The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Monday, November 06, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell and child prodigy

It is common in the world of child prodigies, that academics and others comment on their nature, without having much acquaintance with them. One such person is Malcolm Gladwell. In an amazingly uninformed talk he gave at the Association for Psychological Science, he attacked the idea of child prodigy. He gave his own life as an example. He said that he had been a child prodigy in running. Yes: running. He then said that as a child prodigy he was a winner, but after taking several years off running and returning to it as an adult he was only mediocre, compared to other adults. He then drew the extraordinarily tenuous conclusion that childhood performance does not predict adult performance for all prodigy types. Malcolm Gladwell may have written two bestsellers, but from this sample of his thinking, he is not much of a thinker. You cannot generalize from a physical activity like running to mental activities like prodigy as a scientist, artist, musician, etc. They are not the same thing at all - as should be self-evident. Furthermore, there is a very obvious explanation to Gladwell's failure as an adult to run as well as he had as a child: deconditioning. He had not run for several years. He returns to it having become unfit - and then is surprised that he does not perform well. Err...excuse me, but isn't that the expected outcome for ANYONE of ANY age, who doesn't participate in a sport for several years. Had Mr. Malcolm Gladwell continued to train indefatigably throughout his school days, into adulthood, perhaps learning along the way, with experience, how to run more efficiently, he would, no doubt, have maintained his edge in running. He lost it, because he ignored his sport for years. His experience has nothing at all to do with child prodigy - and I would question whether running could even be regarded as a prodigious category - unless it were displayed, not by a teenager, like Gladwell, but by a baby, of say eight months, like Ainan Celeste Cawley, my son did.

Mr. Gladwell then does something astonishing, in terms of the treatment of evidence. He ignores every historical genius who showed prodigy as a child: Mozart, Norbert Wiener, Giotto...the list could begin here and go on practically forever. (Except to try to dismiss Mozart as an exaggeration of his father and a product of hard work. Try listening to his music and then to Gladwell's arguments: I know which is the more powerful.) What does he do? He cites a list of historical geniuses who were not prodigies as a child - or at least for whom we have no accounts of their prodigious nature. He reasons from this that child prodigy does not indicate adult genius to come. If you are reading this, you are, no doubt, gifted enough to see the flaw in his reasoning. He has partitioned the evidence into two groups. One group consists of those prodigies who became adult geniuses. The other group consists of those who became adult geniuses but were not known to be child prodigies. Instead of taking both groups into account, as anyone without an agenda, and without bias, would do, what does he do? He throws the first group away: that evidence is not even considered. This is not an honest argument therefore. It is not a fair argument. It is not an argument that considers all the evidence. It is not, therefore, a scientific argument - it is rather like a political argument - one that hides the evidence against his position, and attacks the other position, from a position based on false premises. It is not the kind of argument that should be admitted to public debate - yet, because of Gladwell's fame, his argument is listened to with an inappropriate respect.

He then compounds this deceptive argument, by referring to a study of 200 highly accomplished adults, that examined whether they had been precocious as a child. 34 per cent of these adults showed precociousness as a child. For Malcolm Gladwell this was evidence that precocity as a child did not lead to adult genius, since only 34 per cent of accomplished adults had been precocious. Any of you, reading this, who are logically, mathematically or scientifically gifted will note the flaw in his reasoning. Far from being proof that precocity does not lead to adult achievement, as Gladwell proposes, the figures actually prove the opposite. You see childhood precocity is rare...very much rarer than the one in three accomplished adults who had been precocious. Therefore Mr. Malcolm Gladwell's OWN FIGURES DISPROVE his position when analyzed with what he appears to lack: an analytical intelligence, able to discern the truth behind a set of numbers. For it is clear that if childhood precocity is very rare, but one third of accomplished adults showed childhood precocity, then it is abundantly obvious that accomplished adults who had been precocious as children are highly over-represented in the achieving population. What does this mean? It means that if your child is precocious that they are many times more likely to become a "highly accomplished adult" - which Gladwell takes to be a short cut for adult genius - than a child who is not precocious. This is proven by the very figures Gladwell uses to attempt to disprove that child prodigy leads to adult genius.

What his figures also show (but of which he is unaware) is that there are two paths to adult achievement: the fast precocious one, which is statistically more likely to bear fruit - and the slow non-precocious one, which from the figures above, given the far greater frequency of this state, in childhood, yet only twice the frequency in adulthood, is statistically far less likely to bear fruit.

Mr. Malcolm Gladwell may have written two bestsellers, but that does not mean that he is a rigorous thinker. It does not mean that he has the background to make an authoritative statement on the relationship of child prodigy to adult genius. Perhaps Gladwell understands the numbers better than he seems to. Perhaps he is deliberately distorting the truth for his own agenda. Or maybe he is simply not scientifically gifted enough to analyse the situation truthfully. I do not know why he argued as he did with the evidence he gave, since it actually supports the opposite position much better than his own. We do not need to know why Gladwell argued as he did - but there is one clue in the subject of his next book. It is about late bloomers. So perhaps he attacks child prodigies just to promote a book. I won't be rushing out to buy it. Nor any of his others for that matter - after his display of such a lack of mental cogency on the matter of child prodigies.

(If you would like to read about a genuine case of child prodigy, my son Ainan Celeste Cawley, six, is a scientific child prodigy and about 70 posts on his development and intellectual capacities, along with a discussion of his gifted brothers can be found at: )

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 1:35 PM 


Anonymous Bee said...

I think running can be an exceptional gift as can scientific or musical ability, but in this case it probably wasn't precociousness, just talent that most people didn't have. If he wanted to argue against child prodigy or precociousness, he should have chosen a better, more clear-cut example of genius.

11:44 AM  

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