously wrote me back. He had three sources, he said. The first was Steve Sailer. [You can read my January 29, 2009 posting here.] Sailer, for the uninitiated, is a California blogger with a marketing background who is best known for his belief that black people are intellectually inferior to white people.

As a commenter below pointed out, Malcolm should be best known for his 1997 New Yorker article: The Sports Taboo: Why blacks are like boys and whites are like girls. (Actually, he should be: it’s one of his better articles, back from when he was braver and poorer. In it, he, applies the same logic that got Larry Summers in so much trouble in 2005 to race. Unfortunately, like so many of Malcolm’s ideas, it’s wrong. )

Sailer’s “proof” of the connection between draft position and performance is, I’m sure Pinker would agree, crude: his key variable is how many times a player has been named to the Pro Bowl.

Why? It’s a well-known measure of excellence for a single season. In my data set of 278 quarterbacks drafted during the Eighties and Nineties, there are 113 Pro Bowl selections, so the sample size is reasonably adequate.

The irony, however, is that the correlation between making the Pro Bowl and what draft pick a player was is less strong than the correlations for quite a few other important measures of accomplishment. That’s not surprising. That’s why I’ve emphasized Pro Bowls as measure recently — because they are a more favorable measure for Malcolm’s theory than most other plausible measures.

I’ve looked at the 278 quarterbacks drafted in the 1980s and 1990s, and here are the correlations between draft pick and various career statistics:

Draft and Pro Bowls: r = -0.33
Draft and Touchdown Passes: r = -0.45
Draft and Passing Yards: r = -0.48
Draft and Years Starting: r = -0.48
Draft and Games Played: r = -0.52

(The correlations are negative because, for example, Peyton Manning was picked #1 overall in his year and has, through 2008, 45,628 yards passing, while Randy Essington was picked #336 overall in his year and had 0 yards passing in his NFL career.)

So, the correlation between draft picks and Pro Bowls that Malcolm objected to turns out to be weaker than many other correlations, but it’s still noticeable in real life.

(Are these correlations high or low? They’re pretty normal for what you see in the social sciences. There is an old rule of thumb that correlations with an absolute value of 0.2 are low, 0.4 medium and 0.6 high.)

Pinker’s second source was a blog post [by Josh Millet, which you can read for yourself here], based on four years of data, written by someone who runs a pre-employment testing company, who also failed to appreciate—as far as I can tell (the key part of the blog post is only a paragraph long)—the distinction between aggregate and per-play performance. Pinker’s third source was an article in the Columbia Journalism Review [by Daniel Luzer, which you can read for yourself here], prompted by my essay, that made an argument partly based on a link to a blog called “Niners Nation” which in turn makes reference to a “study” of quarterbacks conducted by a fantasy football website. I have enormous respect for Professor Pinker, and his description of me as “minor genius” made even my mother blush. But maybe on the question of subjects like quarterbacks, we should agree that our differences owe less to what can be found in the scientific literature than they do to what can be found on Google.

What Berri is doing, in effect, by using his “per-play” measure is comparing quarterbacks taken at the top of the draft (most of whom get a lot of plays in the NFL) to those taken lower in the draft who turned out to be surprisingly better than expected, and thus get a lot of plays. He’s essentially leaving out of his analysis all those lower drafted quarterbacks who turned out to be as mediocre as expected and thus didn’t get many plays. In other words, his methodology is pre-rigged to produce the conclusion that Malcolm likes.

Through 2008, among quarterbacks drafted from 1980-1999, top ten draftees averaged 2,975 pass attempts in their careers. Quarterbacks drafted 11th to 100th averaged 1,470 attempts, a little less than half as much. And quarterbacks drafted 101st or higher averaged only 387 attempts.

So, Berri is more or less throwing away the lousier half of the sample of quarterbacks drafted 11th-100th (and totally ignoring all the quarterbacks drafted after 100) and comparing them to all the quarterbacks drafted in the top ten.

When you actually count everybody drafted, you get the following figures for career yardage (through 2008):

Drafted Mean Yards Median Yards
Top 10 20,296 18,148
11-100 10,099 3,881
101+ 2,614 0

The differences between the mean and the median (50th percentile) point out that the higher drafted players tend to be safer bets. The quarterback at the 50th percentile among the top ten draftees of his year goes on to have a fairly impressive NFL career, throwing for 18,148 yards. (The median top ten quarterback of 1980-1999 in career yardage was Jim McMahon, who led the Chicago Bears to the 1985 Super Bowl title.)

