Critics and Gurus- Underdogs, Misfits and The Science of Battling Cognitive Bias

There is a marked difference in quality between the book reviews you read in The Wall Street Journal and its online magazine Speakeasy. While the former consistently produces critical review of books the latter is just like any other blog out there that suspends any kind of thinking in reviews. Speakeasy’s latest review is on Gladwell’s new book, “David and Goliath” with a far reaching subtitle of, “Underdogs, Misfits and The Art of Battling Giants”

You can bet I have not read this book nor will I read this (unless of course for a price). But I am here to tell you this book is most likely rife with cognitive biases and you should do everything to avoid it.  Who am I kidding? No one reads books. They just read blog posts about books and retweet some memorable quotes tweeted by someone who read the review.

Most likely you are going to  believe Goliath’s days are numbered and underdogs are already winning.  You know why? Because

Malcolm Gladwell, with his unparalleled ability to grasp connections others miss, uncovers the hidden rules that shape the balance between the weak and the mighty, the powerful and the dispossessed.

I am willing to wager that most also see themselves as underdogs and see lessons from Gladwell’s unparalleled ability to grasp connections. And see the hidden rules are all they need to win their war against their Goliaths.

Unfortunately if underdogs are in a battle against big dog they likely are not going to win. That is just going by the base rate and not because I personally know these underdogs. There are no rules, hidden or overt. There are no connections. There are no lessons to win against Goliaths.

For starters just by the sheer number of battles that go on there are bound to be a few where the Davids win due to sheer luck.  Anyone motivated and looking for connections or hidden rules in these victories will find something in these.

Second, after the Guru makes up his mind about rules to look for he will find them in these carefully chosen examples, rules that explain how David won.

Third the Guru can only look at those Davids that lived to tell the story. That is the survivorship bias. What about so many other battles that are not recorded and available for the Guru to apply his unparalleled ability to grasp connections?

Just because some underdogs can win their battles against Goliaths does not mean any underdog will win. But that will be lost among the many loyal followers.

Finally a point by point response to questions the book supposedly answers

When is a traumatic childhood a good thing?

Seriously? I hope you do not start traumatizing your child. Say you round up 100 people and mistreat them everyday. Day after day half of them die, finally leaving one person. Would you really take a lesson from the last man standing?


When does a disability leave someone better off?

At best this is downward counterfactual thinking and at worst this is plain cruel. What makes the Guru think that person would not have achieved even greater things if not for the disability?

Why are the childhoods of people at the top of one profession after another marked by deprivation and struggle?

Are you kidding me? Let us grab a random sample of said people and rate their childhoods. How different is that number from general population?

Good for the Guru, the editor decided to call it  “The Art”. Anything and everything can be swept under that title and those underdog critics who ask for Data are simply ignored. For these Goliaths, the data seeking Davids are not even worth fighting against.



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