Gladwell Upsets Pinker

The reasoning in “Outliers,” which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle. -Stephen Pinker, Malcolm Gladwell, Eccentric Detective

Stephen Pinkers ripped Malcolm Gladwell in a November 7 review of Gladwells new book in the New York Times Sunday book review. Gladwell deserves a few rips; for me he’s the king of presenting half arguments as whole one. Outliers is a laughably bad presentation of social science research wrapped around a silly premise. Post-hoc sophistry captures Gladwell’s aesthetic.

Yet, Gladwell is a fine writer. And, he manages to give Pinker some hard whacks over the subject, raised by Gladwell, of NFL quarterbacks.

Gladwell: In one of my essays, I wrote that the position a quarterback is taken in the college draft is not a reliable indicator of his performance as a professional. That was based on the work of the academic economists David Berri and Rob Simmons, who, in a paper published in The Journal of Productivity Analysis, analyze 40 years of National Football League data. Their conclusion was that the relation between aggregate quarterback performance and draft position was weak. Further, when they looked at per-play performance — in other words, when they adjusted for the fact that highly drafted quarterbacks are more likely to play more downs — they found that quarterbacks taken in positions 11 through 90 in the draft actually slightly outplay those more highly paid and lauded players taken in the draft’s top 10 positions. I found this analysis fascinating. Pinker did not. This quarterback argument, he wrote, “is simply not true.”

I wondered about the basis of Pinker’s conclusion, so I e-mailed him, asking if he could tell me where to find the scientific data that would set me straight. He very graciously wrote me back. He had three sources, he said. The first was Steve Sailer. Sailer, for the uninitiated, is a California blogger with a market research background who is perhaps best known for his belief that black people are intellectually inferior to white people. Sailer’s “proof” of the connection between draft position and performance is, I’m sure Pinker would agree, crude: his key variable is how many times a player has been named to the Pro Bowl. Pinker’s second source was a blog post, based on four years of data, written by someone who runs a pre- employment testing company, who also failed to appreciate — as far as I can tell (the key part of the blog post is only a paragraph long) — the distinction between aggregate and per-play performance. Pinker’s third source was an article in The Columbia Journalism Review, prompted by my essay, that made an argument partly based on a link to a blog called Niners Nation.

Pinker: Gladwell is right, of course, to privilege peer-reviewed articles over blogs. But sports is a topic in which any academic must answer to an army of statistics-savvy amateurs, and in this instance, I judged, the bloggers were correct. They noted, among other things, that Berri and Simmons weakened their “weak correlation” (Gladwell described it in the New Yorker essay reprinted in “What the Dog Saw” as “no connection”) by omitting the lower-drafted quarterbacks who, unsurprisingly, turned out not to merit many plays. In any case, the relevance to teacher selection (the focus of the essay) remains tenuous.

Pinker does face plant in New York Times? Yessiree!

“in this instance, I judged, the bloggers were correct”

Wow, Pinker appeals to his own authority in lieu of responding to the merits of Gladwell’s cited sources?


Maureen Tkacik, writing in The Nation, gives Gladwell and his critics, a real going-over.

But in examining Gladwell’s success concurrently with his prescriptions for achievement, even his harshest reviewers damned themselves with faint criticism. When Michiko Kakutani dismissed Outliers for employing the patented Gladwell “shake-and-bake” recipe “in such a clumsy manner that it italicizes the weaknesses of his methodology,” she still granted him a coherent method; when The Economist embraced the book’s “engaging” and “intriguing” case studies while wryly enclosing the overarching “big idea” in quotation marks, it overlooked Gladwell’s refusal to engage meaningfully with the world of ideas at all. Gladwell For Dummies

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