In contrast, the 50th percentile of the 11th to 100th picks of his year only accumulates 21% as much career yardage. The median quarterbacks of the 11-100 group are Mark Herrmann and Chuck Long.

And the 50th percentile of 101st plus picks never completes a pass in the NFL).

So, the top ten quarterbacks drafted in the eighties and nineties tended to be safer bets, which has its value. (General managers in this decade, however, might have gotten overconfident from a pretty decent run of luck with high draft pick quarterbacks in the two previous decades.)

On the other hand, there are lots of diamonds in the semi-rough of the 11-100 group, such as Brett Favre, Dan Marino, and Boomer Esiason. And in the 101+ group, there are diamonds in the real rough like Mark Brunell, Trent Green, and Matt Hasselbeck. (And that’s not to mention the undrafteds, like Kurt Warner.)

To expand on what I pointed out in the comments to Gladwell’s blog post:

Malcolm, the reason your reputation has plummeted in recent years as your net worth has risen is that you are too trusting of academics. As you blogged on August 29, 2006:

I will confess to having a slightly reverential attitude toward academia. I’m the son of an academic. Much of my writing involves taking academic research and trying to translate it for a more general audience. And I’ve always believed that if you set out to write about the work of academic specialists, you have a responsibility to treat that work with respect– to acknowledge your own ignorance and, where appropriate, defer to the greater expertise of others.

You shouldn’t be in awe of David J. Berri, Associate Professor of Economics at Southern Utah University in Cedar City. David J. Berri should be in awe of you, the (likely) highest-earning print journalist in America. You should make Professor Berri prove his theories to you by subjecting his ideas to rigorous reality checks. You have to do the work.

But it’s not that hard. The Internet is chock full of data. You just copy and paste it into Excel. Get your tax accountant to show you how to use Excel. I’m sure he owes you a favor by now.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Gladwell, Sports 
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Was Steven Pinker correct when dismissing in the New York Times Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article “Most Likely to Succeed” with the words, “It is simply not true that a quarter­back’s rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros”?

Gladwell’s statement of his position is quite uncompromising:

This is the quarterback problem. There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired. So how do we know whom to choose in cases like that? … The problem with picking quarterbacks is that [U. of Missouri quarterback] Chase Daniel’s performance can’t be predicted. The job he’s being groomed for is so particular and specialized that there is no way to know who will succeed at it and who won’t. In fact, Berri and Simmons found no connection between where a quarterback was taken in the draft—that is, how highly he was rated on the basis of his college performance—and how well he played in the pros.

“No connection” is not, in fact, the position of economists David J. Berri and Rob Simmons, whose new paper “Catching a Draft” (gated and therefore I haven’t read it) has the following abstract:

The reverse order college draft gives the worst teams in the National Football League (NFL) the opportunity to hire the best amateur talent. For it to work effectively, teams must be able to identify the “best” talent. Our study of NFL quarterbacks highlights problems with the draft process. We find only a weak correlation between teams’ evaluations on draft day and subsequent quarterback performance in the NFL. Moreover, many of the factors that enhance a quarterback’s draft position are unrelated to future NFL performance. Our analysis highlights the difficulties in evaluating workers in the uncertain environment of professional sports.

They find what they characterize as “only a weak correlation,” which is different from “no connection.” Moreover, what is a “weak correlation?” In the selection business, a seemingly “weak correlation” is quite different from no correlation.

With most things in the human sciences, the glass is roughly half empty and half full at the same time. For example, in the 1998 NFL draft, San Diego used a #2 pick in the first round to choose Ryan Leaf, a notorious bust. However, immediately before that legendary bad decision, Indianapolis had used the first pick in the draft to acquire Peyton Manning, who, as I write, is still gainfully employed in the Colt organization. So, looking at the single most famous pair of quarterback drafts in history, you come up with the usual glass half empty / half full situation.

Further, coming up with one Peyton Manning and one Ryan Lean with your top two picks is a lot better than picking at random among the 100+ college quarterbacks who were eligible for the draft that year.

When I analyzed Gladwell’s thesis just before the last Super Bowl, using all 278 quarterbacks drafted in the 1980s and 1990s, I came up with the following table, looking at Pro Bowl honors as a stringent test of success in the NFL. (This partly gets around the problem that high draft picks are often given more years to fail than low draft picks.)

