The Great Pinker-Gladwell Feud of ’09

[This summary belongs to a longer, master post on Malcolm Gladwell more generally, but is stranded here because I can’t bear to look at, let alone regurgitate, this actual commentary again.]

What happens when you talk back to Malcolm Gladwell?

Stephen Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, and himself the author of a bestselling pop science book issued a marginally scathing review of Gladwell’s latest “What the Dog Saw” in the New York Times in which he criticized both Gladwell’s tendency to hold forth on scientific topics in which he has no formal training, as well as his very ability to Google a concept like the eigenvalue (which Gladwell, for no particular reason, calls the Igon Value) before committing it to print. Gladwell, a staff writer for the New Yorker when he isn’t producing colossally successful tomes, responded by writing the Times a nasty letter in which he disputed the validity of Pinker’s own analysis, and where he brushed aside the Igon Value thing as a matter of spelling (although just how the articulation of a Crucial Concept through the Abundant Exercise of Capital Letters is itself a matter of spelling remains a mystery). Pinker responded. This minor literary tiff received quite a wealth of coverage online, both from the relevant publishers (the Times along with the New Yorker‘s Book Blog, which both did a respectable job of presenting the argument without taking sides) as well as the blogosphere at large.

Gladwell’s books continue to sell millions of volumes. Pinker, for his part, has disappeared from reviews for the Times, unless he’s been banished to reviewing books less popular than this one, in which case, no one would have noticed.

The fact that Pinker and Gladwell, with a little work, would have almost the same hairstyle went largely unremarked upon.


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