Dian Xiao


Malcolm Gladwell is not good

Malcolm Gladwell may be a good storyteller but in my mind he is the worst kind of pseudo-intellectual.

1. He has bad ethics. One example is that he defends Joe Paterno. https://www.newsweek.com/malcolm-gladwell-joe-paterno-backlash-1484882

2. His reporting is sloppy and deceptive. In an episode of revisionist history, he attempts to make the claim that because Bowdoin College has good food, it's not focused one equity. It's an alluring claim. While Bowdoin could admit more of a diverse population, the fault doesn't lie with campus food. He doesn't break down the math or let Bowdoin share their side of the story. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/07/18/malcolm-gladwell-sets-debate-over-whether-good-campus-food-prevents-more-aid-low

3. It's admirable that he tries to simplify something that is technically complex. But if you don't have the technical depth to understand the situation in the first place, you can easily draw the wrong conclusion. This is the case with his Toyota sudden acceleration case episode. I happened to have a listened to talk on the topic done by ECE professor at Carnegie Mellon who was an expert witness in the case. Gladwell get's his conclusion wrong because he doesn't really understand how cars work. If you take a moment to delve deeper in Toyoto case, you'll understands its much more complex than Gladwell makes it.

But hey don't take my word for it, Steve Pinker, a legit academic, writes this bristling take down.

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.