Here’s Steven Pinker’s review of Malcom Gladwell’s collection of essays What the Dog Saw:

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.

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.

Here’s an excerpt from Moe Tkacik’s “Gladwell for Dummies from The Nation:

And so once again we find Gladwell muckraking in the trenches of banal cliché and thereby reinforcing said cliché–and, more insidiously, banality itself. In Outliers, as in Blink, he appears to assume that the unexamined life is the only sort his readers could be living, though lessons with titles like “Demographic Luck” and “The Importance of Being Jewish” suggest that he may have downgraded his expectation of who his readers are from the less savvy to the truly oblivious. Outliers contains a few new terms and morsels of trivia: the 10,000-Hour Rule describes the number of practice hours one must put in to attain true genius; we also learn that fourteen of the seventy-five individuals on Gladwell’s list of the “richest people in human history” were Americans born between 1831 and 1840. (Cleopatra is No. 21.) But for the most part, the book’s first section, “Opportunity,” contains nothing that will enlighten anyone who has given even a small fraction of 10,000 hours of thought to the word’s meaning.

Any theory behind this disenchantment, Mr. Gladwell?

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