David and Goliath (and STEM Majors)

I’d like to preface this review by saying that I’m a Gladwell fan. I think he’s doing a great job of making the social sciences more mainstream. I like his now-signature coupling of relatable examples with simple (yet thorough) explanations, and I’ve consumed everything he’s written up until now at a pace that can only be described as voracious. With aldavid goliathl of this said, I have to admit that while I did enjoy David and Goliath, I didn’t like it as much as his previous books for two reasons:

1)      The balance of anecdote to evidence was heavily tilted towards anecdote, and the ties between his anecdotes and evidence weren’t as tight as in his other works.

Usually in a Gladwell book, the anecdotes serve to underline the research and make it all more interesting and relatable. In this case, the researched portions seem slimmed down, with the bulk of explanation being loaded on anecdotes. This might work if the connections between anecdote and data were watertight, but that’s not the case here. Some of the anecdotes are great, but others, like a girl who went to an ivy-league college and dropped out of her STEM major because the program was too tough, are just too speculative hold the weight to support the bulk of a chapter.

2)      It wasn’t as relatable as Outliers, or Blink, or even The Tipping Point.

The Tipping Point taught us about how ideas (or “epidemics”) spread, Blink taught us about the power of making snap judgments, and Outliers taught us about the work that goes into seemingly “overnight” successes. David and Goliath seeks to teach us about “what happens when ordinary people confront giants”. I agree that it does a good job of this, however, many of the giants were unavoidable – a parent’s death, dyslexia, etc. – and I think that most readers already know that good things can come out of adversity.  So, while the outcomes were inspiring and there were examples I had not yet encountered, they didn’t provide much actionable information – and what was provided is not as easily applied to business situations or everyday life as the information provided in his first few books.

Above criticisms aside, I’d still recommended reading David and Goliath for a healthy dose of inspirational storytelling. The anecdotes here are certainly interesting. Actually, there was one fact in particular that has stuck with me since I read the book a few weeks ago:

More than half of all American students who start out in science technology, and math programs (or STEM, as they are known) drop out [of that major] after their first or second year.

We’ve discussed the future of data scientists here on the blog before, but a shortage of STEM majors is a direct contributor to the shortage of data scientists. Besides that initial (huge) drop in retention among STEM Majors, Gladwell also cites another retention-related finding (bonus points to anyone who recognizes this wording as being the explanation of a model used to predict retention!):

The likelihood of someone completing a STEM degree – all things being equal – rises by 2 percentage points for every 10 point decrease in the university’s average SAT score.

His conclusion: when it comes to STEM majors, most students would professionally benefit MORE from attending a less-competitive, academically less-challenging institution. In other words, it’s not how smart you are, but how smart you feel relative to other students in the classroom. I’m not sure that I buy into his conclusion on where the problem lies, but it’s clear that schools looking to nurture STEM majors have some interesting, perplexing, and even counterintuitive retention challenges ahead.

PS: Looking for more reading material? Check out this year’s recommended reading list from our staff.

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