Top critical review
Misplaced Expectations -- Negative, Rambling, Random, Unscientific
Reviewed in the United States on June 26, 2020
I came in from reading Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, expecting scientific, statistically backed, thoughtfully reasoned bite-sized chunks of knowledge. Instead, I felt like I was reading a tabloid writer's stream-of-consciousness brain dump of trivia. Breaking down my disappointment into four general categories:
1.) Negative -- excessively so. Human deaths are treated like numbers, lives categorized as "success" or "failure" as if no shade of gray existed. One of the few "genius" cases studied, Chris Langan is portrayed as a failed human being for being unable to negotiate financial aid or a change in class schedule. The author conveniently treats his college dropout as his fault for lacking "savvy... to get what he wanted from the world." Gladwell compares Langan to Oppenheimer, making random connections to a scientist from a different era, jumping to conclusions in comparing two people that didn't even deal with the same problems. Providing painstaking second-by-second detail into the final moments of Korean Airlines' 801 crash. Belittling poor families for letting their children choose their own pastimes. Morbidly dramatizing the family feud between the Howards and the Turners, when the point of the chapter/lesson benefited from no such detail. There's such an obsession with death and negativity that I found the book difficult to digest and follow without compartmentalizing large chunks. The book drained me of any positivity and hope each time I read one of these startlingly negative case studies.
2.) Rambling -- small talk, irrelevant facts thrown in as gossip. History lessons and useless divergences abound. Wasted words, either to drive home points as dramatically as possible, or feign scientific expertise under the guise of trivia knowledge. The detailed who-killed-who in a family feud has no relevance to the topic at hand. I don't care how many cases of insanity a random educator studied in 1871, or how many people died on a plane crash. Even the aizuchi in a cockpit conversation seemed over-the-top. More than half of several pages in the book contain fine-print-sized sidenotes that constituted little more than divergences or parenthetical remarks, which, though, interesting, didn't add much credibility; on the contrary, it made it seem as if the author didn't take the time to cull irrelevance and move interesting topics into an appendix, or into the body of the text itself. An editor needed to take a fine-toothed comb and cut the fat by about half. Ultimately, when I found myself meandering down one of these divergences, I skipped entire paragraphs and pages to reach the thesis or the point.
3.) Jumping between vignettes with little to no transition. Chapters often begin with a long divergent story without introduction, without even stating the point or relevance to topic at hand. It was hard to get interested or invested in these stories because (a.) I knew these people were going to die, and (b.) there wasn't even the slightest hint as to why this story would be relevant. Then, before the author made the connection, he'd jump to another story, another divergence. For example, in studying the importance and influence of culture on plane crashes, the author jumped from a Korean Air cockpit to a discussion of Russia, to the cockpit of a flight from Dubai with Colombian crew, all without so much as a transition or thesis sentence. I was left wondering what happened to the Korean flight, then what it had to do with outliers -- particularly successful or bright people -- then assigning faces to more names, more cultural generalizations. The book is full of random jumps between scenes without so much as a transition. It was confusing and frustrating to parse.
4.) Unstatistical -- The book suffers from a heavy dose of WYSIATI -- What You See Is All There Is. Cases are brought into light conveniently when the author wants to make a point, and just as conveniently dismissed or not mentioned when they don't support the point. A study following families and the way they raise their children surveyed only 12 families (!) -- a minuscule sample size -- then makes generalizations about the influence of two parental styles: rich and entitled vs. poor and meek. Similarly, a case study on Marita in the KIPP Academy program focuses entirely on the positives of discipline in her schedule, without comment or perspective on its rigidity. Never mind that she had no more friends from her old school, or how much sleep she was losing. All that seemed to matter was the author's point that certain environments can elevate the poor. The prowess of Asian students in mathematics, compared to English-speaking Western children, is explained away by the shortness and ease-of-pronunciation of the Chinese words for numbers, without any brain studies, control groups, or consideration of cultural emphases on study and discipline. Langan is compared to Oppenheimer simply because the author was reminded of one of them when interviewing Langan. Many explanations, however convenient or logical, focus on a single fact or coincidence with little regard for alternatives or counter-arguments. With rare exceptions, statistics, when presented, don't seem to tie to any particular cited journal or brain study. When a conclusion is reached, it seems plausible only because the story - the tabloids, the drama, the convenience - seems solid, not because all the facts have been considered and the science consulted.
Overall, I don't feel like I came away from the book more enlightened or educated about the environments around geniuses or success stories. Instead, I felt like I finished watching a season of Encounters, live TV trying to explain phenomena like crop circles through random anecdotal accounts and sounding smart by mixing in some interviews. I don't recommend this book to the scientifically inclined.