Whenever we see a piece by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker, we know exactly what’s going to happen. We’ll be entertained and titillated as the frizzy-haloed essayist takes us once again into the trippy world of statistics and ideas, only to confront us with evidence that some axiom or law we thought was on solid ground is in fact misleading and counterproductive.
Our immediate reaction is nearly always the same — ‘Wow! I never thought of it that way. What a genius this Malcolm Gladwell is!’
But then, inevitably, as his seductive reasoning sinks in, we get the nagging feeling that Gladwell’s been gaming us, and that despite the requisite overlooked small-time experts that he’s dug up to back up whatever it is that he’s debunking, we wonder if he really isn’t full of shit.
Well, now there’s lovely proof that yes, Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about.
The Times this morning provides a delicious take down of Gladwell and his methods by none other than Steven Pinker, the Harvard professor and author of The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought and generally one of the biggest brains on the planet.
With a new book of Gladwell essays coming out (What the Dog Saw), Pinker takes a hard look at the man’s overall output.
“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,” Pinker says, and goes into detail about a couple of examples of Gladwellian ineptitude in entertaining detail.
Later, he provides another assessment:
“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.”
“The reasoning in Outliers, which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle.”
We give the professor an “A.”