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Surprising Science

Pinker v. Gladwell

Steven Pinker’s attack on Malcolm Gladwell in the New York Times Book Review was more lucid and entertaining than it was intellectually honest.

Pinker’s take-away claim is that Gladwell’s work puts sciencey lipstick on the pig of anti-science “populism”: “The common thread in Gladwell’s writing is a kind of populism, which seeks to undermine the ideals of talent, intelligence and analytical prowess in favor of luck, opportunity, experience and intuition.” So, after making much of Gladwell’s misspelling of eigenvalue as “igon value,” Pinker ushers him out of the company of serious thinkers: “Readers have much to learn from Gladwell the journalist and essayist. But when it comes to Gladwell the social scientist, they should watch out for those igon values.”

It’s no surprise that Pinker is defending what he always defends, which is the “analytical prowess” of the experts who measure human beings. How the Mind Works, for example, is full of praise for “crisp categories” and theories that “idealize away from the messiness of the world.” In many a controversy, Pinker has argued that we can and should rely on the power of precise information and abstract analysis to solve problems. So, for instance, he holds that IQ tests predict future success, that knowing your genetic sequence allows you to make predictions about how you’ll behave, and that a college quarterback’s rank in the NFL draft is a good indicator of how well he will play professionally.

On the other side of the issue, though, are those who believe, like Gladwell, that expert overconfidence is a serious problem, and that we should recognize the inherent limitations in our current ability to explain and predict things.

Pinker’s rejoinder, as I read it, is this other side isn’t science and doesn’t include serious scientists. That’s false.

Pinker believes IQ tests measure differences that are largely genetic. Other psychologists disagree. Pinker believes we can map a line from genes to behavior. Other scientists hold, in the words of the neurobiologist Steve Rose, that “it is in the nature of living things to be radically indeterminate.”

Here’s another example: In 2005, when Lawrence Summers, then the President of Harvard, was roasted for saying that one reason for the paucity of women in the top ranks of science faculty might be due to gender differences in IQ distribution, some of the roasters were scientists. They didn’t claim Summers was politically incorrect to say there could be a biological basis for the gender difference; they said he was scientifically incorrect to assume that we know enough about the interactions of genes and environment to raise the issue.

At a conference on the Summers controversy, I saw some of the evidence those people cite. There, the psychologist Joshua Aronson present results from experiments on college students about to take a math test. Under the usual test conditions, men and women, all hard-core science majors, performed about equally. But when a group was told, “You know, there has never been a gender difference on this test,” the women did better than the men. In another study, women students who’d been reminded that they were women did worse on a geometry-skills test than other women test-takers; men reminded of their gender did better than other men.

Those results don’t eliminate the possibility that there are biologically-based gender differences in math ability, even at the extreme high end of the scoring curve (which is what Summers wanted to talk about). But they certainly do show it’s too early to say for sure that male-female test gaps must be due to genetics. That’s not a political point. It’s a scientific one.

Meanwhile, even as Pinker questions the legitimacy of an opponent, he lends his prestige to allies who have, to put it kindly, no better claim to be scientists than does Gladwell. That’s what Gladwell himself stressed in his understated reply to Pinker’s review, where he noted that Pinker’s sources for the quarterback claim weren’t scientists. (For a lot more detail on the NFL-draft argument, see this article, in which one of Pinker’s sources replies to Gladwell’s reply.)

Elsewhere I’ve mentioned that I believe there’s a temperamental difference (maybe it’s genetic!) between people who like science for its certainties and those who like it for its surprises. Pinker’s writing always made me think he’s at one extreme of the distribution, which shouldn’t bother anyone — until he starts claiming that there is no other end. The way he tells people to beware of Gladwell makes me wary of him.


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