No, You're the Dilettante!

Gladwell and Pinker tussle over IQ, quarterbacks, and racism

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When a generalist and a specialist sit down to tea, someone's bound to get miffed, bruised, or worse. It's unsurprising, then, that Harvard celebrity psychology professor Steven Pinker and popular journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell butted heads over Gladwell's most recent book, particularly given Gladwell's flair for attracting criticism. But it's unusual for the New York Times to give a forum for this geeky slap-fight. It all started with Pinker's review of Gladwell's new title: What the Dog Saw. It quickly degenerated into a brawl over the significance of IQ numbers and professional quarterback rankings.

  • 'Gnawing on My Kindle' (Pinker, November 7): While Steven Pinker acknowledges that "an eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing," he points out that Gladwell has some basic spelling problems. He also takes issue with Gladwell's method of argument. Gladwell, he says, sets up "the Straw We," a straw man to frame his boring contrarianism. The problem is that some of these contrarian declarations are "demonstrably false." For example, "it is simply not true that a quarter­back's rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros ... or ... that above a minimum I.Q. of 120, higher intelligence does not bring greater intellectual achievements." His conclusion: "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 Is a Fundamentalist (Gladwell, November 19): In a letter to the editor, Gladwell accepts the orthographical corrections, but refuses to apologize for "not [joining Pinker] on the lonely ice floe of I.Q. fundamentalism." He also says that, upon asking Pinker for his evidence on the quarterback question, Pinker cited several blog posts. "Maybe," Gladwell suggests pointedly, "we should agree that our differences owe less to what can be found in the scientific literature than they do to what can be found on Google."
  • Eat My Data (Pinker, November 19): "What Malcolm Gladwell calls a 'lonely ice floe,'" begins Pinker on the subject of IQ, "is what psychologists call 'the mainstream.'" Pinker cites a 1997 editorial in Intelligence with 52 signatories claiming IQ is "strongly related ... to many important educational, occupational, economic and social outcomes." He also defends his use of information from blogs.
  • Eat Your Own Data (Gladwell, December 1): Gladwell responds--from his blog--by pointing out that the editorial Pinker mentions made a number of rather extreme arguments--including linking IQ and race--that "two thirds of the editorial board of the journal Intelligence declined to sign the statement," and that "the statement originally appeared on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal in 1994, explicitly in defense of ... a book whose supporters are typically quite happy to call one of the most controversial books of the past 25 years." His parting shot: "An ice floe is not necessarily a bad place to be. It's just that if you are plainly floating on one, it doesn't make much sense to insist that you are standing on solid ground."
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