Malcolm Gladwell Continues to Lose Credibility

The backlash against the 10,000-hours myth/rule keeps growing: The 10,000-hour rule is wrong and perpetuates a cruel myth

It’s not surprising why Malcolm Gladwell keeps a low profile these days…his reputation is in tatters, his book Outliers revealed as a travesty of fabrication and fiction that it calls into doubt the veracity of everything else he has ever written or will ever write…

Gladwell did a bait and switch: in Outliers ignoring the role of talent, and then when pressed for more details, clarifying that the 10,000 hour rule applies to those who already have talent but then practiced 10,000 hours to hone such talent. I think the amended version of ‘10,000 hours’ is closer to being correct, and probably not the one the public wants to hear.

Ericsson’s research isn’t much better either though. His sample size was very small and his research was never replicated. As the ‘how I taught myself physics in one year’ post shows, it’s pretty obvious innate talent exists and can allow people to attain mastery of very complicated concepts in far less than 10,000 hours.

Not sure it is a cruel myth…more like wishful thinking that can have unintended consequences by mismanaging resources (such as having low-IQ kids in prestigious schools, in the hope that environment will overcome a cognitive deficit)…if it were so cruel, it would not have taken the world by storm…’10,000 hours’ succeeds as a meme because it tells people what they want to believe, that with enough practice, anyone can covet the skills of geniuses. It’s not so much that people want to become world-class musicians or top physicists, but rather that they have the potential to become those things if they want to, by practicing enough.

One of the most common blank-slate arguments is that because no one is born knowing anything, that therefore differences in achievement must be explained entirely by environment. People become ‘good’ at math because they ‘want to’, not because of genes. This argument is debunked in the post Lessons from a 45-Year Study of Supersmart Children, which shows that math aptitude manifests very early in life and is predicted by parents’ aptitude.

Yes, technically, no one is born knowing trig or calculus, but the people with genetic gifts make the transition from ‘bad’ to ‘good’ much faster than those without such endowments, all else being equal. A typical elementary school environment, where all the children come from similar backgrounds and are young enough that thousands of hours of practice is impossible, teachers can readily identify the gifted from the average–the gifted tend to know so much more and learn so much faster than everyone else (in the classroom environment, where parenting cannot be a factor), and it cannot possibly be explained by parenting or practice, because these children are so young and otherwise are very homogeneous. This is because gifted children learn with far fewer repetitions (due to superior working memory and or other factors) and retain much what they learn, which is key, whereas for the less intelligent the information ‘goes out the other ear’. Overall, people with high IQs learn faster and more efficiently.

From the articles:

The second reason we should not pretend we are endowed with the same abilities is that doing so perpetuates the myth that is at the root of much inaction in society — the myth that people can help themselves to the same degree if they just try hard enough.

You’re not a heart surgeon? That’s your fault for not working hard enough in school! You didn’t make it as a concert pianist? You must not have wanted it that badly.

But the problem is, telling someone who aspires to be doctor or some other high-IQ profession that they shouldn’t try, because they aren’t smart enough, may also seem cruel, so we settle on what we perceive to be lesser of two cruelties.

These delusions seems more pervasive regarding cognitive abilities (math and physics, especially) than physical abilities (running, jumping, basketball, etc.). From Our High-IQ Aristocracy:

Here’s why the basketball example doesn’t give peace of mind to those cognitively self-conscious, nor placates fears of a high-IQ aristocracy. Physical skills, such as running and jumping, are becoming less valuable/pertinent in the competitive-post 2008 economy that seems to increasingly reward intelligence and cleverness, as explained in Liberal Denial of Genetic Determinism

It’s not taboo to profess that genetics play a role in the variance of athletic ability but not intelligence, probably because the later is superseding the former in terms of important things like employment, income, reverence, etc. There are increasingly few jobs where physical ability plays a role in the hiring process, and the jobs that do typically don’t pay well. In the smartist era, people are looking up to scientists and other intellectual professions more so than athletes or actors.

Second, we tend to compare ourselves to people/groups that are similar to us. A person who is cerebral may aspire to understand the world like a famous physicist or to write like a famous author, and thus genius becomes the benchmark of personal self-worth.

The ‘information age’, and especially the post-2008 economy, which has become increasingly financialized and competitive, rewards intellectual prowess more so than physical strength. 100 years ago, when physical labor was more important and revered, things were probably reversed, with physical strength being perceived as more important than cleverness. A person who understands quantum physics–judging by wages and prestige online–by many quantifiable measures, is a superior to a laborer.

But rather than accept the unfair reality that some people are indeed ‘born better’ than others, we explain away these differences in outcomes by retelling these myths and fairy tales about IQ and talent, because the alternative challenges ‘free will’ and egalitarianism–beliefs many Americans hold dear. We explain-away biological reality by creating our own reality for why some are more successful than others: maybe it’s ‘10,000 hours of practice’, an ‘unfair environmental advantage’, ‘fraud, cheating, or crony capitalism’, or ‘really, really, really good parenting and schools, and very, very, very early intervention’–never genes. To fulfill these rationalizations often means wasteful pubic policy at taxpayer expense, such as universal pre-k, intended to fix an achievement gap that is actually an IQ gap.

We need to learn to set realistic expectations both for ourselves and our children, even if such expectations aren’t what we want. But given how much emotionally and financially policy makers are vested in continuing theses wrong approaches (the entire multi-billion dollar educational industrial complex, which employs thousands of bureaucrats and administrators, is at stake), it’s hard to be too optimistic things will change.