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Malcolm Gladwell's Science

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," "saggital 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 aper├žus, 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.


What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

The problem with Gladwell's generalizations about prediction is that he never zeroes in on the essence of a statistical problem and instead overinterprets some of its trappings. For example, in many cases of uncertainty, a decision maker has to act on an observation that may be either a signal from a target or noise from a distractor (a blip on a screen may be a missile or static; a blob on an X-ray may be a tumor or a harmless thickening). Improving the ability of your detection technology to discriminate signals from noise is always a good thing, because it lowers the chance you'll mistake a target for a distractor or vice versa. But given the technology you have, there is an optimal threshold for a decision, which depends on the relative costs of missing a target and issuing a false alarm. By failing to identify this trade-off, Gladwell bamboozles his readers with pseudoparadoxes about the limitations of pictures and the downside of precise information.

Books / Sunday Book Review
Malcolm Gladwell, Eclectic Detective
By STEVEN PINKER
Published: November 15, 2009
The themes of this collection are a good way to characterize the author himself: a minor genius who unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning.

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