Why Pinker and Gladwell Disagree

If you didn’t already know, Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, What the Dog Saw, is a collection of his best essays as published in The New Yorker (all of which are available on his site for free, if you prefer to read them there).

Since its publication, journalists and scientists have been criticising Gladwell over what they perceive as his lack of scientific integrity (in preferring folk wisdom and over-simplifications than fully-researched science journalism).

The most high profile of these criticisms, and the one that seems to have struck a nerve with Gladwell, comes from cognitive scientist and author Steven Pinker.

If you want to read more about these criticisms, Seed summarises many of them in an article that looks evenly at the various disagreements and looks at how, in popular science writing, “where statistical rigor is actually applied, it takes the discussion to a level of abstraction that is not useful to the average reader”.

However I felt the most concise and unbiased conclusion comes from Mind Hacks:

While the two writers spar over the details, the subtext is that Pinker is a proponent of IQ being a reliable predictor of success with a significant genetic influence (see The Blank Slate) whereas Gladwell has argued that success is largely a combination of practice plus being in the right place at the right time (see Outliers).

Obviously these two approaches to explaining success don’t sit well with each other, hence, in part, the disagreement.

5 thoughts on “Why Pinker and Gladwell Disagree

  1. Pingback: More On Pinker & Gladwell « memoirs on a rainy day

  2. Paul

    IQ is a great measure of intelligence if you live in the 18th century surrounded by people who we would describe by modern standards as ‘halfwits’.

    The scale is good at distinguishing people in the range 60-100 (i.e. below average or mentally handicapped) but very bad at distinguishing intelligence of those over 120 which according to the Flynn Effect is an increasingly large percentage of the population.

    Every headmaster worth their salt knows that the IQ test is outdated and miused. Gladwell is right – I suspect the thing that offends some about his ideas in Outliers is the notion that success is mostly down to luck; most successful people rarely want to admit this truth.

  3. Cedar

    I think Pinker hit the nail right on the head, and I have to disagree with you about the main source of their conflict. Gladwell, as the SEED article points out, has been an enormously successful science journalist, while being criticized by both scientists and journalists. I think it is not scientific integrity (or misspellings) but logical and methodological rigor that we scientists fault Gladwell for.

    Ultimately, the meat of scientific argument is data, and the way to evaluate that data is often dependent on years of training in that field. We are all certainly jealous of Gladwell’s storytelling ability, but I think where we cry foul is that the storytelling (and Gladwell’s individual cherry-picked case) becomes the rhetorical linchpin for his argument. He protests that he is just being provocative, but he is making arguments, and many people are believing him based on his anecdata. While it is naturally compelling, this is a profoundly unscientific way of reasoning.

    Pinker’s problem (and I would say the source of Gladwellian discontent among many scientists) is quite well summarized by the Mind Hacks piece, but not in the way they intend. Pinker has data, and scientific logic behind his conclusion, (and those who argue against his point may also have similar evidence on their side) whereas Gladwell has a set of stories.

    I don’t have a strong opinion about IQ, or about football players, but I was very disappointed by Gladwell’s ad hominem response. Calling someone a blogger and a racist (I’m not sure which he meant as a worse insult), he dismissed the argument without reference to its content, which was a fine point about methodology and statistical rigor specific to the case of NFL quarterbacks and the draft.

    I’ll add I am no huge fan of Pinker either, but in this case I have to side with him.

  4. Lloyd Morgan Post author


    One problem I have with this view of the disagreement (success = IQ + other genetic influences or practice + luck) is that the two views are portrayed as being mutually exclusive when they are not.

    We see this in almost every argument; the two (or more) sides argue that their way is correct and the other not, disallowing space for those who believe that the outcome could be due to a combination of both theories. (Which is why I laughed when Gladwell called Pinker an ‘IQ fundamentalist’; he’s blind to his own fundamentalism with his views.)

    My view in this discussion is a combination: success is undoubtedly due to practice and luck. Only the ignorant would disagree, surely? However without certain genetic influences this practice will likely be in vein.*

    *I’m purposefully leaving out ‘intelligence’ as a measure of success as this only matters in certain fields. And of course, we still don’t really know how to reliably measure intelligence.

  5. Lloyd Morgan Post author


    I’ve taken my time to respond to your comment because as I wanted to add to it. However I find myself impotent in the face of your reply: I agree fully.

    One of the most important things you point out is Gladwell’s ad hominem response to Pinker’s review. I also felt this was particularly poor behaviour from a man who is as learned as Gladwell undoubtedly is. For those that notice his lack of response to Pinker’s points of contention, he loses some respect. This can be seen in the comments of his response. Poor show, Gladwell.

    On the reasons behind the disagreement, however; I stand corrected. On re-reading these articles with your comment in the back of my mind I see that I interpreted it in a way that confirmed my own hypothesis and strengthened the problems I’ve had with Gladwell’s work for some time.

    Also, thank you for increasing my vocabulary: anecdata. Excellent!

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