I knew the name Malcolm Gladwell, and that his writings on IQ, heredity, and statistics were held in low regard by people who work in those areas. Then I read this review by Steven Pinker of Gladwell’s latest book: What The Dog Saw. You may need to register to read the article, the NY Times is annoying that way. Professor Pinker has some very good things to say about Gladwell’s writing on non-social science topics, and some pointed criticisms of his writings in the areas above. My favorite is when Gladwell writes that a certain expert speaks about “igon values.” That should be “eigenvalues.” But Gladwell is so unfamiliar with simple algebra terms that he had never heard of this. His editors must also be ignorant of a term that most freshman college math/sci/eng majors would have heard of.
One of Pinker’s criticisms is of Gladwell’s claim that NFL draft position of quarterbacks is unrelated to their NFL performance. In other words, either NFL GMs are completely irrational in their draft of quarterbacks, or there is in fact no predictor of NFL performance for college quarterbacks. Here is the relevant quote from Gladwell:
This is the quarterback problem. There are certain jobs where almost nothing you can learn about candidates before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired.
Pinker, and Steve Sailer here, go at this assertion. I don’t have anything to add to Sailer’s analysis (also see here). My only disagreement with Sailer is one of emphasis: I think Gladwell is defending this thesis because he knows that it is the most likely one to be ambiguous enough to not get him laughed at – unlike his claim that IQ’s above 120 do not confer greater probability of achievement than IQ’s at 120. Or his claim that there is no value in investigating the cause of crashes. Or his suggestion that teaching should be open to anyone with “a pulse and a college degree” and that no additional assessment should be done before hiring: assess teachers after their first year.
I had a client recommend Gladwell’s book Outliers to me yesterday, so I had Gladwell on the mind. There are too many valuable books to get to, I don’t think he’ll be on my reading list.