malcolm gladwell

Other People’s Philanthropy: Why Gladwell is Wrong About Higher Ed Giving


Esteemed essayist and bad debater Malcolm Gladwell has now entered the podcast game. And as one would expect, he’s already a formidable player. His new series, Revisionist History, is good. I’ve listened to three episodes so far and enjoyed each. However, I take issue with his criticisms of higher-education giving in Episode Six: My Little Hundred Million. Thus, a new post.

My Little Hundred Million is the third in a series on higher education, a topic Gladwell is evidently passionate about. The episode condemns the relatively recent philanthropic phenomenon of multi-billion dollar gifts to universities that already have enormous endowments. Think Stanford, Harvard, MIT, University of Chicago, Columbia, etc (you can see a list here). Gladwell’s argument is that a major gift will have more impact if bestowed on a college or university system that needs the money more. This was the logic behind Hank Rowan’s $100 million donation to a small university in New Jersey (shunning his alma mater, MIT), which essentially kicked off the modern trend of billionaire gifts to universities.

(At least, I think that’s Gladwell’s argument. In the podcast, he curiously never makes the more obvious moral argument: that that type of philanthropy could be better spent on, say, helping feed the hungry, ala effective altruism. If he had, I would be more sympathetic to the criticisms. Instead, it seems like he thinks it should still go to higher education, just to less endowed institutions.)

As usual, Gladwell attempts to add assurance to the argument he’s examining by tying it to some kind of named social science theory or statistical analysis. This time, he connects the idea to David Sally and Chris Anderson’s popular analysis on “weak-link” and “strong-link” players in soccer (see their book, The Numbers Game). Essentially, in certain sports, having weaker players hurts your overall chances of winning more than in other sports. Think about soccer. There are very few opportunities to score, so mistakes by weaker players have a proportionally higher impact. Then think about basketball. There are many opportunities to score. So typically, one dominant player–Michael Jordan, say–can make up for the weak links on the team. Therefore, having a few weaker players isn’t going to have as big of an impact in basketball as it would in soccer. Basketball is a strong-link game. Soccer is a weak-link game. Gladwell apparently sees higher education giving as a weak-link game, and is appalled by the prevailing strong-link mentality of donors and universities.

And in some ways, Gladwell may be correct. I think often about philanthropy, particularly philanthropic efficiency and effectiveness. There is certainly waste and there is certainly mis-allocation of funds. But to make a strong call on the rightness or wrongness of a gift, you first need to agree on the 1) goals of the donor, 2) the timeline of impact, and the 3) type of difference the donor is trying to make. Gladwell doesn’t examine any of these in his criticisms, particularly of Phil Knight’s $400M gift to an unnamed graduate program at Stanford, initiated by outgoing president, John Hennessy. Instead, Gladwell assumes the goals for himself. He takes it for granted that donors should or do have the same goals, timeline, and types of impact in mind as he does. This leads to an overly broad conclusion and what is certain to be bad advice to billionaires in many instances: don’t give to top universities.

Why is it bad advice? Let’s examine the conclusion in the context of goals. What if my goal, as a donor, is to cure a particular type of cancer as fast as possible. Should I not give to a top-tier research institution like MIT? Would it be better to give to a small state school, with hardly any medical infrastructure to speak of? In which instance is my goal most likely to be accomplished in the shortest amount of time? I think the answer is obvious. The same would go for a number of different scenarios.

In My Little Hundred Million, we don’t hear from a single billionaire donor to a large university. Gladwell seems to assume the donors’ goals are (or should be) his goals: namely, supporting a “rising tides lift all boats” theory of education that will ultimately, in his view, lead to better economic output on the whole. Sure, that’s a fine goal*. But we don’t know if the donors have the same goal. And it’s their money. They’re smart people. Maybe they have a good reason or argument. Without talking to them about their objectives and rationale, it’s silly to broadly condemn, and Gladwell slips into a kind of simple, self-righteous moralism. It’s as silly as if I were to condemn him for not immediately giving his notoriously high speaking fees directly to, say, the Against Malaria Foundation**. After all, $80,000 for a speaking gig would buy some 18,000 mosquito nets in the DRC and Malawi, likely saving or pro longing hundreds of lives. Isn’t that better than spending money on podcast production?

In any event, I still recommend the podcast. But even more strongly recommend that you listen with a critical ear.

*Though I’m far from convinced by the economic output argument…wouldn’t the U.S. have a better chance of staying competitive if we gave more to universities that are already on the cusp of major innovations, rather than ones that need to catch up?

