how to be as smart as malcolm gladwell

Anyone who knows me (or who reads my del.icio.us links) knows that I think Malcolm Gladwell is the Bullshit King. Professor Coldheart asks why Gladwell’s latest is so bullshitty.

It is bullshitty, of course, because it follows the Gladwell model:

1) State a stylized fact:

Five quarterbacks were taken in the first round of the college draft that year, and each looked as promising as Chase Daniel did now. But only one of them, Donovan McNabb, ended up fulfilling that promise. Of the rest, one descended into mediocrity after a decent start. Two were complete busts, and the last was so awful that after failing out of the N.F.L. he ended up failing out of the Canadian Football League as well.

2) Grossly mis-characterize this phenomenon and give it a cute name:

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.

(If you are wondering why this is a mischaracterization, it is worth considering whether NFL scouts were able learn enough about me to predict how I’d perform as a NFL quarterback.) (In case you think I am being too flippant, I will further observe that there are hundreds of college football quarterbacks who graduate every year, and most of them are judged, presumably with some merit, as not pro football material.)

3) Apply your “rule” to some trendy cause:

After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with the potential to be great teachers. But there’s a hitch: no one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like. The school system has a quarterback problem.

4) Drown the reader in colorful (but irrelevant) details:

Kickoff time for Missouri’s game against Oklahoma State was seven o’clock. It was a perfect evening for football: cloudless skies and a light fall breeze. For hours, fans had been tailgating in the parking lots around the stadium. Cars lined the roads leading to the university, many with fuzzy yellow-and-black Tiger tails hanging from their trunks. It was one of Mizzou’s biggest games in years. The Tigers were undefeated, and had a chance to become the No. 1 college football team in the country. Shonka made his way through the milling crowds and took a seat in the press box. Below him, the players on the field looked like pieces on a chessboard.

5) Loop in a third example:

Perhaps no profession has taken the implications of the quarterback problem more seriously than the financial-advice field, and the experience of financial advisers is a useful guide to what could happen in teaching as well.

6) Draw an “outside the box” conclusion:

In teaching, the implications are even more profound. They suggest that we shouldn’t be raising standards. We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don’t track with what we care about. 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.

(For the record, I agree with this conclusion, which is further evidence of its outside-the-box-ness.)

(Also, notice that this conclusion actually has nothing to do with the original “problem”, as evidenced by the fact that neither Gladwell nor anyone else is suggesting that we would be well served by lowering the standards for NFL quarterbacks.)

7) Be wistful:

What does it say about a society that it devotes more care and patience to the selection of those who handle its money than of those who handle its children?

8) Demonstrate tolerance:

This was what it would be like to be an N.F.L. quarterback, wasn’t it? But there is nothing like being an N.F.L. quarterback except being an N.F.L. quarterback. A prediction, in a field where prediction is not possible, is no more than a prejudice.

9) End with an irrelevant, opaque quotation:

“In a great big piece of pie,” Shonka said, “that was just a little slice.” ♦

CONGRATULATIONS! You’re as smart as Malcolm Gladwell! Use your powers wisely!

(Yes, this has nothing to do with India. Get over it.)

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