“Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell

# reading# books

At my office book club, we finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. On the whole, I found this book disappointing. I respect Malcolm Gladwell as a storyteller, but as a philosopher his ideas are deeply misguided.

In the first two chapters, Gladwell says the book is about the concept of success. I think the thesis is that conditions predict success more than ones’ individual determination does. That part of the book is compelling.

After that, Gladwell uses the rest of the book as a rambling argument for racism. The book’s penultimate chapter is called “Rice Paddies and Math Tests,” which — you may have guessed — is about how Chinese people are good at math because of rice farming. That’s as crass as a stereotype can be. Gladwell never feigns any attempt at subtlety or caution. Gladwell’s coup de grace in the final paragraph of the chapter is that the world’s hardest working students and the countries with the world’s best math students are all in East and Southeast Asia: Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan.

What those five have in common, of course, is that they are all cultures shaped by the tradition of wet-rice agriculture.

Gladwell leaves it to a footnote to clarify that China (the primary country discussed in the chapter) is omitted from this list for technical reasons, and he completely ignores that neither Signapore nor Hong Kong produce any rice at all. In fact, the other three countries don’t even produce that much rice. Per person, they rank below Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nepal, Mali, Madagascar, India, and Peru — all countries that have miraculously avoided the good-at-math stereotype.

But Gladwell asserts that Asian readers should take no offense at the bizarrely unsubstantiated stereotype.

Go to any Western college campus and you’ll find that Asian students have a reputation for being in the library long after everyone else has left. Sometimes people of Asian background get offended when their culture is described in this way, because they think that the stereotype is being used as a form of disparagement. But a belief in work ought to be a thing of beauty… Working really hard is what successful people do, and the genius of the culture formed in the rice paddies is that hard work gave those in the fields a way to find meaning in the midst of great uncertainty and poverty. That lesson has served Asians well in many endeavors but rarely so perfectly as in the case of mathematics.

Gladwell acts as if he misses the obvious facts here:

  • anyone would be offended if you described them as if they had just walked out of a peasant farm,
  • millions of East Asians feel uncomfortable as strange assumptions about their skills and interests follow them through their whole lives, and
  • billions of people from thousands of cultures in dozens of countries compose the group that Gladwell describes as “Asian” and reduces to the concepts of rice.

But more than that, he also ignores the wrongness of assuming character traits about people based on their ethnicity. On the contrary, he argues that to do so is logical — a lazy intellectual trap that puts Gladwell squarely in the same category as the eugenicists and phrenologists of days past.

I won’t comb through the rest of the book, but I had similar qualms with almost every chapter. This raises the question: is Gladwell deliberately oblivious, or just unwise? In this case, I think he’s probably just unwise. Towards the end of the book, he loosely logics that Caribbean slavery was ultimately a good things because it led to himself (a descendent of slaves) being born. We don’t need a Philosophy 101 class to understand that consequence doesn’t justify cause, but Gladwell seems to genuinely miss this fact.

© Sam Littlefair, 2023