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Updated: 2010-06-04T11:22:37-04:00


My greatest triumph!


Sorry. I can't resist. John Carson, a fellow runner from Canada, unearthed this photo from the archives of the Toronto Star. It's the finals of the 1500 meters at the Ontario 14-year-old championships, many many years ago. The runner on...

Drug Development


On, the drug industry analyst Avik Roy has written a comment on my piece "The Treatment" in last week's New Yorker. A few small points, in response. Roy is of the impression that that I believe we should abandon...  On, the drug industry analyst Avik Roy has written a  comment on my piece "The Treatment"  in last week's New Yorker. A few small points, in response.  Roy is of the impression that that I believe we should abandon rational drug design and, as he puts it, “go back to the old way of doing things: of throwing mud on a wall and seeing what sticks.”     I’m not sure where he gets that idea. “The Treatment” makes it clear  that both strategies—rational drug design and mass screening--have a place in drug development.  When the biology of a disease is well understood (as in the case of Herceptin and breast cancer) then the former strategy makes sense. But in those cases where it is not, then there is much to be said for following a more serendipitous path. I suspect that most drug development experts would agree with me on this. In fact, it’s probably the case—contra Roy--that one of the most compelling criticisms of the drug industry at the moment is that it has gone too far in the rational direction. In a piece in the December “Nature Reviews,” for example, Bernard Munos writes: Success in the pharmaceutical industry depends on the random occurrence of a few ‘black swan’ products.  Common processes that are standard practice in most companies create little value in an industry dominated by blockbusters. These include developing sales forecasts for new products, which are inaccurate nearly 80% of the time. Another example is portfolio management, which has e been widely adopted by the industry as a risk management tool, but has failed to protect it from patent cliffs. During the past couple of decades, there has been a methodical attempt to codify every facet of the drug business into sophisticated processes, in an effort to reduce the variances and increase the predictability. This has produced a false sense of control over all aspects of the pharmaceutical enterprise, including innovation.     I got the impression from from Roy’s piece that he was trying very hard to disagree with me. (Calling his post "Malcolm Gladwell is Wrong," was one clue).  I’m not sure the effort was successful. He points out, for example, that some doubted Synta’s promising phase two data, in the belief that they were an artifact of the trial design: that there were differences in the health status of the control and treatment arms of the study. A good portion of my piece, of course, is devoted to the same general argument. What interested me was in describing the complications and difficulties and in many cases unavoidable issues in trial design that can make a drug look far more promising in early clinical testing than it actually is. Roy goes on: One gets the impression that Gladwell followed elesclomol over the years in the hopes of using its story for one of his books: the story of how luck and intuition can lead to pharmaceutical success. But the opposite happened, and the account ended up in The New Yorker instead. In Gladwell's final assessment, the story remained one about luck: but about bad luck instead of good I do hope my editors at the New Yorker don’t read that and think that I give them my leftovers!  And I wish it were the case that I knew what my next book was all about! The truth is that "The Treatment" was always a New Yorker piece. And I had no preconceptions about how the Synta story might end when I began reporting it, except that I guessed that would be a good case study in the many difficulties of coming up with new cancer drugs. Unfortunately for the many thousands of melanoma patients around the world, it was.  [...]

Speaking Tour!


I will be doing a short tour of the U.K. next week, speaking on a brand new mystery topic! I'll be in Edinburgh on Sunday May 9th, Oxford on the 10th, Manchester on the 11th and Newcastle on the 12th....

