Steven Pinker on Malcolm Gladwell
    By Michael White | November 15th 2009 09:39 AM | 4 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    In a review of Gladwell's new book:

    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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    Hank, given your recent rant in mind, you should love this:
    The common thread in Gladwell’s writing is a kind of populism, which seeks to undermine the ideals of talent, intelligence and analytical prowess in favor of luck, opportunity, experience and intuition. For an apolitical writer like Gladwell, this has the advantage of appealing both to the Horatio Alger right and to the egalitarian left. Unfortunately he wildly overstates his empirical case. It is simply not true that a quarter back’s rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros, that cognitive skills don’t predict a teacher’s effectiveness, that intelligence scores are poorly related to job performance or (the major claim in “Outliers”) that above a minimum I.Q. of 120, higher intelligence does not bring greater intellectual achievements.
    Guess what Michael, 
    Pinker does it himself. You should read Galdwell's blog.  
    I haven't read the book, and I agree that Pinker can be wrong. But 'igon value' is not just an innocuous spelling mistake - that's a clear indication of cluelessness.
    Pinker's attack over a spelling issue points, quite obviously, to unrelated ideas, of Malcolm's, posing an intellectual threat.

    Spend some time with Pinker's "Blank Slate" book. While it involves some research that makes for lively anecdote, it's overall theme is the grandest of straw men. If only there were an actual hard line "blank slate" extremest living in the 21st century to disagree with him. Would that be Malcolm? Sorry Professor Pinker, you'll have to find your polar enemy elsewhere.

    If one can comprehend the rather obvious matter that human achievements are not about nature OR nurture but about nature AND nurture, and then examine "The Blank Slate" and "Outliers" back to back, then it will take little time to notice that Pinker's ideas on the topic are the hard line and extremist ones and that Gladwell's are quite moderate.