Pinker Spars With Gladwell on Stats

Psychology Professor Steven A. Pinker’s review of Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book “What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures” ignited a heated public debate between the two prolific authors last week.

Pinker’s book review, published on Nov. 7 in the New York Times, gave Gladwell’s new book a lukewarm reception. He praised Gladwell for aspects of the work, but criticized his lack of knowledge of statistics and psychology and his use of “banal” generalizations.

An acclaimed journalist and author of a number of bestsellers including “Blink” and “Tipping Point,” Gladwell’s new book is a collection of essays on topics ranging from the origins of ketchup to the inspiration for Led Zeppelin’s music.

In the review, Pinker describes Gladwell as “a minor genius who unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and who occasionally blunders into spectacular failures.”

Pinker, himself author of a number of popular texts on cognitive psychology including “How the Mind Works,” argues against Gladwell’s claim that I.Q. scores are not good predictors of success in the job market.

The review touched off a series of responses and rebuttals published by the New York Times in the form of letters to the editor. Gladwell’s response defended the accuracy of his essays and criticized Pinker for using a source he referred to as “a California blogger...who is perhaps best known for his belief that black people are intellectually inferior to white people.”

He also defended his stance on the inability of I.Q. scores to predict future success and called Pinker’s defense of the I.Q. score “the lonely ice floe of I.Q. fundamentalism.”

In his response, Pinker admitted that at least on the subject of sports, he was forced to turn to the “army of statistics-savvy amateurs” in the blogosphere. But he wrote that “what Malcolm Gladwell calls a ‘lonely ice floe’ is what psychologists call ‘the mainstream’.”

The New York Times will publish the exchange of letters in the Nov. 29 print edition.

Both Gladwell and Pinker declined to comment for this article.