Discussing Talent and Luck

November 16, 2009

Some Twitt chain or other that I was following had me eventually landing on a NYT book review by Steven Pinker which takes a critical approach to Malcolm Gladwell’s new book of essays “What the Dog Saw: and other adventures“. I was particularly struck by this passage:

The common thread in Gladwell’s writing is a kind of populism, which seeks to undermine the ideals of talent, intelligence and analytical prowess in favor of luck, opportunity, experience and intuition. For an apolitical writer like Gladwell, this has the advantage of appealing both to the Horatio Alger right and to the egalitarian left. Unfortunately he wildly overstates his empirical case. It is simply not true that a quarter­back’s rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros, that cognitive skills don’t predict a teacher’s effectiveness, that intelligence scores are poorly related to job performance or (the major claim in “Outliers”) that above a minimum I.Q. of 120, higher intelligence does not bring greater intellectual achievements.

Not only because it is the source of some of my own queasiness when reading (and trying to discuss) Gladwell, but also because I fall into this trap when talking about science careers.

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