A thoughtful critique of Gladwell (and by implication, other populist extremes)

Here Steven Pinker critiques Malcom Gladwell, nominally about his latest book What the Dog Saw And Other Adventures, but it is actually much broader than that.

I don't have much to say about it.  Mainly I just wanted to save the link.

But the reason I think this is important, and something I'd like to save, is that the subtle devices used by Gladwell, like the "Straw We" and perverse manipulation of uncertainties, are not unique to his writing.  These devices are ubiquitous.  These devices exploit our (a "Straw Our"?) collective discomfort with ambiguity.

Update: Pinker smackdown alert (and, by implication, smackdown of me):  Gladwell's response to Pinker:
     In one of my essays, I wrote that the position a quarterback is taken in the college draft is not a reliable indicator of his performance as a professional. That was based on the work of the academic economists David Berri and Rob Simmons, who, in a paper published the Journal of Productivity Analysis,  analyze forty years of National Football League data. Their conclusion was that the relation between aggregate quarterback performance and draft position was weak. Further, when they looked at per-play performance—in other words, when they adjusted for the fact that highly drafted quarterbacks are more likely to play more downs—they found that quarterbacks taken in positions 11 through 90 in the draft actually slightly outplay those more highly paid and lauded players taken in the draft’s top ten positions. I found this analysis fascinating. Pinker did not. This quarterback argument, he wrote, “is simply not true.”
       I wondered about the basis of Pinker’s conclusion, so I e-mailed him, asking if he could tell me where to find the scientific data that would set me straight. He very graciously wrote me back. He had three sources, he said. The first was Steve Sailer. Sailer, for the uninitiated, is a California blogger with a marketing background who is best known for his belief that black people are intellectually inferior to white people. Sailer’s “proof” of the connection between draft position and performance is, I’m sure Pinker would agree, crude: his key variable is how many times a player has been named to the Pro Bowl. Pinker’s second source was a blog post, based on four years of data, written by someone who runs a pre-employment testing company, who also failed to appreciate—as far as I can tell (the key part of the blog post is only a paragraph long)—the distinction between aggregate and per-play performance. Pinker’s third source was an article in the Columbia Journalism Review, prompted by my essay, that made an argument partly based on a link to a blog called “Niners Nation." I have enormous respect for Professor Pinker, and his description of me as “minor genius” made even my mother blush. But maybe on the question of subjects like quarterbacks, we should agree that our differences owe less to what can be found in the scientific literature than they do to what can be found on Google.
I promise to read Pinker with more skepticism.  But I wish Gladwell had fleshed this out a bit more, perhaps with links to the questionable sources.


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