Monday, June 01, 2009

The Badwell of Gladwell

A ton of you guys sent in the link to How David Beats Goliath, a story written by Malcom Gladwell for The New Yorker.

I love data guys. I do. I love reading their work.

Malcolm Gladwell, though, is not a data guy. He's a cultural fabulist. He tells stories that people want to hear, wraps a pseudo-data shell around the story, and presto--instant meme.

The problem, though, is that many of the connections he makes (that are enormously appealing on an emotional level) are utterly ridiculous.

"How David Beats Goliath" is a case in point. Let's take a look at how Gladwell mangles the use of data, but he tells the story so skillfully that unless we're paying close attention, we won't even notice.

First off, if you haven't read the article yet, I encourage you to do so. If you're lazy (totally acceptable), let me try to briefly explain what happens. Gladwell takes the success of a basketball team of twelve-year old girls using the full-court press, throws in a myth (the battle of David versus Goliath), references a study by political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft on unconventional strategies in war (How The Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymetric Conflict), lobs in Lawrence of Arabia, a basketball game in 1971 between Fordham and the University of Massachusetts, Rick Pitino, George Washington, and...oh shit, let's just stop there. I'm exhausted.

That's one of the things Gladwell does--he throws so many different things on the wall, and they're so difficult to keep track of or evaluate on an individual basis, that you become convinced that they must all be connected, because he says so.

Here's Gladwell's premise:
David’s victory over Goliath, in the Biblical account, is held to be an anomaly. It was not. Davids win all the time. The political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arreguín-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful—in terms of armed might and population—as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.

They way they win, Gladwell claims, is by using unconventional strategy:
What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”

"When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath's rules, they win." There's the money shot. That's the appealing, homespun moral that people want to hear.

And what's a more appealing underdog story than a bunch of twelve-year old girls who have little experience with basketball, taking on mythically powerful other twelve-year old girls? Well, except the underdogs had a little help:
Because Ranadivé had never played basketball, he recruited a series of experts to help him. The first was Roger Craig, the former all-pro running back for the San Francisco 49ers, who is also TIBCO’s director of business development. As a football player, Craig was legendary for the off-season hill workouts he put himself through. Most of his N.F.L. teammates are now hobbling around golf courses. He has run seven marathons. After Craig signed on, he recruited his daughter Rometra, who played Division I basketball at Duke and U.S.C.

Wait! The underdogs had a former NFL All-Pro running back to help them, and a woman's D1 basketball player from USC? Those are underdogs?

You should be able to guess how this all turns out. The girls full-court pressed every game, crushed their opponents in humiliating fashion because of their "unconventional strategy," and advanced to the national championship, where Gladwell strongly implies that they lost because the referees cheated them.

Of course, because if David uses the unconventional strategy, he's almost sure to win, and if he doesn't, he must have gotten screwed.

Now there are a couple of lines of attack to Gladwell's entirely foolish line of thinking. The first is to say that trying to connect girl's basketball and a theory of war are incredibly, utterly ridiculous.

Sure, Gladwell makes it read in a very compelling manner. But at its core, the argument is utterly stupid. There is absolutely nothing that can be learned from a study of asymmetric forces in war that can be applied to anything. War is a unique case. Yes, there are plenty of platitudes, if you want them, but an honest application of data from war to some sort of broader meaning for society? No.

It certainly speaks to Gladwell's incredibly compelling ability as a writer that he could make these claims and people actually took him seriously.

Let's say, though, just for argument, that drawing conclusions beyond the theater of war from Ivan Arreguín-Toft's study is entirely valid. Even if that were true, Gladwell absolutely butchers the data he claims to be using.

Ivan Arreguín-Toft advances several hypotheses in his study, but here's the one that Gladwell is using:
Hypothesis 2: When strong actors attack with a direct strategy and weak actors defend using an indirect strategy, all other things being equal, weak actors should win.

Remember, it's weak actors using an indirect strategy, and what he's talking about is guerilla warfare strategy (which he calls GWS). He breaks down wars into into "strong actors" and "weak actors," then classifies their actions as "direct" or "indirect." Take a look at his method:
"The basic method of coding cases was to examine the history of each war in the Correlates of War data set. A conflict was coded asymmetric if the halved product of one actor’s armed forces and population exceeded the simple product of its adversary’s armed forces and population by ³ 5:1. If the strong actor used armed forces to attempt to destroy a weak actor’s forces or capture values, it was coded as a direct attack. If the weak actor used armed forces to attempt to thwart these attacks, it was coded as a direct defense. A coding of barbarism was reserved for strong actors that systematically targeted noncombatants, employed illicit weapons, or accepted collateral damage in a strategic bombing campaign after bomb damage assessments cast considerable doubt on the efficacy of the campaign as a whole. A weak actor was coded as using a GWS if it sought to impose costs on the strong actor with armed force while avoiding pitched battles."

Wait a minute--the indirect strategy for the weak actor avoids pitched battles? Is there any strategy in basketball more direct, more confrontational than the full-court press?

If you're not familiar with basketball, the answer to that last question is "of course not." The full-court press is absolutely the most confrontational strategy imaginable. Nolan Richardson, who won a national championship at Arkansas using the full-court press for the entire game, called the strategy "forty minutes of hell."

Does that sound like avoiding a pitched battle?

Here's another excerpt from Ivan Arreguín-Toft:
In asymmetric conflicts, delay favors the weak.

Arreguín-Toft is actually arguing the opposite of what Gladwell says.

The full court press isn't a delay. It's an acceleration!

If you wanted to use Arreguín-Toft's conclusions and apply them to basketball, the lesson would be that inferior teams should just hold the ball for as long as possible and reduce the number of possessions in the game, not increase them.

In fact, this was done quite frequently at one time. Weaker teams trying this strategy would hold the ball for several minutes (or longer), passing the ball endlessly, until finally trying a shot. Their strategy was to keep the score close by reducing the total number of possessions in the game, which would hopefully give them a better chance to win.

Did it work? Sometimes. And it was so excruciatingly boring to watch that the shot clock was created, so that teams had to take a shot within a certain number of seconds (the time allowed varies by league).

So Gladwell not only makes a ridiculous argument, he makes it by absolutely butchering the data he's allegedly using. It's gibberish.

Like I said, Gladwell is a fabulist, not a data guy. Be entertained, but don't be fooled.

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