Draft Rank Count Average Pro Bowls
Top 50 54 51-100 43 101-200 71 201+ 110 blog post byJosh Millet looking at the 2000-2004 quarterback drafts:

To take the most recent decade as an example, when one looks at all the quarterbacks (67 in all) who were drafted by NFL teams from 2000 to 2004, and compares their overall draft position to their statistics in their first four years in the league, it is clear that on balance NFL teams are very accurate in predicting statistical success in the NFL. Organizational psychologists measure the predictive validity of an employee selection technique by quantifying the strength of the relationship between selection measure and job performance; the strength of the association is expressed as a correlation coefficient. For the whole group, the correlation between draft order and passing yardage is very strong (-.73 — the coefficient is negative because the higher a player is drafted, the lower their draft rank).

For those concerned that a measure of total productivity such as passing yardage is somewhat correlated with opportunity, we can consider passer efficiency, as measured by QB rating. Only 51 of the 67 quarterbacks drafted attempted a pass in the NFL, a necessary requirement for calculating a QB rating: for this group there was a -.34 correlation between draft position and QB rating. This is still a strong association, and shows a clear, statistically significant correlation between draft order and future statistical success in the NFL.

Like the fans of the teams that drafted them, Gladwell has let the Ryan Leafs (a high draft choice that flopped) and the Tom Bradys (a low draft choice who became a superstar) of the world influence his thinking. These are outliers, a concept with which Gladwell should be familiar given the title of his latest book. (If you take Brady out of the mix the correlations strengthen considerably!) It turns out, in fact, that on average the NFL draft process is highly accurate at predicting QB success, and the draft is based entirely on things that Gladwell dismisses as useless–college performance, scouting, performance in the NFL combine.

If Gladwell had considered any quantitative measures at all relating to the efficacy of the draft he’d have no basis for his conclusion that “a prediction, in a field where prediction is not possibl
e, is nothing but a prejudice.” Gladwell, we fear, gets swept up in his own story telling, and in the process badly misconstrues the alleged “quarterback problem.”

A commenter on that blog points out:

The best college QBs are typically assigned to the worst teams because of the rules of the NFL draft, which most likely hinders their chance for pro success, and weakens the association between draft position and pro success, at least for first- round draft picks.

This would tend to artificially strengthen the correlation (-0.73) between draft position and early career passing yardage and artificially weaken the correlation (-0.34) between draft position and passer rating, so the underlying “true” correlation is somewhere in between.

For example, in 1998 the Indianapolis Colts had “earned” the #1 draft pick by going 3-13 in 1997. For the 1998 season, they immediately plugged Manning in at starting quarterback at age 22. Having nothing else going for the team, they had him throw a league-leading 575 passes for 3,739 yards, but also a league-worst 28 interceptions. That gave him a passer efficiency rating of only 71.2, far below his career average of 95.3.

If Manning had been drafted by a better team, he probably would have only played as a rookie at the end of blow-outs against the opposition’s second string, and wouldn’t have inherited the starting job until he was mature. (The NFL career of Steve Young, who has the higher career passer rating, demonstrates this – one bad year at a young age in Tampa Bay, then a long sojourn as Joe Montana’s backup learning the job in the brilliant San Francisco organization before finally emerging as the highest rated QB in history) So, Peyton’s early career yardage would likely have been less if drafted lower, but his early career passer rating would have been higher. Thus, the “true” correlation between draft rank and NFL success is probably between -.73 and -.34.

Another thing to keep in mind is the semi-random role of injuries in reducing correlations. A lot of quarterbacks whose NFL careers are disappointments are simply too banged up to play up to their potential. In baseball, it’s widely accepted that a pitcher’s career is contingent on his arm staying healthy, but in football, there’s a certain amount of moralizing about how if the quarterback was tough enough, like Brett Favre, he would just shake it off and play through the pain.

High draft choices who are likely to be thrown in as starters before they are physically and mentally mature are more likely to get badly hurt early in their careers than a lower draft choice who doesn’t get the starting job until he knows what he’s doing and has a little extra muscle on him, and is mentally ready to have big years. So, that also lowers the correlations a little.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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In the NYT, Steven Pinker reviews Malcolm Gladwell’s greatest hits book of New Yorker article reprints, What the Dog Saw:

An eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing. But Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “saggital plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.