**The Against Malaria Foundation, petulance aside, is an excellent charity. 

Fooled again! Pinker puts a nail in the coffin of the Freakonomics crime theory?

This keeps happening to me. Every time I pick up a social science book, my understanding of the dramatic crime drop in the ’90’s changes (all three books I reference are pre-2011, so apologies if I’m late to the party and you already know all this).

First there was Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, which postulated that the “Broken Windows Theory”  (the idea that policing minor crimes like vandalism has an effect on major crime as well) was responsible. That sounded mildly convincing, until I read Dubner and Levitt’s Freakonomics a few weeks later, which argues that legalized abortion actually correlates quite well with the drop in crime (simply, the mothers in environments most likely to have children prone to violence later in life started having abortions in the 70’s when it was legalized, thus there were fewer potential delinquents around in the 90’s). That seemed to blow Broken Windows out of the water (see earlier post here), and I remained convinced of the abortion correlation until coming to a section in Steven Pinker’s epic, The Better Angels of Our Nature, a few days ago. Now, I’ve got to say, I’ve switched again.

Pinker rebuts quite convincingly the theory popularized in Freakonomics, and puts forward two overarching explanations but admits that the decline “likely had multiple causes, and no one can be certain what they were, because too many things happened at once.” Since this is the third time my opinion has been swayed, I’m perfectly happy to remain agnostic on the issue. I am reproducing Pinker’s entire section below that refutes the abortion theory (without permission…hope he doesn’t mind) because I can’t find a thorough enough excerpt on the web. Do consider reading the entire book, however. It’s one of the best I’ve ever picked up.

From Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, hardback, page 119-121 (without annotations):

The 1990s crime decline inspired one of the stranger hypotheses in the study of violence. When I told people I was writing a book on the historical decline of violence, I was repeatedly informed that the phenomenon had already been solved. rates of violence have come down, they explained to me, because after abortion was legalized by the 1973 Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision, the unwanted children who would ordinarily have grown up to be criminals were not born in the first place, because their begrudging or unfit mothers had had abortions instead. I first heard of this theory in 2001 when it was proposed by the economists John Donohue and Steven Levitt, but it seemed too cute to be true. Any hypothesis that comes out of left field to explain a massive social trend with a single overlooked event will almost certainly turn out to be wrong, even if it has some data supporting it at the time. But Levitt, together with journalist Steven Dubner, popularized the theory in their bestseller Freakonomics, and now a large proportion of the public believes that crime went down in the 1990s because women aborted their crime-fated fetuses in the 1970s.

To be fair, Levitt went on to argue that Roe v. Wade was just one of four causes of the crime decline, and he has presented sophisticated correlational statistics in support of the connection. For example, he showed that the handful of states that legalized abortion before 1973 were the first to see their crime rates go down. But these statistics compare the two ends of a long, hypothetical, and tenuous causal chain – the availability of legal abortion as the first link and the decline in crime two decades later as the last – and ignore all the links in between. The links include the assumptions that legal abortion causes fewer unwanted children, that unwanted children are more likely to become criminals, and that the first abortion-culled generation was the one spearheading the 1990s crime decline. But there are other explanations for the overall correlation (for example, that the large liberal states that first legalized abortion were also the first states to see the rise and fall of the crack epidemic) and the intermediate links have turned out to be fragile or nonexistent.

To begin with, the freakonomics theory assumes that women were just as likely to have conceived unwanted children before and after 1973, and that the only difference was whether the children were born. But once abortion was legalized, couples may have treated it as a backup method of birth control and may have engaged in more unprotected sex. If the women conceived more unwanted children in the first place, the option of aborting more of them could leave the proportion of unwanted children the same. In fact, the proportion of unwanted children could even have increased if women were emboldened by the abortion option to have more unprotected sex in the heat of the moment, but then procrastinated or had second thoughts once they were pregnant. That may help explain why in the years since 1973 the proportion of children born to women in the most vulnerable categories – poor, single, teenage, and African American – did not decrease, as the freakonomics theory would predict. It increased, and by a lot.

What about differences among individual women within a crime-prone population? Here the freakonomics theory would seem to get things backwards. Among women who are accidentally pregnant and unprepared to raise a child, the ones who terminate their pregnancies are likely to be forward-thinking, realistic, and disciplined, whereas the ones who carry the child to term are more likely to be fatalistic, disorganized, or immaturely focused on the thought of a cute baby rather than an unruly adolescent. Several studies have borne this out. Young pregnant women who opt for abortions get better grades, are less likely to be on welfare, and are more likely to finish school than their counterparts who have miscarriages or carry their pregnancies to term. The availability of abortion thus may have led to a generation that is more prone to crime because it weeded out just the children who, whether through genes or environment, were most likely to exercise maturity and self-control.