Pinker, Round Two


In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Steven Pinker responds to my description of him as occupying the “lonely ice floe of IQ fundamentalism”: What Malcolm Gladwell calls a “lonely ice floe” is what psychologists call “the mainstream.” In a... In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Steven Pinker responds to my description of him as occupying the  “lonely ice floe of IQ fundamentalism”: What Malcolm Gladwell calls a “lonely ice floe” is what psychologists call “the mainstream.” In a 1997 editorial in the journal Intelligence, 52 signatories wrote, “I.Q. is strongly related, probably more so than any other single measurable human trait, to many important educational, occupational, economic and social outcomes.” Similar conclusions were affirmed in a unanimous blue-ribbon report by the American Psychological Association. . . A few things here are worth mentioning: First, the editorial in question made a number of other arguments that, I think, most observers would agree fall on one end of the nature-nurture continuum: that all IQ tests measure the same thing, that heredity is more important than environment in determining it, that group differences are relatively unaffected by schooling or socioeconomic factors. It also said that the IQs of different races cluster at different points, with the average IQ of blacks falling about a standard deviation lower than that of whites, and that these differences show no sign of converging over time. Second, two thirds of the editorial board of the journal Intelligence declined to sign the statement. Third, the statement originally appeared on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal in 1994, explicitly in defense of “The Bell Curve,” a book whose supporters are typically quite happy to call one of the most controversial books of the past 25 years. Fourth, fifteen of 52 signatories to the Wall Street Journal statement have had their research supported by the Pioneer Fund. For those who have not heard about the Pioneer Fund, here is a brief description of its history from “The Pioneer Fund: Bankrolling the Professors of Hate,” by the historian Adam Miller: In 1937 the Pioneer Fund was founded by Wicklife Draper, whose New England textile fortune started the fund's endowment and helps finance it today. Harry Laughlin, the first president of the fund, was a well-known eugenicist who in 1924 was instrumental in pushing through legislation blocking U.S. Entry to Jews fleeing pograms in Russia. Before Congress he testified that IQ data proved that 83 percent of Jewish immigrants were born feeble-minded and therefore were a threat to the nation's economy and genetic makeup. Laughlin subsequently lobbied to keep those barriers in place, successfully cutting off sanctuary for Jews seeking refuge from the Third Reich.     In 1922, Laughlin also wrote the Model Eugenical Sterilization Law which was adopted in one form or another by 30 states and resulted in the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of people in the United States.     Among the fifteen Pioneer Fund-sponsored signatories were Arthur R. Jensen (who has cited the heritability of IQ to argue against interventions to boost academic performance of minorities), J. Philippe Rushton (who, since 2002, has been the president of the Pioneer Fund, and who has argued that the size of what he terms the “Negroid brain” is inversely related to that of the Negroid penis); Rushton's colleague Douglas Jackson (best known for arguing that men are significantly more intelligent than woman), and Seymour Itzkoff (a eugenicist who holds that blacks and whites have such distinct evolutionary histories as to belong to different subspecies). Fifth, the APA’s own report on the subject,“Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns,” which Pinker suggests is in sympathy with his position, was largely directed against IQ fundamentalism.  For example, it noted that [...]

Letting Igons be Igons


From "Blowing Up," by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, April 22,2002