The banalities come from a gimmick that can be called the Straw We. First Gladwell disarmingly includes himself and the reader in a dubious consensus — for example, that “we” believe that jailing an executive will end corporate malfeasance, or that geniuses are invariably self-made prodigies or that eliminating a risk can make a system 100 percent safe. He then knocks it down with an ambiguous observation, such as that “risks are not easily manageable, accidents are not easily preventable.” As a generic statement, this is true but trite: of course many things can go wrong in a complex system, and of course people sometimes trade off safety for cost and convenience (we don’t drive to work wearing crash helmets in Mack trucks at 10 miles per hour). But as a more substantive claim that accident investigations are meaningless “rituals of reassurance” with no effect on safety, or that people have a “fundamental tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking greater risks in another,” it is demonstrably false.

The problem with Gladwell’s generalizations about prediction is that he never zeroes in on the essence of a statistical problem and instead overinterprets some of its trappings. For example, in many cases of uncertainty, a decision maker has to act on an observation that may be either a signal from a target or noise from a distractor (a blip on a screen may be a missile or static; a blob on an X-ray may be a tumor or a harmless thickening). Improving the ability of your detection technology to discriminate signals from noise is always a good thing, because it lowers the chance you’ll mistake a target for a distractor or vice versa. But given the technology you have, there is an optimal threshold for a decision, which depends on the relative costs of missing a target and issuing a false alarm. By failing to identify this trade-off, Gladwell bamboozles his readers with pseudoparadoxes about the limitations of pictures and the downside of precise information.

Another example of an inherent trade-off in decision-making is the one that pits the accuracy of predictive information against the cost and complexity of acquiring it. Gladwell notes that I.Q. scores, teaching certificates and performance in college athletics are imperfect predictors of professional success. This sets up a “we” who is “used to dealing with prediction problems by going back and looking for better predictors.” Instead, Gladwell argues, “teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree — and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before.”

But this “solution” misses the whole point of assessment, which is not clairvoyance but cost-effectiveness. To hire teachers indiscriminately and judge them on the job is an example of “going back and looking for better predictors”: the first year of a career is being used to predict the remainder. It’s simply the predictor that’s most expensive (in dollars and poorly taught students) along the accuracy-­cost trade-off. Nor does the absurdity of this solution for professional athletics (should every college quarterback play in the N.F.L.?) give Gladwell doubts about his misleading analogy between hiring teachers (where the goal is to weed out the bottom 15 percent) and drafting quarterbacks (where the goal is to discover the sliver of a percentage point at the top).

The common thread in Gladwell’s writing is a kind of populism, which seeks to undermine the ideals of talent, intelligence and analytical prowess in favor of luck, opportunity, experience and intuition. For an apolitical writer like Gladwell, this has the advantage of appealing both to the Horatio Alger right and to the egalitarian left. Unfortunately he wildly overstates his empirical case. It is simply not true that a quarter­back’s rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros [see here], that cognitive skills don’t predict a teacher’s effectiveness [see here], that intelligence scores are poorly related to job performance or (the major claim in “Outliers”) that above a minimum I.Q. of 120, higher intelligence does not bring greater intellectual achievements.

The reasoning in “Outliers,” which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle. Fortunately for “What the Dog Saw,” the essay format is a better showcase for Gladwell’s talents, because the constraints of length and editors yield a higher ratio of fact to fancy. Readers have much to learn from Gladwell the journalist and essayist. But when it comes to Gladwell the social scientist, they should watch out for those igon values.

I suspect that on the Big Five personality traits, Gladwell, at least in his writing persona (which isn’t necessarily the same as his day to day persona), would score very high on:

- Openness (“Wow, what an amazing idea Professor Frink has! I would never have thought of that in a million years! That’s so cool!”)

- and Agreeableness (“Now that I’ve met him, I realize that Professor Frink is a wonderful genius and I must help his insights reach the largest possible audience!”)

- but very low on Neuroticism (“Could it be that I’ll be making a fool of myself? Will that horrible Sailor person point out some obvious crucial flaw in my exposition of Frinkism and make me a laughing stock again? Should I pause before I publish and apply reality tests to Professor Frink’s theory … Nah! Professor Frink is a wonderful genius! This time I’m clearly not overlooking any problems with the basic idea of my article.”)

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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The economy collapsed when Lehman Bros. went bankrupt on September 15, 2008. Joe Wiesenthal of Clusterstock has now brought to the public’s attention the real villain behind the economic crash. On p. 120 of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s book Too Big to Fail, in a discussion of Lehman’s president Joseph Gregory:

He loved being the in-house philosopher-king, an evangelist on the subject of workplace diversity and a devotee of the theories described in Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink. He gave out copies of the book and had even hired the author to lecture employees on trusting their instincts when making difficult decisions. In an industry based on analyzing raw data, Gregory was defiantly a gut man.

