Decision Sciences For The Masses

Malcolm Gladwell‘s new book Outliers: The Science of Success (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2008) appears to be the publishing event of the week.

Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink) spearheads a group of writers who are masterful at using anecdotes about insights from statistics, system dynamics and the decision sciences that will interest a broad readership.  This group also in  Chris Anderson (The Long Tail), James Surowiecki (The Wisdom of Crowds), Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan), Tim Harford (The Undercover Economist), Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (Freakonomics), and Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker, The New New ThingMoneyball) also belong to this group.  Apart from outliers and tipping points these books explore intuitive decisions, long tail distributions, the Law of the Many, chance, low probabilty high-impact events, martingales, and data-driven decisions.  Each author has a different background: Taleb is an epistemologist and former trader, Anderson is a technology pundit, and Lewis, Gladwell and Surowiecki are essayists and journalists.

For me, six observations emerge from these authors.  First, they have a writing style that appeals to a broad audience.  Second , they provide an introduction to quantitative elements of decision-making and judgments.  Third, their publishers have created a niche market in airport reading and popular science paperbacks.  Fourth, they differ in their approach to theory building: Anderson, Gladwell and Surowiecki take an insight, interview people, and promote it; Taleb, Harford and Lewis draw on their domain experience; and Levitt and Dunbar illustrate how a subject matter expert can collaborate with a journalist to reach a broader audience.  Fifth, their books have seeded a range of Web 2.0 strategies, which vary in rigour, validity, generalisability and applicability to real-world analysis.

Finally, their publishers have used their marketing appeal to build an audience during turnarounds and post-acquisition integrations: Gladwell and Surowiecki helped revive The New Yorker, Levitt and Dunbar’s blog gained The New York Times an Internet readership, and Anderson revamped Wired after Conde Nast‘s acquisition.