Sociation Today

Sociation Today

ISSN 1542-6300

The Official Journal of the
North Carolina Sociological Association

A Peer-Reviewed
Refereed Web-Based 

Volume 12, Issue 2

A book review of:
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and The Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell, New York: Little, Brown and Company, October 2013.


George H. Conklin

North Carolina Central University

    For those of us who routinely read articles about human behavior, it is always interesting to see what a popular writer selects from the range of human behavior to focus on to write a popular presentation of what otherwise might be a boring statistical exercise to the general public.  Gladwell  groups his presentation into three areas:  The Advantage of Disadvantages, The Theory of Desirable Difficulty and finally The Limits of Power.  To interest the reader, Gladwell begins each discussion in the book by introducing us to a person, such as Caroline Sacks, who experiences the problem under discussion and always seems to learn something from the experience.
    Like any good author, the strongest part of the book comes first.  Part Two, the theory of desirable difficulty argues, for example, that dyslexic individuals have an advantage over normal people when they overcome disadvantages.  While individuals with dyslexia have done well, none of them, the author notes, would wish the condition on others.  In the third section of the book it is argued that the powerful face limits too, examples being the British in Ireland, the Nazis overcoming the resistance of a village in France which set out to protect Jews during the Nazi era,  and how individuals react to persecution. 

    The main strength of the book is in what Gladwell calls the advantage of disadvantages.  He begins with how David beat Goliath as example of how the weak can be strong.  It seems that David knew how to use a sling shot which could throw a rock with the speed approaching that of a modern bullet.  Thus David stayed away from the giant Goliath and hit him in the head with a high velocity rock.  Having no expertise in this area, I, like most readers, will assume Gladwell is correct.  Strength is in setting the agenda.

    Gladwell then turns to educational issues, such as coaching, optimal class size and the issue of being a big fish in small pond.  He introduces us to Carolina Sacks (a pseudonym) by first telling us about French impressionism in the 1860s in Paris.  Painters such as Pissaro, Cezanne, Manet, Monet and others were having a hard time making a living.  Renoir was broke.  Art was regulated and shown yearly in The Paris Salon, where realism was the expectation.  But impressionists usually could not get accepted and the exhibition hall was huge, meaning many paintings could hardly be seen.  The answer was to set up a small exhibition, called "The Salon des Refusés," making the paintings there big fish in a small pond.  The Salon des Refusés was hugely successful. 

   It seems that Caroline Stacks was a high achieving student in high school interested in science.  She had perfect grades and test scores.  She applied to highly-selective colleges including Brown with  the University of Maryland being her safety school.   She enrolled at Brown.  No longer a big fish and a small pond, Sacks got a grade of B  in Chemistry, which both Sacks and Gladwell accept as a sign of failure!!  Why, neither explains, but it leads to Sacks’ withdrawing from science.  Other examples are provided.  As Gladwell states:
What happened to Carolina Sacks is all too common.  More than half of all American students to start out in science, technology, and math programs (or STEM, as they are known) drop out after their first or second year.  Even though a science degree is just about the most valuable asset a young person can have in the modern economy, large numbers of would-be STEM majors end up switching into the arts, where academic standards are less demanding and the coursework less competitive.  That’s the major reason that there is such a shortage of qualified American-educated scientists and engineers in the United States., p. 81. 
        Using the work of Elliot (et al. 1996), Gladwell compares the proportion of each class which gets a STEM degree compared to the math SAT at Hartwick College and Harvard University.  Here is what he presents for Hartwick:

Students at Hartwick College
STEM Majors
Top Third
Middle Third
Bottom Third
Math SAT
STEM degrees

So the top third of students with the Math SAT as the measure earn over half the science degrees. 

    What about Harvard?   It would be expected that Harvard students would have much higher Math SAT scores and thus the distribution would be quite different.  Here are the data for Harvard:

Students at Harvard University
STEM Majors
Top Third
Middle Third
Bottom Third
Math SAT
STEM degrees

     Gladwell states the obvious, in italics, "Harvard has the same distribution of science degrees as Hartwick," p. 83. 

    Using his reference theory of being a big fish in a small pond, Gladwell  asked Ms. Sacks what would have happened if she had gone to the University of Maryland and not Brown. She replied, “I’d still be in science,” p. 94.
   The above example is a sample of how Gladwell brings forth what might be obscure data in a popular format.   In short, the book is highly readable and cites good sources for its conclusions. 


    What is missing from the book is the subject of the culture of science and that of teaching science.   My parents were both chemists.  My father’s lament was often, "They are driving them  [undergraduate students] out of science."  I attended a college where the freshman chemistry course was considered,  correctly, a flunk-out course designed to get rid of most of the students.  To major in chemistry, you had to be invited by the faculty, personally it was thought.  My father's take on that approach was simple: the professors wanted an easy life in the classroom with class sizes limited to just a dozen or so.  They succeeded using the excuse that only a few students were smart enough to "be in science," and that the small number of majors made chemistry the best department on campus.  There was no room for a person who got a C in chemistry.  

    Sometimes geology is a refuge for those who want to escape the flunk-out courses in other sciences.  Attending a geology field trip on the prospects for fracking in North Carolina several years ago, there were about 5 buses full of professional geologists and senior state officials moving from site to site.  One leader of the group addressed us from the back of his Suburban.  There was a custom license plate.  It read "ROX4JOX."  Everyone understood the joke.

    The data presented by Gladwell does suggest a student who really wants to do science should pick a small college somewhere, not Harvard, because most science instruction even in low-prestige colleges will focus on the few.  The culture of science instruction seems universal, not limited to Harvard.  "The big pond takes really bright students and demoralizes them," writes Gladwell.  Perhaps.  But there is a lot more going on here than just the size of the student body.  As one professor of physics recently told me, "I save lives."  I asked "how?" He responded, "By making sure the idiots do not get into med school."  This is a true story.  Thus culture plays an important role in who succeeds in science, not just an entry-level SAT score.  if you are a student in the top of your class you will probably be in science, regardless of the math SAT.  Just pick a group where you will be in the top.  Brown was not a good choice for Caroline Sacks. 

    I would high recommend Gladwell's David and Goliath.  Although he tries to make evidence fit his theory, the data he presents point out important social trends which need to be considered as policy matters. 
Reference Cited

Rogers Elliott, A. Christopher Strenta, Russell Adair, Michael Matier and
Jannah Scott (1996). "The Role of Ethnicity in Choosing and Leaving Science in Highly Selective Institutions." Research in Higher Education 37, 6:  681-709.

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The Editorial Board of Sociation Today

Editorial Board:
George H. Conklin,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Robert Wortham,
 Associate Editor,
 North Carolina
 Central University

Rebecca Adams,

Bob Davis,
 North Carolina
 Agricultural and
 Technical State

Catherine Harris,
 Wake Forest

Ella Keller,
 State University

Ken Land,
 Duke University

Steve McNamee,

Miles Simpson,
 North Carolina
 Central University

William Smith,
 N.C. State University