In an interview at Tuesday, writer Malcolm Gladwell is on The Daily Show plugging his new book David and Goliath. It deals with the notion of “desirable difficulties”, how you can overcome seemingly debilitating conditions and turn them into assets. One such condition, supposedly, is dyslexia, a disorder characterized by difficulties in basic language skills, like reading and writing. So how is that desirable?
Gladwell mentions the phenomenon of successful and dyslectic entrepreneurs saying, “they didn’t succeed despite of their dyslexia, but because of it” and that their childhood problems with this condition “forced them to learn all kinds of strategies that ended up being more important.” More generally, he remarks that when asked about the reasons for their success they often speak of all sorts of problems as a source of their success. He seems blissfully unaware of the idea that this may be how people enjoy thinking about themselves – as the guy who beat the odds with his guts and determination. I’ve at least never heard anyone attribute their success to having a rich and powerful dad. And yet isn’t that how George W Bush became president, a man who many believe have dyslexia or some similar condition?
Or maybe Gladwell is well aware that this type of success stories sell, especially if they’re made to look as if they also tell the reader something new and interesting about human nature. Am I being cynical here? Let’s look at the evidence.
The only real, non-anecdotal evidence Gladwell presents is that a disproportionate number of successful entrepreneurs are dyslectic. This claim seems to be based on a study by Julie Logan, a professor of entrepreneurship at Cass Business School in London. In it Logan says,
This research set out to find an explanation for the high proportion of dyslexics among successful entrepreneurs…
This is a sneaky way of putting it because the word “high” suggests that it would be disproportionate, as Gladwell claims. But the study found no such thing. In fact, it didn’t even attempt to, since it has a sample size of ten (10) individuals who were selected because they are dyslectic and successful entrepreneurs! It’s interesting to note in the clip from The Daily Show when Gladwell mentions four such dyslectic entrepreneurs and and the host Jon Stewart jokingly wonders if they are only four and Gladwell laughs and says, “there is significantly more.” This way it appears as if he had a few dozen, but from what I’ve gathered there are only the ten from Logan’s study. Are an additional six really significantly more?
Anyway, where did Gladwell come up with this idea that dyslectics are overrepresented among prominent entrepreneurs? I haven’t read the book but in the Barnes & Noble Book Blog review, Amy Wilkinson states that it contains the claim that some 30 percent of successful entrepreneurs are dyslectic. But Logan’s study doesn’t state this anywhere. However, in her review of her own previous research she mentions that she found that 35 percent of all American entrepreneurs – successful or otherwise – have dyslexia. So it seems that when Logan cautiously stretched the truth with her “high proportion”, Gladwell took this one step further and fabricated the idea of a disproportionate amount of dyslectics in this group.
I guess I’ll have to read the book to be sure, but this looks very suspicious.
Update: I’ve now read the parts of the book that concern dyslexia. His claim is found in the quote,
An extraordinarily high number of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic. A recent study by Julie Logan at City University London puts the number somewhere around a third. The list includes many of the most famous innovators of the past few decades.
And as I said above, Logan only claims that roughly a third of all American entrepreneurs are dyslectic. She pushes the same idea as Gladwell, that they are successful but all she can provide is self-rated competence and the rate at which the dyslectics grow their businesses – neither of which is evidence of actual success.
On The Daily Show he makes the same claim,
If you look at groups of very successful entrepreneurs or professionals you will find a much greater than expected number of dyslectics among their ranks.
Now he examplifies with people like Richard Branson, Charles Schwab etc giving the impression that dyslectics are disproportionate among the entrepreneurial stars. But the research he is basing his claim on is still made on a sample of all dyslectic entrepreneurs. It’s not a subset as Gladwell implies. And their success has not been established. This is just a simple case of having an idea, looking for the evidence, not finding it – and then making it up.