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.

3 comments

  1. Great article.

    Pinker is amazing. Read “The Better Angels”,”The Blank Slate”,”How the Mind Works”. Totally amazing. But I wouldn’t discredit Gladwell that much. He’s a very interesting thinker, author, with fascinating ideas and a great way of displaying them. These essayists don’t carry the truth; they handle data with creativity, data that will be compared in a near future. I totally agree with you; Pinker is so good, much of everything else in the genre seems pale in comparison. But well, Freakonomics or Gladwell’s books are basis for discussion. Gladwell, right or wrong at times, inspired me so much in my life.

    Outliers is still Gladwell’s best work to date. I also loved Blink. Recently, David & Goliath was quite compatible with my life experience with sports, for example.

    Sorry for my english, it’s not my native language.

    Patrick.

  2. This is interesting. I was a Gladwell groupie and for a time dismissed any inconsistencies in his prose. For instance I noticed once that whilst discussing dangerous dogs such as pittbulls he tells us that the French woman who had lost her face by an attack of a dog and received the first face transplant had been attacked by a black Labrador. Well that is true a black Labrador did maul her face but importantly the dog also saved her life. She had taken an over dose and the faithful dog was trying to wake her. Only the desperate act of biting her face could bring her back. This failure to tell the complete truth I excused, it made the story more effective he wanted his readers to agree with him that we are prejudiced against some dogs but then I noticed more mild conversions from the truth in the interests of a good story. Finally my patience snapped when I watched Gladwell’s YouTube video on the Bengal famine of 1942. It’s a particularly tragic episode in history where perhaps as many as 3,000,000 people starved to death. Horrific as this is Gladwell knows who to blame. Churchill in his video did not only fail to help feed these desperate people he actually actively refused to send any support to these beleaguered people. Bearing in mind that this is 1942 and Churchill was somewhat busy fighting Germans in Europe and Africa not to mention the Japanese who had breached the eastern shores of India it might surprise Gladwell that the truth is considerably more complex. Churchill appealed to both Rosevelt and the Australian government to send supplies but the Japanese mastery in the Indian and Pacific Ocean made such efforts difficult. We get none of this story from gladwell who Fails to engage with the event on any historically relevant level. The effect is shameful. No event in history should be distorted in this way. I no longer read Gladwell there are far better informed and interesting commentators out there now people who are interested in the truth rather than cherry picking details to distort the truth to tell their pretty story.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s