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Igon Value

The Malcolm Gladwell problem

Via Language Log comes news of Steven Pinker’s review of Malcolm Gladwell, containing the following analysis:

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.

It turns out from LL’s investigations that, when the piece in question was originally printed in the New Yorker, that magazine’s legendary editors corrected Gladwell’s booboo to read “eigenvalue”; yet it has reverted to the nonsense “igon value” in his new collection of “essays”.

A mystery nonetheless remains: what on earth did Gladwell intuit that an igon value had to be, such that he didn’t bother to check? A number that has disappeared? (Middle English i-gon: past participle of i-go, meaning, um, go.) A technique named after a Basque mathematician called Igon? Or perhaps he thought an Igon Value was a moral standard among members of the Igon commune in Pyrénées-Atlantiques?

I have never read a whole book by Malcolm Gladwell. Have you, readers?

  1. 1  Adam  November 17, 2009, 1:46 pm 

    I’ve been reading through some of the archive of his New Yorker articles on his website which have some interesting things in them although I wonder if my reaction to them is a bit like my reaction to Julie Burchill, that he writes about so many different things so much that he can’t fail to chime with what I’m interested in once in a while. It helps that I’m choosing the articles that sound interesting to me and that they tend to involve him writing briefly about what other people have already written. What they don’t do, at all, is make me want to read one of his books.

  2. 2  sw  November 17, 2009, 3:21 pm 

    Nope. Never. Wonder if I’m missing something?

    (I must say, I loved his recent article in the New Yorker about David and Goliath, and how the little guy can beat the big guy: he based it on an array of exquisitely erudite-cum-envelope-pushingly-diverse examples derived from basketball, history and political science; shortly afterwards, the New Yorker published three letters written by people with a great deal of specialised knowledge in precisely those areas of basketball, history, and political science Gladwell had cited, each one showing how he got it wrong. I actually thought that he would be fired – but, heck, it’s probably just another chapter in his next book. Pebble? Slingshot? Just Sling?)

  3. 3  democracy_grenade  November 17, 2009, 4:07 pm 

    I’ve always thought that, in honour of the blog mentioned above, any particularly awkward or unclear piece of writing should be referred to as a “language log.” As in “Dan Brown sat down at his writing desk and squeezed out another language log.”

  4. 4  Bruce  November 17, 2009, 4:34 pm 

    Seems to be developing into a feud. Gladwell replies:

    Not as much fun as the feud between Pinker and Lakoff, though:

  5. 5  Steven  November 17, 2009, 5:07 pm 

    Surely someone who reads this blog has also read a whole Gladwell book. Or maybe not! Which itself would be a cute Gladwellian anecdatum?

  6. 6  Andrew  November 17, 2009, 5:19 pm 

    I’ve read all of Gladwell’s books!

    I vaguely recall enjoying the Tipping Point, but being disappointed by Blink and Outliers with their statements of the obvious and unconvincing misuse of correlation. Outliers had some particularly dodgy theories on ethnicity.

    I do like the range of anecdotes in Gladwell’s books. That ketchup-mustard New Yorker essay was pretty cool too. There’s something strangely compulsive about his writing.

    I’m sure this all makes me a total lowbrow. I guess Gladwell is the Dan Brown of the social sciences.

  7. 7  Steven  November 17, 2009, 5:28 pm 


    Oh, here is a bracing attack-piece on Gladwell too:

    [P]erhaps Gladwell’s intellectual compromises are neither commercial nor unintentional but rather a necessary outgrowth of his higher calling: to explore the secret workings of the world and impart the resulting data to its self-appointed stewards, the titans of industry

  8. 8  Tawfiq Chahboune  November 17, 2009, 6:39 pm 

    Is Malcolm Gladwell Alain De Botton in disguise? I’ve tried both, and been left totally underwhelmed in almost similar fashion.

