Well put, Steven

This book review is over 3 years old at this point, but it is worth re-reading: Steven Pinker on What the Dog Saw in the NY Times.

Have you ever wondered why there are so many kinds of mustard but only one kind of ketchup? Or what Cézanne did before painting his first significant works in his 50s? Have you hungered for the story behind the Veg-O-Matic, star of the frenetic late-night TV ads? Or wanted to know where Led Zeppelin got the riff in “Whole Lotta Love”?

A third of the essays are portraits of “minor geniuses” — impassioned oddballs loosely connected to cultural trends.

Another third are on the hazards of statistical prediction, especially when it comes to spectacular failures like Enron, 9/11, the fatal flight of John F. Kennedy Jr., the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the persistence of homelessness and the unsuccessful targeting of Scud missile launchers during the Persian Gulf war of 1991.

The final third are also about augury, this time about individuals rather than events. Why, he asks, is it so hard to prognosticate the performance of artists, teachers, quarterbacks, executives, serial killers and breeds of dogs?

The themes of the collection are a good way to characterize Gladwell himself: a minor genius who unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and who occasionally blunders into spectacular failures.

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.

The common thread in Gladwell’s writing is a kind of populism, which seeks to undermine the ideals of talent, intelligence and analytical prowess in favor of luck, opportunity, experience and intuition. For an apolitical writer like Gladwell, this has the advantage of appealing both to the Horatio Alger right and to the egalitarian left. Unfortunately he wildly overstates his empirical case. It is simply not true that a quarter­back’s rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros, that cognitive skills don’t predict a teacher’s effectiveness, that intelligence scores are poorly related to job performance or (the major claim in “Outliers”) that above a minimum I.Q. of 120, higher intelligence does not bring greater intellectual achievements.