More on Quarterbacks


A few more thoughts on quarterbacks: There are two separate issues with respect to quarterbacks. The first is whether, historically, NFL teams have done a good job of predicting which college quarterbacks will succeed in the pros. Dave Berri and...   A few more thoughts on quarterbacks:   There are two separate issues with respect to quarterbacks. The first is whether, historically, NFL teams have done a good job of predicting which college quarterbacks will succeed in the pros. Dave Berri and Rob Simmons’ paper in the Journal of Productivity Analysis (that I relied on in the essay “Most Likely to Succeed” in my new book “What The Dog Saw”) proves pretty convincingly, I think, that the answer is no. One of the best parts of that paper is how Berri and Simmons demonstrate how much NFL teams tend to irrationally over-weight “combine” variables like speed, height and Wonderlic score. There’s a second wonderful paper on this general subject by Cade Massey and Richard Thaler—Thaler being, of course, one of the leading lights in behavioral economics—called “The Loser’s Curse.” The argument of the Thaler-Massey paper goes something like this (and I encourage anyone who is interested in sports to read the whole thing, because I can’t do it justice here). By looking at the trades that NFL teams make, we can estimate the “market value” of a draft pick. And what we find is that teams place a very high value on high first round picks. The first pick in the draft, they write, has historically been valued as much as “the 10th and 11th picks combined, and as much as the sum of the last four picks in the first round.” Then Thaler and Massey calculate the true value of draft picks, using what they call “surplus value.” The key here is that all NFL teams operate under a strict salary cap. So a player’s real worth to a team is the extent to which his performance exceeds the average performance of someone making his salary. And what do they find? That market value and surplus value are radically out of sync: that teams irrationally over-weight the importance of high first round picks. In fact, according to their analysis, the most useful draft picks are in the second round, not the first: that’s where surplus values tend to be highest. Hence the title of the paper: “The Loser’s Curse.” The NFL rewards its weakest teams by giving them the highest draft picks—but those picks are actually not the most valuable picks in the draft.     It is important to note here that we are talking about relative value. Personnel decisions in the NFL have clear opportunity costs: if you pay $15 million for a quarterback who only gives you $10 million of value, then you hve $5 million less to pay for a good linebacker. As they write: “To be clear, the player taken with the first pick does have the highest expected performance . . . but he also has the highest salary, and in terms of performance per dollar, is less valuable than players taken in the second round.” What Massey and Thaler are saying, in essence, is that NFL general managers are not rational decision-makers. That’s why I think its so useful in this particular discussion. Those who believe that draft position is a good predictor of quarterback performance are essentially voting for the good judgment of the people who make draft decisions. And what Berri and Simmons in particular—and Massey and Thaler in general—remind us is that that kind of blind faith in the likes of Matt Millen and Al Davis simply isn’t justified. And, by the way, why should that fallibility come as a surprise? We’ve known for a long time that it is not easy to making decisions under conditions of extreme uncertainty. Here is Massey and Thaler from their conclusion:   Numerous studies find, for example, that physicians, among the most educated professionals in our society, make diagnos[...]

Pinker on "What the Dog Saw."


Steven Pinker reviewed my new book "What the Dog Saw," in the New York Times Book Review this past Sunday. I sent the following letter to the editor in response: It is always a pleasure to be reviewed by someone... Steven Pinker reviewed my new book "What the Dog Saw," in the New York Times Book Review this past Sunday. I sent the following letter to the editor in response: It is always a pleasure to be reviewed by someone as accomplished as Stephen Pinker, even if—in his comments on “What the Dog Saw” (Nov. 15)—he is unhappy with my spelling (rightly!) and with the fact that I have not joined him on the lonely ice floe of IQ fundamentalism. But since football has been on my mind these days, I do want to make one small observation about his comments.   In one of my essays, I wrote that the position a quarterback is taken in the college draft is not a reliable indicator of his performance as a professional. That was based on the work of the academic economists David Berri and Rob Simmons, who, in a paper published the Journal of Productivity Analysis,  analyze forty years of National Football League data. Their conclusion was that the relation between aggregate quarterback performance and draft position was weak. Further, when they looked at per-play performance—in other words, when they adjusted for the fact that highly drafted quarterbacks are more likely to play more downs—they found that quarterbacks taken in positions 11 through 90 in the draft actually slightly outplay those more highly paid and lauded players taken in the draft’s top ten positions. I found this analysis fascinating. Pinker did not. This quarterback argument, he wrote, “is simply not true.”     I wondered about the basis of Pinker’s conclusion, so I e-mailed him, asking if he could tell me where to find the scientific data that would set me straight. He very graciously wrote me back. He had three sources, he said. The first was Steve Sailer. Sailer, for the uninitiated, is a California blogger with a marketing background who is best known for his belief that black people are intellectually inferior to white people. Sailer’s “proof” of the connection between draft position and performance is, I’m sure Pinker would agree, crude: his key variable is how many times a player has been named to the Pro Bowl. Pinker’s second source was a blog post, based on four years of data, written by someone who runs a pre-employment testing company, who also failed to appreciate—as far as I can tell (the key part of the blog post is only a paragraph long)—the distinction between aggregate and per-play performance. Pinker’s third source was an article in the Columbia Journalism Review, prompted by my essay, that made an argument partly based on a link to a blog called “Niners Nation." I have enormous respect for Professor Pinker, and his description of me as “minor genius” made even my mother blush. But maybe on the question of subjects like quarterbacks, we should agree that our differences owe less to what can be found in the scientific literature than they do to what can be found on Google. [...]



