From the NYT:
Interview by DAN AMIRA MAY 29, 2018
… Q. Why do you not want to blame individuals?
A. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I have no idea. I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t believe in prisons. I don’t believe in —
Q. You don’t believe in prisons?
A. I think a very, very small number of people should be in prison for a short period of time. I would release 95 percent of prisoners if I had the chance. I mean, prison is an idea that was invented a couple thousand years ago. How many other social-policy ideas from back then do we still use? Not a lot.
Law? Property? Monogamy? Non-autocratic rule? Logic? Debate? Bread and circuses?
My criticism of Gladwell’s work has always been that while he’s good at finding and promoting interesting ideas, he’s weak at reality-testing these ideas. Letting 95% of prisoners out of prison, for example, is not an idea likely to stand up to much reality checking. But the idea that a popular sage could reality check his own ideas (or hire somebody to do it for him) simply doesn’t occur to Malcolm naturally, or to the NYT interviewer either:
Q. Your critics argue that your ideas are simplistic or overreliant on anecdotal evidence. Is that something you’ve taken to heart and tried to improve on?
A. Of course I rely on anecdotal evidence and simplify things; that’s what it means to be a popular writer. In some sense, that criticism is not a criticism. It’s a description.
Q. It’s certainly meant as a criticism.
A. Then it’s a little bit baffling. It’s simply people saying that my writing is different from academic writing, which is absolutely the case. There are times, though, when people have said, “Look, if your job is to popularize academic ideas, then you need to be careful about reflecting the full diversity of opinion within academia. You can’t say, ‘Science says X,’ when actually science says X, Y and Z,” and that I’ve taken to heart. That is a good criticism.
Okay, but a lot of Malcolm’s famous ideas don’t have a diversity of academic studies done on them because they are very new and/or very stupid.
For example, Malcolm had one academic saying, in Malcolm’s summary, that NFL teams can’t predict at all which college quarterbacks to draft. Look at how San Diego wasted a #2 overall pick on Ryan Leaf!
I responded, okay, but look how Indianapolis didn’t waste its #1 overall pick that year on Peyton Manning.
And indeed if you build a spreadsheet of 20 years of quarterback draft picks, yeah, picking a high performing quarterback is hard, but it’s by no means impossible.
And if you read the academic study Malcolm cited, the obvious methodological flaw is that the authors measure late draft pick quarterbacks who made an impact in the NFL, such as Tom Brady, and thus should have been drafted higher, but not late draft pick QBs who turned out in training camp and the taxi squad to be as mediocre or even worse than expected and never got to play.
Similarly, Malcolm argued that the way for less talented teams to win in basketball is to full court press. But it’s easy to come up with theoretical and empirical evidence that it works the opposite way: that full court pressing is best for athletically superior teams who are best off contesting every foot of every defensive possession to reduce the chance of a fluke hot-shooting nights by an on-average inferior opponent.
But there weren’t a lot of academic studies debunking Malcolm’s full-court-press theory, because it was so obviously wrong that it would be hard to see much point in writing up a debunking before Malcolm got involved.
Likewise, Malcolm’s strong form of the 10,000 hour rule of practice idea — not just the pretty reasonable weak form that to be world class you need to practice for 5 or 10 years, but also that if you do practice right for 5 or 10 years, you will be world class — hadn’t been debunked by academics all that much because it is prima facie pretty silly.
Since then, we’ve seen some guy named Dan wreck his life by trying to make the pro golf tour by taking up golf and practicing for 10,000 hours without much evidence beforehand that he had above average talent for golf.
But the concept of running reality checks on ideas, especially on ideas that seem to fit with The Narrative, just doesn’t come up much in the media, so few have learned the right lessons from the rise and decline of Gladwell’s career.