eclectic detective

The Triumph of Steven Pinker and Disillusionment with Malcolm Gladwell

Once, not too long ago, I was enthralled by the fascinating subject matter and charming prose of journalist and essayist Malcolm Gladwell. Few interested in psychology or social science have not read at least one of his bestselling books, which include The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, or followed his essays in The New Yorker. Having devoured Blink in high school, I can still vividly recall many of its lessons, and even today occasionally catch myself applying Blink-ist thinking to real-world situations (a Gladwell book was an easy gift for a string of holidays). But I can also vividly recall reading what I then perceived as an overly critical review of Gladwell’s work by some guy named Steven Pinker, who said something like, “[reading Gladwell] had me gnawing on my Kindle.”

Fast forward to 2013, and Steven Pinker is no longer just some guy to me, but one of the world’s most interesting thinkers. He is currently a professor of psychology at Harvard, and has raised his profile over the years with public advocacy of science (you may recognize him by his locks – his hair has its own facebook fan page) and a string of best-selling books on language and cognitive psychology. His most recent work, The Better Nature of Our Angels, was hailed by Bill Gates as one of the most important books he’s ever read.

Now knowing a bit more (though not much) about statistics, logical fallacies, and the dangers of inept data interpretation, I have reread Pinker’s 2009 review of Gladwell’s work in the NY Times, and couldn’t agree more with its conclusions. Pinker points out that Gladwell is far from an expert on statistics or social science, and summarizes his concerns in the following way:

” . . . 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 reasoning in ‘Outliers,’ which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle . . . 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.”

The reference to “igon values” is a stab at Gladwell’s sophomoric misuse and misspelling of linear algebra’s “eigenvalue”. Gladwell fired back in a response, and the two ended up in a bit of a written exchange over, of all things, football statistics. But the lesson here is even more important than those I’ve remembered from Blink. Social science is a tricky business, with vast amounts of room for error in interpretation. We have to be careful accepting conclusions based on anecdotal evidence, and especially of trusting individuals writing or speaking far outside their area of expertise.

The other lesson is to read often and read widely. My first bit of disillusionment with Gladwell actually came a few years ago, while simultaneously reading The Tipping Point and Dubner and Levitt’s Freakonomics. Both books, in what I assume was a coincidence, tried to answer the question of why crime rates had dropped so suddenly in New York City in the mid-90’s. I won’t spoil the conclusions for those who haven’t read the books, but let’s just say they were radically different, and it seemed clear to me that the take in Freakonomics was much more likely (and was backed up by much more data).

That’s not to say Gladwell doesn’t have much to offer (it’s also not to say that Pinker is infallible or should be read without some degree of skepticism either). I would agree with Pinker’s back-handed assessment of Gladwell as at least a “minor genius” with a unique voice and take on the world (though I’m not sure I agree with his take on the future of religion, here). In summary, I very much look forward to the next release of a Gladwell book; though this time I’ll know to spend more time savoring the prose than conclusions.

Advertisements