Tag Archives: statistics

Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers. A book review by Alan Judson

Malcolm Gladwell.  Outliers.

Who would like this book:

-People in business who want to spout of some interesting facts around the photocopier (Hey, speaking of flying, do you know why Korean Air had the most airplane crashes of any other developed nation…)

-Those who like a quick, entertaining, “cultural” studies books

-People who enjoy simple explanations

Malcolm Gladwell, Canada’s own prolific, best-selling author, brings his interpretation of statistics to the masses, in an entertaining format that jumps from Bill Gates’ back pages, to the precise, mathematical equation, explaining why the Beatles became famous.  There aren’t many instances that I can use my hidden superpower (I found in school that I excelled in Statistics, of all things – why couldn’t my secret gift have been an angelic voice!).

A chart of Demetri Martin's - Stats can be funny...

This book is not strictly about stats – or it wouldn’t be a best-seller.  It is about success.  Why are some geniuses successful, while others are working normal or sub-normal jobs?  It is because of their upbringing and situation.

Malcolm’s basic argument is that outliers – statistical jargon for things that fall outside of the usual predictions or mediocrity – are not self-made, but the result of their circumstances.  Bill Gates, for instance, is not a computer business mogul only because of his intelligence, but because he happened to go to a school that had a computer (rare for his time), and happened to have liked computers young, and happened to get free computer time at a local university (also a rare situation), etc., etc.

Geniuses, like Bill Gates, had a series of fortunate events, that perfectly aligned to allow him to be one of the richest men in history.   He is heavily on the side of nurture, rather than nature.  I don’t have a problem with this.  I don’t believe that having a “killing” gene, or a “infidelity” gene determines whether or not a person will murder or cheat.  But, Gladwell takes certain liberties that I don’t agree with…

Fine.  Environment is a huge factor.  But Gladwell kneads outs his examples until he can pin-point the cause of, say, Bill Gates’s success and the success of many successful computer geeks of his era.  He says the perfect time to be born is something like 1954 or 1953.   What is more ludicrous than picking a golden year to be a giant software tycoon, is his proofs.

He gives a list of successful computer giants that were born on, or within, one year of the date.  I say, what about the thousands of successful computer geeks that were born in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s?

Although not all his examples are so absurd, I feel like he was stretching his examples to fit his argument.

Maybe I’m a logic snob, but I wouldn’t recommend this book because he tries to simplify complex concepts.   I appreciate his reaction to the myth of the “self-made man,” but he could have still used entertaining examples, and softened his grand conclusions.

Outliers ≠read.

By the way, if you want to see a really funny mash-up of charts, graphs and humour, watch this Demetri Martin video (I featured his chart, above):

http://www.youtube.com/v/GuOaVRerZLY?fs=1&hl=en_US

Also:

Cool stats website that tallies World Population, Energy Usage, etc., in real time.

http://www.worldometers.info/

Alan