Gladwell misses some game theory

Re-published from Medium

Malcolm Gladwell has a new book out entitled David and Goliath. It is about underdogs and is based on the classic David vs Goliath setting in which a shepherd, David, defeats a giant, Goliath. I have yet to read the whole book — this isn’t a review — but in the very first chapter I was struck by logical flaws in Gladwell’s account of the original David and Goliath match-up. (If you don’t have the book you can watch Gladwell’s recent TED talk for an account).

In what you would expect from Gladwell, he argues that the original David and Goliath biblical account and, in particular, its interpretation is not what it seems. Indeed, he argues that David was, in fact, the giant and Goliath was the underdog and things played out as if the powerful struck down the weak. Suffice it to say that I expect that his revised account is somewhat likely to undermine the theme of the rest of the book but I won’t worry about that in what follows.

So the original story is that the Philistine and Israelite armies stared each other down across a valley. To resolve the impasse, the Philistines sent the armour-clad giant, Goliath down as their champion. The Israelites had no takers until David, then a shepherd boy,volunteered to fight Goliath. Armed with only a sling, David landed a stone between Goliath’s eyes, he fell and David decapitated him with his own sword. Then the Philistines fled in panic.

But Gladwell, and his revision is based on the work of others, suggests to us that things were not as they seemed. In fact, Goliath was not necessarily so strong. He was led to the field and likely suffered from a disorder that simultaneously accounted for his height but also likely left him with poor eyesight. That said, the potential weakness of Goliath probably wasn’t significant as Gladwell’s alternative account would be exactly the same if Goliath were the mighty and healthy warrior he was made out to be.

The focus is David. Was he really the underdog he seemed to be? Gladwell argues that, in fact, those soldiers who were skilled in projectiles were a key part of ancient warfare. A sling in skilled hands could have the power of a gun. In that respect, David outmatched Goliath and it wasn’t that surprising he was able, in short order, to fell the giant. In fact, Gladwell argues, everyone at the scene would have understood that.

Then he reaches into his shepherd’s bag for a stone, and at that point no one watching from the ridges on either side of the valley would have considered David’s victory improbable. David was a slinger, and slingers beat infantry, hands down. (emphasis added)

And therein lies the issue: if no one at the scene was surprised by the outcome, how did that outcome arise?

First, the Philistines would have known that slingers were powerful and would surely assume that the Israelites had some. So why send the giant down for such a key battle?

Second, perhaps Goliath could handle a slinger. But, in which case, why did he not act like it? Why not move around? Why not protect more of the head from stones with armour that was everywhere but his face? Even if he could not see well to see what he was facing, he saw enough to know it wasn’t a be-sworded foe. Goliath would have to be incredibly stupid as well as weak. And again, why would the Philistines place their bets on him.

Third, why did the Israelites send David? By all accounts he was not battle hardened. If you have experienced slingers and you see Goliath, you send one of those. No bravery required. Instead, apparently, no one else sees this opportunity but David. To be sure, as we later find out, he was a capable fellow but King Saul was in charge of military resource allocation and surely had other options.

In fact, the actions of everyone else — other than David who may have had private knowledge of his ability, exceptional courage or, let’s face it, it is a biblical story, something powerful on his side — suggests that they saw the game being played out as a classic David-Goliath battle where David was the underdog and was not expected to win.

We know, as Gladwell himself accounts for but does not consider, that no one at the scene thought David would win. The Israelites tried to arm him. The Philistines fled the scene after the battle apparently in total shock and thinking that there was an army of Davids on the other side of the valley. And Goliath himself had an unexpectedly bad day.

In accepting a revised account, Gladwell fails to consider that the two person battle was part of a larger game and the players in that game clearly do not agree with his revised account. Had they, this classic story would surely never had begun.

Instead, we are left with the plausible account that Goliath was formidable, was known to be so, only David knew he had a chance and everybody was surprised he won. And herein lies a key lesson of David and Goliath stories: for a real underdog to unseat a giant, underdogs, in general, must really be underdogs with little chance of victory and the few times they do win are because there was unexpected exceptionalism.

One Reply to “Gladwell misses some game theory”

  1. Isn’t Gladwell presenting himself as a David amongst the conventional wisdom Goliaths? I won’t say what I think he’s slinging, but it won’t knock an eye out.

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