Also, the freakonomists’ theory about the psychological causes of crime comes right out of “Gee, Officer Krupke” when a gang member says of his parents, “They didn’t wanna have me, but somehow I was had. Leapin’ lizards! That’s why I’m so bad!” And it is now as plausible. Though unwanted children may grow up to commit more crimes, it is more likely that women in crime-prone environments have more unwanted children than that unwantedness causes criminal behavior directly. In the studies that pit the effects of parenting against the effects of the children’s peer environment, holding genes constant, the peer environment almost always wins.

Finally, if easy abortion after 1973 sculpted a more crime-averse generation, the crime decline should have begun with the youngest group and then crept up the age brackets as they got older. The sixteen-year-olds of 1993, for example (who were born in 1977, when abortions were in full swing), should have committed fewer crimes than the sixteen-year-olds of 1983 (who were born in 1967, when abortion was illegal). By similar logic, the twenty-two-year-olds of 1993 should have remained violent, because they were born in pre-Roe 1971. Only in the late 1990s, when the first post-Roe generation reached their twenties, should the twenty-something age bracket have become less violent. In fact, the opposite happened. When the first post-Roe generation came of age in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they did not tug the homicide statistics downward; they indulged in an unprecedented spree of mayhem. The crime decline began when the older cohorts, born well before Roe, laid down their guns and knives, and from them the lower homicide rates trickled down the age scale.

The Triumph of Steven Pinker and Disillusionment with Malcolm Gladwell

Once, not too long ago, I was enthralled by the fascinating subject matter and charming prose of journalist and essayist Malcolm Gladwell. Few interested in psychology or social science have not read at least one of his bestselling books, which include The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, or followed his essays in The New Yorker. Having devoured Blink in high school, I can still vividly recall many of its lessons, and even today occasionally catch myself applying Blink-ist thinking to real-world situations (a Gladwell book was an easy gift for a string of holidays). But I can also vividly recall reading what I then perceived as an overly critical review of Gladwell’s work by some guy named Steven Pinker, who said something like, “[reading Gladwell] had me gnawing on my Kindle.”

Fast forward to 2013, and Steven Pinker is no longer just some guy to me, but one of the world’s most interesting thinkers. He is currently a professor of psychology at Harvard, and has raised his profile over the years with public advocacy of science (you may recognize him by his locks – his hair has its own facebook fan page) and a string of best-selling books on language and cognitive psychology. His most recent work, The Better Nature of Our Angels, was hailed by Bill Gates as one of the most important books he’s ever read.

Now knowing a bit more (though not much) about statistics, logical fallacies, and the dangers of inept data interpretation, I have reread Pinker’s 2009 review of Gladwell’s work in the NY Times, and couldn’t agree more with its conclusions. Pinker points out that Gladwell is far from an expert on statistics or social science, and summarizes his concerns in the following way:

” . . . When a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong . . . The reasoning in ‘Outliers,’ which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle . . . Readers have much to learn from Gladwell the journalist and essayist. But when it comes to Gladwell the social scientist, they should watch out for those igon values.”

The reference to “igon values” is a stab at Gladwell’s sophomoric misuse and misspelling of linear algebra’s “eigenvalue”. Gladwell fired back in a response, and the two ended up in a bit of a written exchange over, of all things, football statistics. But the lesson here is even more important than those I’ve remembered from Blink. Social science is a tricky business, with vast amounts of room for error in interpretation. We have to be careful accepting conclusions based on anecdotal evidence, and especially of trusting individuals writing or speaking far outside their area of expertise.

The other lesson is to read often and read widely. My first bit of disillusionment with Gladwell actually came a few years ago, while simultaneously reading The Tipping Point and Dubner and Levitt’s Freakonomics. Both books, in what I assume was a coincidence, tried to answer the question of why crime rates had dropped so suddenly in New York City in the mid-90’s. I won’t spoil the conclusions for those who haven’t read the books, but let’s just say they were radically different, and it seemed clear to me that the take in Freakonomics was much more likely (and was backed up by much more data).

That’s not to say Gladwell doesn’t have much to offer (it’s also not to say that Pinker is infallible or should be read without some degree of skepticism either). I would agree with Pinker’s back-handed assessment of Gladwell as at least a “minor genius” with a unique voice and take on the world (though I’m not sure I agree with his take on the future of religion, here). In summary, I very much look forward to the next release of a Gladwell book; though this time I’ll know to spend more time savoring the prose than conclusions.