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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 — Pro-Fooball.Reference.com’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?