Now that I think about it, I realize I always had a gut feeling that this global crash was, somehow, all Malcolm’s fault. It just had to be. If only I’d trusted my instincts, like he told me to in Blink … Imagine how much money I could have made shorting the stocks of companies that had paid Malcolm to make speeches to their employees!

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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It’s easy to tell how good Michael Lewis’s sports articles in the New York Times Magazine are by comparing them to Malcolm Gladwell’s sports articles in The New Yorker.

Malcolm now has an enormous article up which, when you leave out his voluminous retelling of the little-known plot of an obscure movie called “Lawrence of Arabia” and an extended anecdote about some computer game that I didn’t bother to read, consists of Malcolm arguing that basketball coaches are fools — fools, I tell you — for not using the full court press, which is, according to Malcolm, the best way for an underdog to defeat a superior team: by changing the rules! The article is based — honest to God — on a 12-year-old girls basketball team that had a lot of success full court pressing.

How David Beats Goliath
When underdogs break the rules.

When [Silicon Valley zillionaire] Vivek Ranadivé decided to coach his daughter Anjali’s basketball team, … Ranadivé was puzzled by the way Americans played basketball. He is from Mumbai. He grew up with cricket and soccer. He would never forget the first time he saw a basketball game. He thought it was mindless. Team A would score and then immediately retreat to its own end of the court. Team B would inbound the ball and dribble it into Team A’s end, where Team A was patiently waiting. Then the process would reverse itself. A basketball court was ninety-four feet long. But most of the time a team defended only about twenty-four feet of that, conceding the other seventy feet. Occasionally, teams would play a full-court press—that is, they would contest their opponent’s attempt to advance the ball up the court. But they would do it for only a few minutes at a time. It was as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played, and Ranadivé thought that that conspiracy had the effect of widening the gap between good teams and weak teams. Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent’s end. Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good? …

As often as not, the teams Redwood City was playing against simply couldn’t make the inbounds pass within the five-second limit. Or the inbounding player, panicked by the thought that her five seconds were about to be up, would throw the ball away. Or her pass would be intercepted by one of the Redwood City players. Ranadivé’s girls were maniacal.

The second deadline requires a team to advance the ball across mid-court, into its opponent’s end, within ten seconds, and if Redwood City’s opponents met the first deadline the girls would turn their attention to the second. They would descend on the girl who caught the inbounds pass and “trap” her. Anjali was the designated trapper. She’d sprint over and double-team the dribbler, stretching her long arms high and wide. Maybe she’d steal the ball. Maybe the other player would throw it away in a panic—or get bottled up and stalled, so that the ref would end up blowing the whistle.

The Redwood City players would jump ahead 4–0, 6–0, 8–0, 12–0. One time, they led 25–0. …

The trouble for Redwood City started early in the regular season. The opposing coaches began to get angry. There was a sense that Redwood City wasn’t playing fair—that it wasn’t right to use the full-court press against twelve-year-old girls, who were just beginning to grasp the rudiments of the game. The point of basketball, the dissenting chorus said, was to learn basketball skills. Of course, you could as easily argue that in playing the press a twelve-year-old girl learned something much more valuable—that effort can trump ability and that conventions are made to be challenged.

More likely, the 12-year-old girls who found themselves losing 25-0 without ever getting a shot off learned a simpler lesson: I hate basketball. You’d have to be totally gay to like basketball. I’m never going to play any sport again. Hey, I just realized that my dad can’t force me to play sports if I’m pregnant!

This reminds me of when my kid was in a baseball league for 9-year-olds at the local park and his genius manager came up with a foolproof strategy for winning: “Don’t ever swing! Nine year old pitchers can’t get the ball over the plate enough to get you out on called strikes, so you’ll almost always get a walk as long as you never swing.” So, his team would get seven or eight walks in a row. The little boy who was pitching for the other team would be reduced to tears. He’s be replaced by another little boy who would soon be crying because the batters would just not swing.

One time my kid disobeyed orders and hit a hard foul ball. He was pretty excited because it was the only time he got his bat on the ball all year, and he was under the impression that hitting a ball with a stick was more or less the point of playing baseball, but his coach bawled him out for disobeying orders. (He turned out to be a decent hitter in later years.)

My kid’s team had the best record that year, but the parents got together and decided not to let that guy coach anymore.