    Igon value! I look forward to learning about the Rye Man zeta function or Fur Mat’s last theorem, etc, etc. A nice Gladwellian game this! Any others people can think of?

  9. 9  Tawfiq Chahboune  November 17, 2009, 7:40 pm 

    Even more worrying is Pinker calling Gladwell a “minor genius”!

  10. 10  speranza  November 17, 2009, 8:05 pm 

    I’ve also read all of Gladwell’s books, and probably most of his New Yorker articles as well. Then again I also like Philip Glass and Ian McEwan and all sorts of other upper-middlebrow things. If I had to half-heartedly defend the Igon Value thing, it would go something like: wasn’t his father a mathematician or something? When I was a kid I thought my dad was going around saying “bowl shit” (obviously he wasn’t a mathematician) and it wasn’t until much later that I realized “bullshit” made a lot more sense.

    So maybe I’m being unreasonably charitable but: Igon Value = thinking man’s bowl shit?

  11. 11  sw  November 17, 2009, 11:12 pm 

    Is Malcolm Gladwell Alain De Botton in disguise?

    Tawfiq, despite piling onto Gladwell above, I must say no! Gladwell has his flaws (who doesn’t?) but he is also witty; his writing is fascistically readable; his curiosity may be a bit cloying with portentious, wide-eyed wowzeeness, but he nevertheless bothers to look around in wonderment; and, for all the succinct cutesiness of some of his conclusions, he is fundamentally off-kilter enough to be interesting even if he is sometimes disappointing and underwhelming – but hey, who isn’t? I’m not sure these qualities can be ascribed to de Botton.

    An, in reply to your second question, may I offer: A Guy-Girl Counter? Boil’s law? Sapper Wharf Hypothesis?

  12. 12  Steven  November 18, 2009, 2:04 am 

    Baize Theorem. (Method of calculating probabilities in snooker.)

  13. 13  roger migently  November 18, 2009, 9:38 am 

    I like “portentious”: a prospect made pretentiously significant?

    But please help with “fascistically readable”. (You do have a choice, you know.)

  14. 14  Steven  November 18, 2009, 9:51 am 

    Boils Law. (Governs the behaviour of boils?)

    Edit: apologies to sw, who published first.

  15. 15  Steven  November 18, 2009, 10:15 am 

    Air dish number. (How many items of cookware a mathematician can juggle.)

  16. 16  dsquared  November 18, 2009, 10:49 am 

    The avocado number tells you how many elementary particles there are in one mole of your sandwich.

  17. 17  Steven  November 18, 2009, 12:27 pm 

    Per Sen tile. (Proportion of any pattern that matches Amartya’s bathroom décor.)

  18. 18  Bruce  November 18, 2009, 12:37 pm 

    In my childhood, whenever adults would say “I see” (as in “I understand”) I would mentally picture “I C” (this was decades before “RU n 2nite?” textspeak). I still do this automatically, even when I say “I see” in conversation.

    Of course, it’s “embarrassing” for Gladwell, but if I were Pinker I wouldn’t make too much of that kind of slip. He’s not above making “embarrassing” slips himself when he writes on topics about which he seems, to put it politely, relatively uninformed. (Eg see the chapter on “Mentalese” in The Language Instinct, and the peculiar blanket generalisations about “psychologists”, “sociologists”, “modernists” and “postmodernists” in The Blank Slate).

  19. 19  Steven  November 18, 2009, 12:43 pm 

    Gold bark conjecture. (Idea that some trees have epidermis of precious metal.)

  20. 20  NomadUK  November 18, 2009, 2:09 pm 

    Pee is empty. (State of a computer scientist who hasn’t had anything to drink lately.)

  21. 21  roger migently  November 18, 2009, 2:25 pm 

    Greater Tractor. A strange new constellation discovered by the Hubble telescope that appears to be drawing all the other constellations to itself.

  22. 22  Steven  November 18, 2009, 2:31 pm 

    Stranger Tractor. (How evil farmer sucks people he doesn’t know into his chaotic schemes.)

