An eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing. But Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “saggital plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.
As much as we wish it were otherwise, some subjects are difficult to learn, no matter how smart you are.
Sadly, the problem isn't limited to science writers - those of us with PhDs, who should know how difficult it really is to master a technical subject, often fail to apply that lesson when we try to say something about technical subjects in which we have no competence.
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