Gladwell and the Igon Value

I can’t honestly say I dislike Malcolm Gladwell’s books or even Gladwell himself.  How can you possibly develop a dislike for a genuinely curious dilettante who writes entertaining pop social science?  But to call him even a minor genius is to considerably overrate the man:

The themes of the collection are a good way to characterize Gladwell himself: a minor genius who unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and who occasionally blunders into spectacular failures….  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,” “saggital 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.

The ironic thing is that mass popularity of the sort that Gladwell enjoys is not only not evidence of surpassing brilliance, it is almost always precisely the opposite.  To be able to belabor the obvious to the clueless masses in an interesting manner is a useful gift, to be sure, but it helps to be closer to their average level of intelligence, not farther away.  I find it very strange that most people intuitively understand there tends to be an inverse relationship between brilliance and mass popularity when it comes to popular music and popular television shows, but not popular books.  Regardless of whether one is talking about Gladwell, Dawkins, Rowling, or Brown, their appearances on the bestseller lists is no more indicative of literary accomplishment than the consistent chart-topping of Britney Spears or 50 Cent is indicative of musical greatness.

Don’t get me wrong and think this is some sort of sour grapes or something based on the failure of my latest book to make its mark on the bestseller lists.  (It won’t, so long as the recovery theme remains in effect throughout the mainstream media.  In fact, I suggest that we can track the public perception of the state of the economy by how well the book is selling.)  Now, I love the Sports Guy and I’m delighted that The Book of Basketball actually hit #1 on the NY Times Bestseller list.  But as much as I happen to enjoy the Sports Guy’s writings and find them entertaining,  don’t believe that BoB or any of the present #1 bestsellers written by Mitch Albom, John Grisham, or Joel Osteen are particularly well-written or brilliant books.

Returning to Gladwell, Steve Sailer twists the knife: “Should I pause before I publish and apply reality tests to Dr. Frink’s theory … Nah! Dr. Frink is a wonderful genius! This time I’m clearly not overlooking any problems with the basic idea of my article.”  The amusing thing is that as with Paul Krugman and his claim that half of all U.S. banks failed in 1931, the error is a long-standing one.  In this case, Gladwell first introduced the concept of the Igon Value to an unsuspecting world six years ago.

As one of Sailer’s commenters notes, a Bertrand Russell quote would appear to be more than a little applicable here: “A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says is never accurate because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.”