Sunday, June 7, 2009

Poking Holes in Gladwell

This seems to happen regularly with Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker articles: I read them, think "Wow, that's really amazing and fascinating," and then a couple weeks later readers write in and tear his ideas to pieces.

Most recently, it was Gladwell's article about David vs. Goliath situations. Focusing on a mediocre girls basketball team that succeeded because they always used the full-court press, Gladwell built a series of reflections about how underdogs can win if they refuse to play in the conventional way. Gladwell compares the girls to Lawrence of Arabia and his Bedouins' successful guerrilla tactics against the Ottoman Empire.  

The team takes some flak for their tactics: "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." But Gladwell counters: "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."

The article was thought-provoking, seemed pretty solid. Yet in this week's issue three letters shoot major holes in Gladwell's theories:

First of all, it turns out the full-court press isn't really a secret weapon of the underdogs:

Contrary to Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis, a full-court press in basketball is more likely to be employed by the Goliaths than by the Davids. This is why some junior leagues have a rule that requires a pressing team to drop the press once that team gains a ten-point lead. On the college level, John Wooden used the press to help talent-laden U.C.L.A. win several national championships in the nineteen-sixties.

Secondly, Lawrence of Arabia and the Bedouins weren't really underdogs:

Lawrence’s Bedouins were armed and paid by the world’s industrial and military superpower, the British, and served as just one piece of a global strategy that the Ottomans could not dream of matching. The British had the capability to pour huge, technologically sophisticated armies deep into the heartlands of the Ottoman state. And, while the Bedouins’ role in ripping up some rail lines should not go without mention, neither should Britain’s vast armies, including the hundreds of thousands of Indian and other non-British troops, who were the real reason the Ottomans lost. We must take into account as well Britain’s Navy, the world’s most formidable, which was able to channel resources to the Ottomans’ western border, allowing Lawrence’s Arabs to be resupplied without the possibility of Ottoman interference. It is rather a case of an Ottoman David versus a British Goliath, except that the British added their own David to keep things interesting.

And finally, the girls' strategy really does kind of ruin the game:

Real innovation lies not in David-like strategies but in recognizing the right contexts in which to use them. We must hope such contexts are the exception and not the rule. I recently watched a youth soccer league in Florida where several of the coaches guaranteed victory by having three players stand stock still in front of the small pop-up goals, completely blocking the net for the entire forty-minute game. The players were six years old. The coaches might be considered innovative, but by any measure the game was destroyed for those three players, and arguably for everyone else as well.

After all that, what's left of Gladwell's article?

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