First, in The New Republic, Malcolm Gladwell’s Secret Of Success:
The first sentence here is a classically Gladwellian assertion about what the rest of us think. The rest of the paragraph consists of, more or less, made up numbers and figures which Gladwell claims constitute a “rule”. Seriously, read these sentences again. Where does he get these figures? Anyway, the exchange ended on this note:
CHARLIE ROSE: Everyone always has this question when I tell them your story and hand your book out to people, and they say what does that say about gift and superb talent?
MALCOLM GLADWELL: I remain — I’m uninterested in that topic.
CHARLIE ROSE: Which one? The relation between gift and practice?
MALCOLM GLADWELL: No, I’m not interested in natural gifts. I know they exist and I know there is such a thing as natural talent, but I just feel so what, right?
Apparently there are some things that are uninteresting! The cumulative effect of watching both of these interviews was to make one feel enhanced respect for experts and for the peddlers of conventional wisdom. Here are three guys [he mentions Levitt & Dubner earlier in the post] who style themselves as being unconventional and bold and generally at an angle from received opinion. And yet after watching them talk for an hour, I felt like I was being sold a bill of goods by people who did not know what they were talking about.
Steven Pinker has a more measured and charitable review of Gladwell’s new collection of essays:
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 quarter back’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.
The reasoning in “Outliers,” which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle. Fortunately for “What the Dog Saw,” the essay format is a better showcase for Gladwell’s talents, because the constraints of length and editors yield a higher ratio of fact to fancy. 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.
Apparently Gladwell thought the term “eigenvalue”, which you will stumble upon in quantitative work even if you haven’t taken linear algebra, was an “igon value.”* Pinker uses this error to illustrate that Gladwell has to rely on his sources for the lay of the land, and this sort of trip-up is a big clue that he’s wandering around somewhat blind much of the time. This is a problem because out of the possible set of ideas and models, only a subset can be turned into an interesting piece of prose, and only a subset are actually non-trivially true (that is, they stand the test of the time, not just falling below the p-value for the purposes of getting published once, and, add something which isn’t a mathematically fluffing up of something we already knew verbally or intuitively). The intersection between the two subsets is rather small proportion of the peer-reviewed literature at any given time.
There’s an New York Magazine piece which points out the same issues with Gladwell’s style. The somewhat nasty debate between Gladwell and Megan McArdle gets to the crux of his reliance on experts in a selective and uncritical manner. His writing is analogous to a readable sports or political columnist, more for entertainment than insight. But as it is Malcolm Gladwell can garner fat speaking fees to give talks to businesses on big picture analytic issues. Though perhaps that says more about the state of American business.
* Though the fact that that got through editing also says something about the nature of the editorial profession, or at least their educational background.