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November 18, 2009


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I guess it's in the eye of the beholder whether Pinker's review was catty. I thought it was serious, more serious than Gladwell's reply. But the Igon Value Problem is not about spelling, it's about Gladwell (allegedly) breathlessly advocating ideas of which he has only a dim understanding. That's pretty significant as a criticism.


I think Gladwell rather effectively undermined Pinker's claim to seriousness in this instance by pointing to the flimsiness of his sourcing for a bold claim.

The eigenvalue/igon value IS about spelling, because Gladwell wasn't using that phrase in anything other than an incidental context. It's embarrassing, but not evidence for any distortion of an idea.

David Berreby is very good on the underlying dispute, and why Pinker was being less than intellectually honest: http://bigthink.com/davidberreby/pinker-v-gladwell

S Perle

Gladwell unfortunately sidesteps Pinker's main points.

Physics Professor Steve Hsu has highlighted the flawed nature of Gladwell's claim about iq over 120 being meaningless.

"What Pinker refers to as the major claim of Outliers: IQ above 120 doesn't matter, is easily shown to be false. Randomly selected eminent scientists have IQs much higher than 120 and also much higher than the average science PhD (120-130); math ability within the top percentile measured in childhood is predictive of future success in science and engineering; advanced education and a challenging career do not enhance adult IQs relative to childhood IQ.

So, accomplished scientists tend to have high IQs, and their IQs were already high before they became scientists -- the causality is clear. 10,000 hours of practice may be necessary but is certainly not sufficient to become a world class expert.

I recently remarked to a friend that many aspects of psychometrics which were well established by the 1950s now seem to have been completely forgotten due to political correctness. This leads to the jarring observation that recent social science articles (the kind that Gladwell is likely to cover) are sometimes completely wrong headed (even, contradicted by existing data of which the authors are unaware) whereas many 50 year old articles are clearly reasoned and correct. The data I cite in the links above comes from the Roe study of eminent scientists and the Terman longitudinal study of gifted individuals, both of which were conducted long ago, and the SMPY longitudinal study of mathematically precocious youth, which is ongoing. I've interacted with many social scientists whose worldview is inconsistent with the established results of these studies, of which they are unaware."


S Perle

The comment about Sailer's "that black people are intellectually inferior to white people" is pure misrepresentation. Groups differ on average - that doesn't imply much about individuals or 'inferiority'.

If two groups differed by, say, 10 points in average IQ (2/3 of a standard deviation), the respective distributions would overlap quite a bit (more in-group than between-group variation), but the fraction of people with IQ above some threshold (e.g., >140) would be radically different.

That is the case with Ashkenazi Jews, psychologists and educational researchers have pegged their average IQ at 107.5 to 115.

That’s only modestly higher than the overall European average of 100, but the gap is large enough to produce a huge difference in the proportion of geniuses. When a group’s average IQ is 100, the percentage of people above 140 is 0.4%; when the average is 110, the rate is 2.3%.



If Pinker had wanted to really take Gladwell to task he could have pointed to the claim about asian math success and rice cultivation.

This culture explanation for math success is easily disproven by transracial adoption studies. If Asian academic success was really due to some special set of academic values inculcated by Asian parents (something not demonstrated by the data to begin with), then why do Asians do better academically than whites even when they are raised by white parents?

Transracial, same-race adoptions, and the need for multiple measures of adolescent adjustment. (Burrow, Anthony L.; Finley, Gordon E.

American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. Vol 74(4), Oct 2004, 577-583.



Gladwell had a perfect last name. He makes his readers feel glad and well. He is a crowd-pleaser to liberals, a Sesame Street idea of an intellectual. He is a black guy who looks almost totally white, thus surely making NPR-types pee in their pants with relief and joy. He has a bohemian look but has credentials of being a rational thinker. He is everything to everyone. Black, white, freak, geek, cool dude, rebel, mainstream, etc, etc.

I would say he is to intellectualism what Oprah is to populism. He tells people what they want to hear. Because he has an oddball way of relating his ideas and stories, his audiences get the feeling--or are fooled into thinking--that they are hearing something NEW when it's the same PC crap all over again.

Indeed, that may be the whole secret to his success. We've all been complaining--even some liberals--that political correctness has led to rigidness of thought and dogmatism in the academia and media. Instead of empirical research and rational thought, we've been bludgeoned with Big Brother truisms.

Gladwell redeems political correctness by employing the subtler nudgocratic methods of Cass the ass Sunstein. And, the fact that Gladwell goes about in a off-the-wall, 'brilliant', and freakonomicesque way to arrive at his conclusions imbue political correctness with the cache of freshness and cutting-edge intellectual boldness.

In other words, Gladwell has found a way to pump carbonated bubbles into stale water, thus fooling people that it's new and refreshing spring water. Gladwell doesn't go about the old PC way of saying, 'if you believe in racial differences, you're a disgusting racist, SO SHUT UP!' No, he finds some data, connects dots here and there, and comes up with a quasi-elliptical and unconventional method of drawing his conclusions. But, honest people know full well that Gladwell's conclusions are the same old, same old. It's PC given second life through intellectual carbonation.

Of course, this sort of thing exists on the Right too. We all know Creationism is a boneheaded idea, and really dumb people are associated with it. It's impossible to win intellectual respect with an idea so retarded. So, what have some clever religious types come up with? A silliness called INTELLIGENT DESIGN which is supposed to be scientific, new, and daring, but in fact is essentially Creationism through the backdoor.

Gladwell's thing is to re-introduce and re-establish PC through the backdoor(of bogus pseudo-intellect). When liberals read Gladwell, they can fool themselves that they are intellectually cool and daring than politically correct.

Anon Coward

"David Berreby is very good on the underlying dispute"

I think Berreby's comments are wide of the mark. He suggests Pinker is someone who wants certainty while Gladwell appreciates surprises. I disagree.

Pinker is totally open to surprises, but those are based on logic and evidence. And it is in terms of logic & evidence that Pinker finds Gladwell is overstating things – going beyond the empirical evidence – to suit his narrative.

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