October 22, 2013 12:41PM

Why Such a Harsh Review for a Book I Liked?

I've had some feedback on my review of Amanda Ripley's book The Smartest Kids in the World, and How they Got that Way. A key question: Dude, why so harsh?

I did spill less ink than I could have discussing the book's good qualities. I find disagreement more interesting than agreement in book reviews, though, so when pressed for time in writing one I tend to give the latter short shrift. For the record, my list of its strong points was not exhaustive. For instance, Ripley is entirely right that children must be taught that learning new things can be challenging, requires effort, and that failures are an integral part of the process. She is right that teacher acumen and subject-area expertise are vitally important. She is right that when both school and home place a high value on learning, children learn more.

But this is not new information. There is an "effective schools" research dating back to the 1970s that has repeatedly found the same things. The real promise of Smartest Kids in the World was in its subtitle: and How they Got that Way. And that is where we encounter the book's fundamental flaw. Ripley states at the outset that she is fascinated by differential educational outcomes across countries, but isn't interested in the role that policy might play in them. True to form, the book ignores an enormous swath of research conducted in that area over the past generation.

<--break->As it happens, researchers from around the world have found that policy is important, but it's not the error in the book's conclusion that strikes me as fatal, but rather the the error in its methodology. Its approach is not simply unscientific, it is anti-scientific. You cannot hope to learn how the world really works if you fix blinders to the sides of your head before you begin. You cannot exclude potentially important explanatory factors just because you don't personally care about them. Doing so is akin to a detective trying to solve a murder but refusing to interview anyone whose name ends in a consonant, or to visit any building with an odd-numbered address.

If my review sounded harsh, that's why. Despite its fine points, the book's approach struck me as a repudiation of science... and I rather like science.