Then Malcolm goes off on a rant but how practically the only college basketball coach who was smart enough to understand how full court pressing allowed underdogs to win by “changing the rules” was Rick Pitino who won the 1996 NCAA at Kentucky:

College coaches of Pitino’s calibre typically have had numerous players who have gone on to be bona-fide all-stars at the professional level. In his many years of coaching, Pitino has had one, Antoine Walker. It doesn’t matter. Every year, he racks up more and more victories.

Uh, what about Jamal Mashburn? Don’t they have fact-checkers at The New Yorker anymore?

Let’s look at Pitino’s 1996 U. of Kentucky line-up in terms of their subsequent NBA careers:

Derek Anderson – 11 years – $56 million in total salary
Ron Mercer – 8 years – $35 million
Tony Delk – 10 years – $20 million
Walter McCarty – 10 years – $15 million
Antoine Walker – 12 years – $99 million

Mark Pope – 6 years – $4 million
Jeff Sheppard – 1 year – 0.7 million
Anthony Epps – 0 years – $0 million
Nazr Mohammed – 11 years (so far) – $38 million

A total of 69 years in the NBA and over a quarter of a billion dollars in salary. Heck, I could have coached those guys to, say, the Regional finals.

And it’s not a fluke that an athletically awesome team won by full court pressing. Traditionally in basketball, the full court press has not been the underdog’s weapon, it’s been the overdog’s way to insure that their superiority is manifested in the final score. The biggest overdogs in college basketball history were John Wooden’s UCLA teams that won 10 NCAA championships in 12 years. They generally ran a 2-2-1 zone press with the 1 who played free safety often being Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Bill Walton, which helped a lot when the opponents would beat their press and get a fast break, only to run into an all-time shot-blocking legend.

Similarly, the Boston Celtics won 11 of 13 NBA titles with Bill Russell
as centerfielder on their full court press.

In a book co-authored by Wooden and Swen Nater (who led both the NBA and ABA in rebounding despite never starting in college due to Walton), they write:

Why do teams use a pressing defense? At UCLA, we chose to use it for two primary reasons. One was to avoid getting stuck in a half-court game in which the opposition could dictate the pace and—even if outmanned—reduce the number of possessions to keep the score close. Two, we believed the press allowed us to exploit opponents who were not fundamentally sound in their spacing, cutting, passing, and dribbling.

In other words, UCLA had better players and a better coach, so they would contest every bit of the game to maximize the sample size by which the game was decided. In contrast, if you are an inferior team, the smart tactic is to slow the game down so that luck will play a larger role, as 11th seeded Villanova did in beating Patrick Ewing’s #1 Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA final. Villanova only took ten shots in the second half, but happened to make nine of them, so they won.

In contrast, consider the spectacular 1983 NCAA semifinal game between#2 Louisville (The Doctors of Dunk) and #1 Houston (Phi Slamma Jamma). Louisville had a ferocious full court press, with excellent athletes, such as the McCray brothers, but Houston had great athletes, such as Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. In the second half, Houston repeatedly went over the Louisville press for spectacular fast break dunks in a 94-81 win.

I don’t know my basketball history well enough to say this with any confidence, but that Phi Slamma Jamma game might have been the beginning of the end for the full court press. It had worked wonderfully for Red Auerbach and John Wooden in the old days, but Houston’s sensational 1983 win showed conclusively how vulnerable the press was to a high-flying team.

In the boring 1983 Final game, an inferior North Carolina State team slowed down the tempo and packed the inside and dared Houston to make enough outside shots and enough free throws to beat them. This gave NC State just enough of a chance to win on a fluke final play.

Malcolm draws large conclusions:

David’s victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly. It was not. Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact.

No, it’s not all that remarkable because countries will generally avoid war if they are highly likely to lose. For example, recall the 1994 war between America and Haiti. What? You don’t recall that one? Well, that’s because there wasn’t a war. The Haitian government surrendered to the American invaders rather than fight. Similarly, Canada hasn’t got into a war with America recently. But if it had, it wouldn’t have a 28.5% chance of winning.

My off the top of my head guess would be that wars would be most likely to happen when the odds are about 60-40 in favor of one side. The overdog would tend to think it’s going to win while the underdog think it has a fighting chance so it would be dishonorable to cave in without a struggle.

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Here’s my review of Malcolm Gladwell’s new bestseller, Outliers: The Story of Success.

