The Malcolm Gladwell problem
November 17, 2009
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?