May 9, 2006

Is this the lamest Levitt-Dubner column yet?

The most emailed article on the NY Times is a Sunday magazine column by Freakonomist Steven D. Levitt and his verbal caddy Stephen J. Dubner. Not surprisingly, it is so popular because it is slavishly devoted to telling the American public exactly what the public wants to hear:

A Star Is Made

When someone is very good at a given thing, what is it that actually makes him good? ...

This success, coupled with later research showing that memory itself is not genetically determined, led Ericsson to conclude that the act of memorizing is more of a cognitive exercise than an intuitive one. In other words, whatever innate differences two people may exhibit in their abilities to memorize, those differences are swamped by how well each person "encodes" the information...

the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers — whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming — are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of clichés that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular clichés just happen to be true.

Ericsson's research suggests a third cliché as well: when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love — because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. Most people naturally don't like to do things they aren't "good" at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don't possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better.

"I think the most general claim here," Ericsson says of his work, "is that a lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it." This is not to say that all people have equal potential. Michael Jordan, even if he hadn't spent countless hours in the gym, would still have been a better basketball player than most of us. But without those hours in the gym, he would never have become the player he was."

The quote above, which is the heart of the article, consists of a flagrant non-sequitur. That Michael Jordan had to practice extremely hard to be Michael Jordan! is almost utterly irrelevant to the question of whether or not "there are some limits they were born with." If Michael Jordan had been 5'-6" instead of 6'-6", the best career he could have had in the NBA was Spud Webb's, and he probably wouldn't have been that good. Jordan was the best basketball player out of all the men in American history who were at least two standard deviations taller than the median, but that's less than one in 40 men.

Personally, I'm not all that much shorter than Michael Jordan, and I probably spent more time practicing basketball up through age 12 than he did (baseball was his favorite sport then), but the high point of my organized basketball career was being the third string center on my elementary school team. If I had worked as hard then as Jordan did later in life, I easily could have made it to second-string, but that's about it.

Don't fashionable economists do even the simplest reality checks on their ideas before publishing them in the New York Times? Don't they have any self-respect? Simon Cowell on "American Idol" is more honest and realistic than Steven D. Levitt because Simon tells a lot of contestants to give up their dreams of a singing career because they will never, ever be good, no matter how much time they waste practicing.

Is it really that important to Levitt and Dubner to be popular and rich that they will demean themselves like this by spouting pretty much the same old Oprahesque tripe about how you can be anything you want if only you want it hard enough?

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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