Some thoughts after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath”

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book “David and Goliath” is another very intriguing book of his.  I guess being a newspaper journalist, the author has had the skill to use a few words or sentences to immediately catch your attention and continue reading.  Here are some thoughts.

Parents of children going to colleges (in foreseeable future) should read at least Chapter 3 of “David and Goliath”.   It’s always dangerous to think that you understand every statistical result.  But the statistics shown there is very interesting.  Even though students going to Harvard have significant better academic records than (say) students in Hartwick College, the same % of STEM (Science/Technology/Math) majors in Harvard and Hartwick gave up on STEM.  So, if you want to graduate as a physicist or engineer, you’d better go to Hartwick ( or I guess UCLA, Stony Brook …) rather than Harvard, Stanford … unless you’re sure that you’ll be at the top of the STEM classes in Harvard etc.  I guess this is hard for parents/students to accept but it has its reason … If you’re likely to be at the bottom of your Harvard classes, it’s probably better to go to a school with a notch down. Otherwise, you may be demoralized by the other smarter students and do worse than if you go to a slightly less competitive school.  This is the theory of “relative deprivation”.  The author tries to advocate the idea that it may be better to be a BIG FISH in a small pond rather than a small fish in a BIG POND.

Nothing is absolutely true but it’s certainly something to think about rather than just blindly pushing yourself to the top-tier universities (esp. having to pay all those ridiculous fees ….) assuming that it’s always better that way. [ I like the last story of Chapter 3, p. 94-96, that “a fair number of math and physics majors who end up in tax law” just amuses me.   I indulge in the illusion that I may be smarter than all those lawyers who can’t compete in physics and math 🙂 ]

This book is probably opposite to his old book “Blink” where he emphasized on the “instinct”.  Here he showed us what seems obvious may not be the case after some careful analysis.  In the classic story of David v. Goliath, after the author’s analysis, one realizes that David was not really the underdog that we’re told nor did David need God’s miracle to secure his victory.  There, I learnt that in ancient warfare, “three kinds of warriors balanced each other” (p. 10, lines 5-6).  Projectile warriors (like David the slinger) beat infantry, infantry (with their long pikes and armor) stood up against cavalry and cavalry could defeat the projective warriors “because the horses moved too quickly for artillery to take proper aim” (p.10, lines 9-10).  I wonder why I knew nothing about this before ?!

On p. 142, when I read lines 14-17: “Gifted children and child prodigies seem most likely to emerge in highly supportive family conditions.  In contrast, geniuses have a perverse tendency of growing up in more adverse conditions.”  I couldn’t help smiling.  This is “Part 2” of the book which is about the “theory of desirable difficulty”.  I couldn’t imagine that one of the two opposing lawyers in the US Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore (— they recently joined forces in fighting for same-sex marriage civil right in the Supreme Court) actually suffered from dyslexia (having reading/learning difficulty). The people in “Part 2” all succeeded not really because they overcame their shortcomings but because they turned their apparent shortcomings into becoming their advantages.  Intelligence and probably some luck played some parts as to how David Boies could become a lawyer in the first place when he had dyslexia.  But more importantly, his success seems to be due to his peculiar ability to listen and remember what people have said — a skill or two that he’s developed when he had dyslexia, and needless to say his tremendous effort.  Not everybody with dyslexia would succeed like Boies but those who know how to turn their apparent disadvantage into their advantage may !

