Saturday, October 14, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell on child prodigies

After this post, we get another chance to look at the (meaningless) concept of child prodigy. This time, it is this report of a talk by Malcolm Gladwell at this year's Convention of the American Psychological Society. Bottomline: we all succumb to "our irresistible desire to look at precociousness as a prediction".

What a gifted child is, in many ways, is a gifted learner. And what a gifted adult is, is a gifted doer. And those are quite separate domains of achievement.


  1. Valentine Cawley said...

    Malcolm Gladwell is not an authority on prodigy: indeed, it is clear from his remarks, that he knows nothing much about them.

    Those who have had direct contact with prodigies, of the mental kind, will know, without doubt, that something truly remarkable is at work in them.

    Many people take a stand on a subject without any data to support them: Mr. Gladwell is, in this case, one of them.

    He chooses to ignore the substantial biographical evidence that many prodigies do, in fact, go on to become adult geniuses.

    In support of his argument, Mr. Gladwell uses the observation that he ran well as a child, but as an adult - after several years of deconditioning - he did not run well. I am flabbergasted that he draws any significance from this. All sports require you to maintain condition in that sport. It is evidence only of reduced fitness, not of reduced inherent ability. Had he continued to train throughout that period, he would, most likely, have maintained his advantage.

    I have a son, Ainan Celeste Cawley, who began to speak in his first month, crawl in his fourth, walk in his sixth. He is now six years old and a definite scientific child prodigy. If he receives support and opportunity, I have no doubt he will grow into an adult genius. He is already a doer as well as a learner, to counter Mr. Gladwell's absurd assertion. He writes books. He composes music. He invents scientific theories and experiments: he is already very much a productive individual.

    Mr. Gladwell is mistaken - and, although I have enjoyed his books, I wonder, now, how much substance there is to what he writes, when there is so little substance to his remarks on prodigy.

    He should meet a few before he feels free to comment. It is a pity that his views are taken so seriously in a world that needs to learn greater respect for the gifted, not less.

  2. Anonymous said...

    Valentine Cawley is just the sort of parent Gladwell and Quart rightfully criticize. He gives all parents of gifted children a bad name. The sheer effort he expends vaunting his child's garden variety precocity betrays his underlying motive:

    The edification of Valentine Cawley.

    This can be seen in his countless self-aggrandizing press releases and blog comments. The man really needs to get outdoors more.

  3. Valentine Cawley said...

    Anonymous above clearly has never parented a child - otherwise he would know what is "garden variety" precocity and what is not.

    His or her sentiments are remarkably similar to someone who has been stalking my family all over the internet.

    Clearly, anonymous thinks it is perfectly normal for a seven year old to be invited to scientific departments at universities so that he might consider them for the near future.

    The validity of anonymous' comments is measured by their absence of a name: anyone who lobs comments at another from a veil of anonymity is at best a coward - and at worst something unprintable.

  4. Anonymous said...
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
  5. Valentine Cawley said...
    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
  6. suhangdageek said...

    Oh, great Valentine Cawley, would you perhaps enlighten us then, about what we mere mortals should do with our ordinary, stupid lives?

  7. Unknown said...

    I came across Valentine's blog and yes Anonymous said it best. A junior lecturer at a random little College in Malaysia, tsk tsk tsk. You need to go outside, perhaps make a friend and let your kids live a little !