Here’s an excerpt from my 3700 word review:

Malcolm never misses an opportunity to miss the point. For example, consider the self-evident stupidity of Gladwell’s title, Jews and Asians are well educated and well-compensated while blacks and Mexicans aren’t—through anecdotes about a small number of anomalous “outliers.”

Gladwell chose the word “outliers” for his title because it sounded scientific. He’s vaguely aware that statistical analysts are much concerned with the outliers in their datasets, so it sounds cool to write a book about why people like Bill Gates and the Beatles are successful and call it Of course, the Wikipedia, “Statistics derived from data sets that include outliers may be misleading.”

For example, say you are a market researcher doing a random survey of consumers for a mutual fund company to determine the average net worth of Americans by different levels of education. You tote up your results and see that the mean wealth of your 100 college dropouts is $500,050,000.

“That’s weird,” you say.

You then look at the individual surveys and see that one respondent claimed to have a fortune of fifty billion dollars.

Is he lying? Is he crazy? Or is he Bill Gates? You don’t know. All you know is that he’s an outlier and therefore you aren’t going to use him in your data set. Otherwise, your innumerate pointy-haired boss in the marketing department (who, by the way, In contrast, Gladwell devotes 18 pages to Gates, without noticing that Gates is a perfect example of the kind of data point that the very

played live a lot in Hamburg in 1960-1962).

As usual with Gladwell, he manages to choose examples that undermine his own theory, even when his basic idea is fairly sensible. Yes, as Gladwell stresses, putting in ten thousand hours of practice is helpful at becoming really good at a trade, so it’s helpful to come from a privileged background where you can get in a lot of practice at a young age.

Nevertheless, while the Beatles got lots of practice at playing live in Hamburg, they aren’t the most famous rock group because they were an exceptionally great live band. In fact, they gave up playing live in 1967 and nobody much noticed.

Instead, they were the greatest Similarly, Bill Gates didn’t become the richest man in America by being a great programmer. In reality, he bought his strategically pivotal Disk Operating System from a Seattle programmer named Tim Paterson and then licensed it to IBM. No, Gates got rich by being a great monopolist—which is a more difficult career to practice far ahead of time.

Gladwell, the unofficial Minister of Propaganda for Multi-Culti Capitalism, seldom says anything negative about capitalists. For example, if you are looking for the deep roots of Gates’s unerring cunning at acquiring a monopoly at such a young age, it’s perhaps interesting that Gates’s father was a defense attorney for firms accused of antitrust violations. Unsurprisingly, Gladwell never notices.

Indeed, Gladwell’s climactic depiction of the more just society he envisions is quite terrifying. In the grand summation of his book’s argument, he writes:

“We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that’s the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?” [p. 268]

Let a million monopolies bloom!

The great thing about Gladwell is that he’s so lacking in critical thinking skills that he just blurts out the underlying assumptions of today’s conventional wisdom, stating its stupidities in their Platonic form. To Gladwell, the long, laborious, and expensive development of the computer isn’t a great accomplishment of Western civilization for which posterity should be grateful. No, it’s a civil rights issue. See, back in 1968, “our world” hadn’t “allowed” enough teenagers—especially not enough black and Mexican ones, to use state-of-the-art time-sharing computers.

Just think—if our world had allowed a million teenagers to be given the same opportunity of unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1868, we could have a billion Microsofts today!


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Various laws attempt to protect and reward insider whistleblowers who call to public attention wrongdoing by the institutions that employ them. But little incentive exists for outsiders to point out big shots’ fraud and misinformation, other than public approbation. So, let’s take a moment to salute Harry Markopolous, who first brought Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme to the Securities and Exchange Commission’s awareness in 2000 and then wrote them a 19 page letter in 2005 listing 29 Red Flags (you can read it here; thanks to Clusterstock).

Of course, the SEC didn’t do anything substantitive about it (other than one SEC official marrying into the Madoff family). Markopolous tried to talk the SEC into taking action by warning them that if they didn’t move fast, Elliot Spitzer would beat them to it. (But now we know that the Spitzer family real estate firm, like so many New York real estate businesses, had money with Madoff.)

One thing that stands out is that Markopolous wasn’t alone. He was just the guy who kept complaining about it. Markopolous’s 2005 letter cites numerous experts, either by name or by position, who figured out this was a fraud. But Markopolous was one of the few to do anything about it.

Also, at least two journalists, one for Barrons and one for a trade paper, exposed this scam early in this decade, but nobody cared.