  23. 23  Steven  November 18, 2009, 3:04 pm 

    Cosmo Logical Constant. (Amount of ratiocination in Cosmopolitan magazine.)

  24. 24  Steven  November 18, 2009, 3:08 pm 

    Sue Per Nova. (Number of exploding stars divided by number of persons called Susan.)

  25. 25  Bruce  November 18, 2009, 3:29 pm 

    Getting back to Gladwell:

    Out liars. (Expose people who tell fibs).

  26. 26  Steven  November 18, 2009, 3:30 pm 

    Posit Ron. (Suppose that it was Ronald.)

  27. 27  Steven  November 18, 2009, 5:07 pm 

    Ming coughs quiche pace. (Rate at which merciless emperor expels morsels of savoury tart from trachea, plotted in 4 dimensions.)

  28. 28  Tawfiq Chahboune  November 18, 2009, 6:52 pm 

    Fib o Nacho Number (lying about how many nachos eaten).

    Mocking the greatest intellectual in the universe may not be a good idea. To your eternal credit, Alastair Campbell and Alain De Botton (second greatest intellectual in the universe) already hate your guts. Do you really want to add Malcolm Gladwell to the list?

    PS. I wonder what Craig Brown would make of Gladwell?

  29. 29  sw  November 18, 2009, 7:16 pm 

    Fuck All’s Pendulum (the inevitable swing back to apathy)

    Oh, I would love to see Brown on Gladwell.

    Roger @13 – re: fascistically – yes, that’s the point!

  30. 30  Bruce  November 18, 2009, 7:43 pm 

    Pie. (Ratio of your stomach’s circumference to what you ate for dinner).

  31. 31  MeatWork  November 18, 2009, 10:27 pm 

    ante-matter (the state of the universe before the Big Bang)

  32. 32  Igon  November 18, 2009, 10:55 pm 


  33. 33  MeatWork  November 18, 2009, 11:14 pm 

    Di Mentions (statistical analysis of media reports of Princess Diana)
    Die Mentions (statistical analaysis of media conjecture about conspiracy theories surrounding Princess Diana’s death)

  34. 34  MeatWork  November 18, 2009, 11:28 pm 

    Stastistics (10% more than “Statistics”)
    Stasistics (10% variation on “Statistics”)

  35. 35  MeatWork  November 18, 2009, 11:36 pm 

    Pie Ask Where (Comestible seeking location of Simple Simon)

  36. 36  MeatWork  November 19, 2009, 12:27 am 

    Uncertain Tea Principal (Theory that one cannot know whether the “tea” is a beverage or a meal until the missus brings it to the table)

  37. 37  democracy_grenade  November 19, 2009, 3:43 pm 

    “Plank’s Constant!” (Exclamation often made by fans of the Philadelphia Athletics baseball club circa. 1904 in praise of their star pitcher Eddie Plank’s uncanny durability.)

    Ur-Dosh Number. (Primitive method of calculating one’s personal wealth.)

    High Zen Burg Insert Auntie Principal. (Phenomenon whereby visitors to cities located at considerable elevation and featuring a large number of Buddhist houses of worship become determined to encourage their mother’s sister to emigrate to said settlement as a way of ameliorating the stress that she experiences owing to her job as the headmistress of an American high school.)

  38. 38  NomadUK  November 19, 2009, 8:16 pm 

    High Zen Burg Insert Auntie Principal

    I really thought for a moment that that was going to be a lot more entertaining than it turned out to be….

  39. 39  democracy_grenade  November 19, 2009, 8:23 pm 

    I am but one man…

  40. 40  roger migently  November 20, 2009, 1:29 pm 

    Just for the record, Gladwell appeared with Stephen Colbert this week to talk about his new book What the Dog Saw. I haven’t really watched it yet. I have to admit I really did enjoy his TED Talk (about spaghetti sauce, or ketchup, or something).

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