Steven Pinker on Malcolm Gladwell and the Igon Value Problem

I was recently reading a discussion of the many problems with Malcolm Gladwell’s books and essays, and someone pointed to a 2009 review by Steven Pinker of Gladwell’s What The Dog Saw.

Pinker nicely summarizes one of the significant flaws in Gladwell’s books and essays,

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,” “sagittal 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.

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