On p. 170 (lines 4-7): “African Americans had spent a few hundred years learning how to cope with being outgunned and overmatched.  Along the way they had learned a few things about battling giants.”  This probably gives one of the reasons why African Americans seem to have formed a powerful racial group in US in fighting for their rights, considerably superior to (say) Asian Americans.  This plus “near misses v. remote misses”, and the limits of power and the principle of legitimacy in “Part 3” are all probably enlightening if not immediately useful for people in Hong Kong (HK) to fight for their rights against the Mainland authoritarian government — something I immediately thought about while reading this book.  The Vietnamese have beaten the French and the American not by having better or more weapons but by their guerrilla tactics and their endurance.  This is probably also relevant when Mao/CCP defeated Chiang Kai Shek/KMT.  The underdog often needs to find a different way to win.  This also made me remember that when the Chinese PLA fought with the Vietnamese in 1970’s, the PLA suffered the same extent of loss as the Vietnamese army even though the PLA thought of  themselves as the more powerful side and wanted to teach the Vietnamese a lesson.  The PLA met their match as the Vietnamese were also the skillful guerrilla and they’re used to be fighting as the underdog.  There is no rule of physics or nature that prevents the underdog from winning !!!  The CCP doesn’t ignore the principle of legitimacy completely (otherwise they could just throw a couple nuclear bombs in HK to end all the misery … in fact they’re the expert to make/pretend things look legitimate) and so has been the Malaysian govt. who has never really cut the water supply from Singapore but just kept threatening — which has helped push the Singapore to advance their water supply strategy and reduce their reliance on Malaysia.

In the Chapter of “Wyatt Walker” in “Part 3”, the author described how the African Americans made use of their “trickster” tactics in the civil right movement, which is not just something that they’ve learnt/developed for hundreds of years but also because they have had no choice !  Like what Mao said, “a revolution is not a dinner party”.  Striving for any right is hard and the HK people need a lot of endurance plus probably some kind of trickster tactics. Obviously, if HK people want to succeed in fighting for any rights, the path to success is probably like those of the underdogs.  If the PRC central govt. thought that they could just exercise their power limitlessly, they’d probably make the same mistake like what the British did in 1969 in Northern Ireland.  Thinking that they could just send in the British army and the problem would be solved in a couple months, it turned out to be 30 years of bloodshed. ( Interestingly, I have never read so much about how the Irish Protestants mistreated the Catholic minority in North Ireland, as we usually only read/heard how the IRA bombed this or that — something a good Irish friend has warned me multiple times. )  From what I’ve seen from the younger generations in HK, there is hope.  The hope cannot be placed upon the older generations (who tend to be too genteel and don’t have the revolutionary oomph) and certainly not people like me looking on from thousands of miles away.

Nevertheless, while reading, I reminded myself not to be a sucker from time to time.  We know that authors are good in manipulating statistics and studies to argue for their main themes.  In the “NOTES” near the end of the book on p. 292, the author quoted an unpublished study and ranking of % of the underground economy as an example of the principle of legitimacy that US tax payers are more honest in paying their taxes because Americans think the US tax system is legitimate 🙂 Even it may be true compared to Greece, I’m not that sure whether it’s so true when compared to Norway, Denmark and Finland etc. I guess how high the tax rate is is also a factor.  And since it’s underground, the statistics is very dubious. This is probably the least promising part of the book (which is probably why the author has put it only in the “NOTES” of smaller fonts).  Also interestingly, the author pointed out himself in the “NOTES”, the 1st paragraph of p. 287, that what he’s saying in this book is a bit different from what he said in his previous book “Outliers” in terms of affirmative action.  I went to library to check on “Outliers” again and on pages 84-86 and 89, he quoted a study from the U. of Michigan that the Black law school graduates, who might not have as good academic record before coming to the law school as the White students, had about the same achievement as the White graduates after they graduated.  There he was trying to illustrate the benefits of intelligence leveling off above the threshold.  But in this book, the author quoted (last line on p. 91 to the 3rd line on p. 92) the law professor Richard Sander that “more than half of all African-American law students in the United States – 51.6 percent – are in the bottom 10 percent of their law school class and almost three-quarters fall in the bottom 20 percent”.  The author said (lines 3-4 of p. 287) that “the specific point made about law schools in Outliers was, in retrospect, naive”.  Hahaha, now he’s more skeptical of the affirmative action than when he was writing “Outliers”.  Thinking a bit here, if all studies quoted above are correct and meaningful, they’re not really contradictory but it only shows that how well one may achieve after graduating from law school is not directly correlated with how well one has done in one’s classes in the law school 🙂  This is perhaps not surprising at all.

On p. 111 (lines 6-7), “Hollingsworth v. Schwarzenegger” should probably be “Perry v. Schwarzenegger” as the author has explained in the footnote on the same page.


About kinyip

An experimental particle physicist ...
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