My latest New Yorker piece, on how David beats Goliath, is here. I've been very pleased with the reaction. I did want to respond, though, to a number of comments that have been made about the parts of the piece... My latest New Yorker piece, on how David beats Goliath, is here.  I've been very pleased with the reaction. I did want to respond, though, to a number of comments that have been made about the parts of the piece dealing with Rick Pitino and college basketball. (Nothing is quite as fun as arguing about sports,) Since most of the commenters make the same arguments, I'm going to pick a post  by Ben Mathis-Lilley, over at New York magazine's blog. He writes, in part: The truth is that almost every team tries to make its opponents work for all 94 feet in some fashion, and not every underdog is born to run a full-court press. For example, take a team of mediocre players plus two pretty good athletes — one a tiny but quick guard, the other a big man who’s strong but slow on his feet. If that team ran a full-court press, the opposition would exploit the big guy by sending the player he guards sprinting down the floor on a fast break, while the small guard would be wasted guarding someone who probably doesn’t have possession, since the standard reaction to a press is to pass the ball around. A better strategy would be for the quick guard to pressure the opposition’s ball handler while the other players retreat, giving the big guy time to lurk near the basket and shot-block. The first sentence--that almost every team makes its opponents work for all 94 feet--is, of course, nonsense. But the rest of the paragraph makes perfect sense. The press is not for everyone. But then the piece never claimed that it was. I simply pointed out that insurgent strategies (substituting effort for ability and challenging conventions) represent one of David's only chances of competing successfully against Goliath, so it's surprising that more underdogs don't use them. The data on underdogs in war is quite compelling in this regard. But it's also true on the basketball court.  The press isn't perfect. But given its track record, surely it is under-utilized. Isn't that strange?         The New York piece then goes on: The most misleading part of Gladwell’s case concerns Rick Pitino, the Kentucky coach who was famously defeated on a last-second play by Duke in the 1992 NCAA tournament when he decided not to guard Grant Hill, who was inbounding the ball (ignoring the inbounder is a key component of the press). Hmmm. Small point. Ignoring the inbounder is not a key component of the press. It is a key component of someversions of the press. Pitino also uses a version of the press that does guard the inbounder. (Also Pitino is no longer the coach at Kentucky. He's now the Louisville coach.) The piece then objects to my attempt to "shoehorn Pitino's teams into the underdog category" because Pitino's 1996 Kentucky team "featured featured a staggering nine players who would go on to play in the NBA." A number of others have pointed this out, and I'm still somewhat baffled by the criticism. Pitino has been a college head coach since 1978 at four schools--Boston University, Providence College, Kentucky and the University of Louisville. At BU, he took over a team that had won 17 games in the two years before his arrival. He went 91-51 in five years, and took the team to the NCAA. At Providence, he took over a team that had gone 11-20 the year before. Two years later, he won 25 games and went to the Final Four with what may have been one of the most spectacularly untalented teams to have ever reached that level. And at Louisville he took his team to their first final four in 19 years in 2005. The star of that squad? Francisco Garcia. Ever heard of him[...]

Brooks on Outliers


David Brooks wrote a very thoughtful column in the New York Times yesterday on "Outliers." Much of what he said was very flattering. I have just two comments in response. 1. Brooks argues that I "slight the centrality of individual...

Teachers and Quarterbacks


My latest New Yorker piece, "Most Likely to Succeed" is now up. A couple of additional thoughts. In some of the responses to the piece, I've seen some resistance to the idea that choosing NFL quarterbacks and choosing public school...