Gladwell's Trumpian Disregard for Facts

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Editor's Note: I am taking the next couple of days off from blogging. Happy Thanksgiving, and I'll see you Monday.

Dollars and Crosses recently pointed out a 2009 review, by Steven Pinker, of Malcolm Gladwell's What the Dog Saw -- and Other Adventures. The whole review is thought-provoking, but I'll make do here with an excerpt of an excerpt:

Image of pop culture "igon" via Wikipedia
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," "sagittal 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 aperçus, 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. [bold added by Dollars and Crosses]
Given that anyone, including Gladwell, could simply look these terms up (excepting "igon value", a term Gladwell, a mathematician's son, grossly misspells), this is more than jarring to me. In fact, it reminds me of the following quote about Donald Trump, by Onkar Ghate of the Ayn Rand Institute:
On cable news, it's now a regular feature for reporters like CNN's Anderson Cooper to catalog Trump's latest lies. But to call them lies misses the point.

A liar retains some respect for the truth: he tries to conceal his lies, weave a web of deception and make it difficult for his victims to discover the facts. Trump does none of this.
Having a terminal degree, I have had my share of experiences hearing people holding out on things in my field that I can instantly see they know nothing about. But at least in many such cases, it would take more than a quick internet search or peek in a dictionary or checking back with an expert to correct the problem -- unlike, say, finding a definition of some term. On top of that, Gladwell was writing a book. Pinker goes on to note that a "common thread in Gladwell's writing is a kind of populism," and I must agree. I guess I now have an answer to an old question I raised here some time back, regarding another unflattering review:
Being less-than-familiar with Gladwell's work, I can see his reaction as either one of annoyance at an unjust attack by an "expert" who disagrees with him -- or a sneer aimed for his lay audience to deflect valid criticism.
Pinker concedes that there can be value in Gladwell's writings, but cautions against his longer-form writing. I suppose so, but would say that my advice goes double in that situation: "[O]ne should never take just one person's word, however glib or authoritative, for anything."

I suspect that many of the same cultural factors that make Gladwell a popular writer are also responsible for the rises of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, each of whom shows disdain for easily-discoverable truths in his own way.

-- CAV

1 comment:

RT said...

Yeah, Gladwell can be thought provoking,at times, but I don't trust him to report anything that detracts from the yarn he's telling.
Thomas Friedman is similar