In this weekend's New York Times book review, Steve Pinker reviews a set of essays by Malcolm Gladwell, and notes he mentions an “igon value” at one point, referring to an eigenvalue, which seems like an obvious error for the New Yorker's famous fact checkers to catch. Clearly, Gladwell talks to experts about a lot of things he does not really understand, and is able to create stories people find interesting, me included. But at the end of the day, it is important to be correct, and there, Gladwell is often comes up short.
The banalities come from a gimmick that can be called the Straw We. First Gladwell disarmingly includes himself and the reader in a dubious consensus — for example, that “we” believe that jailing an executive will end corporate malfeasance, or that geniuses are invariably self-made prodigies or that eliminating a risk can make a system 100 percent safe. He then knocks it down with an ambiguous observation, such as that “risks are not easily manageable, accidents are not easily preventable.” As a generic statement, this is true but trite: of course many things can go wrong in a complex system, and of course people sometimes trade off safety for cost and convenience (we don’t drive to work wearing crash helmets in Mack trucks at 10 miles per hour). But as a more substantive claim that accident investigations are meaningless “rituals of reassurance” with no effect on safety, or that people have a “fundamental tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking greater risks in another,” it is demonstrably false.The straw man argument is popular because it is effective, and I would say is the dominant rhetorical ploy.
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.
Readers have much to learn from Gladwell the journalist and essayist. But when it comes to Gladwell the social scientist, they should watch out for those igon values.
Gladwell's more fundamental point is that "talent, intelligence and analytical prowess" are necessary but not sufficient conditions for success. The myth of achievement gets recycled because successful people, while often talented, tend to interact with other successful people. That group likes to believe that luck did not play a significant role in the arch of their lives, and they're the ones who drive the social narrative.
"a little innacuracy" is a cute way to start, but I still feel the need for small explanation ... the spelling is "inaccuracy"!!
It's Eegonvalue, Falkensteen.
@Anonymous at 10:41am
What you disparage as a "myth" is nothing of the kind. The fact remains that without talented, intelligent people we would be living in mud huts. Some of us are able accept that others are better than us and be thankful that they exist. Others rationalize their hatred and resentment in esoteric theories and explanations to hide the nature of their emotions. The elements of luck and accident apply equally to the stupid and the smart so its a wash any way. Funny how the smart people are more "lucky".
Pinker is the absolute best!
Anonymous at 8:29
If luck and accident affect all equally why are the children of the poor generally poorer than the children of the rich. Myth of the American Dream?
@Anon at 6:26pm
If you and your ilk had your way then the children of the smart would live in the *best* mud hut and the children of the poor would just live in the mud. That said, I think we could do better to correlate the rich with the smart but we don't live under capitalism yet.
@8:29 - reading comprehension fail.
Pinker and Gladwell got themselves into quite a little tiff about pro football, about which apparently neither knows anything.
It's great fun watching intellectual powerhouse experts go so far outside their fields to get into a kitten fight like this.
(I was waiting for Krugman to intervene...)
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