Five years ago at the blog — I’d forgotten how non-annoying Pinker used to be



 Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Igon values, superstar coin flippers, and the Gladwell problem

Malcolm Gladwell has started coming up in quite a few major threads and larger pieces, so I decided I needed to get up to speed on some of the controversies involving the author. Some of the more substantial have centered around what Steven Pinker has called the Igon value problem

From Pinker's review of "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,” “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.


Gladwell got the best of the follow up exchange, dismissing “igon value” as a spelling error while getting Pinker sucked into a bunch of secondary or even tertiary arguments. (One of the best indicators of intelligence is the ability to avoid discussions about the heritability of intelligence.)

The spelling error defense is technically correct but it misrepresents the main point of the criticism. First off, on a (Read more...)