There’s just not much of a market for debunking. People want to believe in geniuses. Look how many people believe Malcolm Gladwell is a genius. If he isn’t a genius, everybody asks, how come he’s so rich? Hunnh? Hunnh?

Malcolm, himself, is dimly aware that he’s kind of an idiot, but he believes that the true geniuses are the people he profiles so credulously. In turn, the folks Malcolm writes up probably had doubts about their own brilliance, too, at least until they saw themselves acclaimed in The New Yorker. After all, you can’t put anything over on The New Yorker — they’ve got a hung-over Jay McInerney checking the facts! So, they must be legit.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
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I haven’t managed to finish Malcolm Gladwell’s new #1 bestseller, Outliers, yet, because it’s so full of snarkworthy goodness. Here’s a taste from p. 80:

“What Hudson is saying is that IQ is a lot like height in basketball. Does someone who is five foot six have a realistic chance of playing professional basketball? Not really. You need to be at least six foot or six one to play on that level, and all things being equal, it’s probably better to be six two than six one, and better to be six three than six two. But past a certain point, height stops mattering so much. A player who is six foot eight is not automatically better than someone two inches shorter. (Michael Jordan, the greatest player ever, was six six after all.) A basketball player only has to be tall enough — and the same is true of intelligence.”

So that explains Yao Ming’s career! See, he’s at least 6′-6″ — so he’s over the NBA threshold … by 11 inches, granted, but once you are over the threshold, according to The New Yorker’s expert on everything, it doesn’t much matter how much taller you are than 6′-6.”

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From the new Amazon webpage of Malcolm Gladwell’s November 2008 guaranteed bestseller, “Outliers: Why Some People Succeed and Some Don’t:”

In this stunning new book, Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an intellectual journey through the world of “outliers”–the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful. He asks the question: what makes high-achievers different? His answer is that we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing. Along the way he explains the secrets of software billionaires, what it takes to be a great soccer player, why Asians are good at math, and what made the Beatles the greatest rock band.

Brilliant and entertaining, OUTLIERS is a landmark work that will simultaneously delight and illuminate.

Isn’t Malcolm going to ruin the usefulness of the word “outliers”? We typically use the world outliers in statistics to refer to data points that aren’t useful in finding a general pattern and therefore should be ignored. Malcolm’s using it to mean the opposite — the people we should most pay attention to in order to learn how the system works.

For example, say you were to make a study of how to succeed in golf by looking at the behavioral traits of the golfers who have won multiple major championships. By the traditional definition, John Daley would be an obvious outlier that you wouldn’t learn much from studying — he’s fat, alcoholic, mentally unstable, a poor decision maker on and off the course. But he’s double-jointed, so his incredible flexibility lets him wind up like a pretzel and crush the ball. Unless you’re double-jointed too, he’s a true outlier whom you should discard from your study.

In contrast, Tiger Woods is not an outlier for the purposes of learning to succeed. His achievements are stunning, but they flow directly from how he has optimized for golf success virtually every aspect of his game (and, indeed, life — when he’s home, guests say, he goes to bed at 8:30 pm and is working out by 5:30 am). I was a huge fan of Jack Nicklaus when he intimidated most other golfers in the 1970s with his focus and analytical mind, but Tiger does everything right that Jack did, and he also does things right where Jack got hung up by overthinking.

But, come November, everybody is going to start referring to Tiger, Roger Federer, Warren Buffett, Meryl Streep, and other people who most should be in the databases of anybody studying how to succeed in their fields as “Outliers!”

Similarly, anybody who wants to make a lot of money in print journalism should study Gladwell closely.

However, there is a sense in which Malcolm is a true outlier. He himself succeeds — he may well be the highest grossing print journalist in America — not because he understands the common mind, but because he has the common mind. His inability to think critically means that he’s always sincerely gee-willikers enthusiastic about whatever snake oil he’s infatuated with at the moment. His lack of skepticism makes him a natural for the self-help circuit.

But Malcolm’s ability to be a complete sell-out while also being a complete innocent is an odd, John Daley-like combination. It’s hard for normal people to consciously draw useful career lessons from Malcolm’s success because the kind of lessons you’d come up with — e.g., “New Yorker subscribers, editors, and fact-checkers will believe anything” — undermines achieving the necessary Malcolmtastic mental state of sappy sincerity.

(Republished from iSteve by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Gladwell 
Steve Sailer
About Steve Sailer

Steve Sailer is a journalist, movie critic for Taki's Magazine, columnist, and founder of the Human Biodiversity discussion group for top scientists and public intellectuals.

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