Sunday, November 15, 2009

Pinker on Gladwell

Ouch!

Thanks to a reader for pointing out this Steve Pinker review of Malcolm Gladwell's latest collection in the Sunday Times. I had more or less stopped reading stuff on Gladwell, as the uncritical acceptance of many of his claims is just too depressing a reminder of the mediocrity of our commentariat.

An eclectic essayist is necessarily a dilettante, which is not in itself a bad thing. But 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 aper├žus, 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.

...

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. For an apolitical writer like Gladwell, this has the advantage of appealing both to the Horatio Alger right and to the egalitarian left. Unfortunately he wildly overstates his empirical case. It is simply not true that a quarter­back’s rank in the draft is uncorrelated with his success in the pros, that cognitive skills don’t predict a teacher’s effectiveness, that intelligence scores are poorly related to job performance or (the major claim in “Outliers”) that above a minimum I.Q. of 120, higher intelligence does not bring greater intellectual achievements.

My opinion of Malcolm Gladwell was expressed here:

Malcolm Gladwell shows exquisite taste in the subjects he writes and talks about -- he has a nose for great topics. I just wish his logical and analytical capabilities were better ... My feeling is that Gladwell's work appeals most to people who can't quite understand what he is talking about.

What Pinker refers to as the major claim of Outliers: IQ above 120 doesn't matter, is easily shown to be false. Randomly selected eminent scientists have IQs much higher than 120 and also much higher than the average science PhD (120-130); math ability within the top percentile measured in childhood is predictive of future success in science and engineering; advanced education and a challenging career do not enhance adult IQs relative to childhood IQ.

So, accomplished scientists tend to have high IQs, and their IQs were already high before they became scientists -- the causality is clear. 10,000 hours of practice may be necessary but is certainly not sufficient to become a world class expert.

I recently remarked to a friend that many aspects of psychometrics which were well established by the 1950s now seem to have been completely forgotten due to political correctness. This leads to the jarring observation that recent social science articles (the kind that Gladwell is likely to cover) are sometimes completely wrong headed (even, contradicted by existing data of which the authors are unaware) whereas many 50 year old articles are clearly reasoned and correct. The data I cite in the links above comes from the Roe study of eminent scientists and the Terman longitudinal study of gifted individuals, both of which were conducted long ago, and the SMPY longitudinal study of mathematically precocious youth, which is ongoing. I've interacted with many social scientists whose worldview is inconsistent with the established results of these studies, of which they are unaware.

22 comments:

STS said...

It's tempting to hypothesize that our social processes somehow "repress" uncomfortable theories like psychometrics.

Henry Harpending said...

Political correctness is inexplicable to me. Reviewing recent literature in sociology I found this in P. Burstein, 2007, Jewish Educational and Economic success in the United States: A Search for Explanations, Sociological Perspectives 50:209-228.


There are three major reputable social-scientific explanations of why Jews do so well. (I emphasize “reputable” and “social-scientific” to exclude genetic explanations and those proposed by anti-Semites.

Not only does the author with pride handcuff himself by excluding a whole class of mechanisms, he find that greater "social capital" is a good explanation for the phenomenon. As far as I can understand him, this is a cleaned up version of the old Jewish cabal theory, which we of course have heard before, especially about 70 years ago.

Henry Harpending

Sam said...

Perhaps liberalism is the future if human biodiversity is accepted. How much harder would it be for the republicans to blame the victim classes for their plights once more people realize that traits like intelligence, personality, and even laziness are in part influenced by genes?

Sam said...

Steve,

A lot of what you write concerns the ultra smart (which is interesting). The genes I was dealt leave me to a life of relative mediocrity (50th percentile verbal GMAT, 24th percentile quantitative\)--I have estimated my IQ to be between 104-115, so I am limited drastically. I am currently in a 3rd tier MBA program trying to complete an emphasis in accounting. Even though I have a liberal arts degree in communications, by the time I finish my coursework I will be able to sit for the CPA, assuming I do not fail, which my IQ certainly will not help much here.

The way I see it my miserable life will be improved significantly if I can get a job with the government. It is amazing how much civil servants earn, and you really do not have to be that smart! The community center supervisor in my city makes over $100k a year! Wow!.

Steve, what are your suggestions for people who are slightly above average (IQ 100-115), who do not have the genetic endowments to do a quant-type phd but nonetheless want to earn a livelihood.

Regards.

Steve Hsu said...

Sam,

IQ is only a statistical predictor. Don't let it stop you from trying to succeed. There are a lot of careers where the "IQ over 120 doesn't matter rule" actually applies: i.e., where other factors such as hard work, interpersonal skills, etc. are as or more important than brainpower.

anon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
anon said...

IQ and imminent scientists post. A joke.

IQ and "challenging career". A joke.

SAT math at age 13 and future accomplishment. A joke.

Knowing that ideologues take the most meagre "evidence" for their theories as proof, priceless.

If only Steve's IQ were higher he would be an imminent scientist.

Pinker on the IQ of Ashkenazi Jews is a liar. Read tractate Avot, know the difference between Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Mizrahic religion, and the accomplishments of Algerian Jews in France and you will see that genetic explanations are unnecessary.

770 on GMAT, high score for undergrads on preliminary actuarial exam 100, and I couldn't even get in to a third tier B-school. The ideology of "hard work" and that of "egalitarianism" have real human consequences. I am one.

Sam said...

Thanks for the info Steve!

Anon, you must be acting very sarcastic. By the way, it sounds like you're BSing, since with a 770 GMAT you should be able to get in a tier 1 school, or, at least a tier 3, assuming your GPA is over 3.0

I only got a 450 on the GMAT, lol. I think with hard work I could have hit 475 though! My math skills suck. Always have.

I have no idea why the GMAT math section is harder than the GRE math section though. Grad programs in math, physics, and engineering require much tougher math than B school, so why are they required to take the GRE?

ben g said...

So, accomplished scientists tend to have high IQs, and their IQs were already high before they became scientists -- the causality is clear.

How is causality established? The fact that IQ predicts career success prior to entry into the market does not mean that IQ is causing (or preventing) such career success. I don't doubt that IQ is a cause (to some extent), but I'm wondering how exactly you jump from prediction to causation.

Steve Hsu said...

Sorry if that sentence is misleading. I'm not claiming to have *proved* causation. The data is *consistent* with IQ causing success and inconsistent with success causing IQ, but does not demonstrate causation. I'm trying to summarize a long discussion that took place on the Roe study post.

zarkov01 said...

anon, your post is virtually incomprehensible, but it looks like you don't think eminent (not "imminent") don't have an average IQ much different than the rest of the population. Do you really believe that? Of course there are high IQ people who don't ever amount to much, but that's not the point. Ever hear of a necessary but not sufficient condition?

Michael Anissimov said...

My treatment of this sad confrontation is here:

http://www.acceleratingfuture.com/michael/blog/2009/11/pinker-on-gladwell/

anon said...

There are three homophones for imminent. I can't keep them straight.
"immanent" isn't used very often though.

Derek said...

I'm assuming by "commenteriat" you mean "commentariat."

You're disappointing.

You also admit in the comments: "There are a lot of careers where the "IQ over 120 doesn't matter rule" actually applies: i.e., where other factors such as hard work, interpersonal skills, etc. are as or more important than brainpower." This is Gladwell's point. It's clear you've never read Outliers but feel qualified to critique it.

Steve Hsu said...

Thanks for the correction!

Pinker wrote "... above a minimum I.Q. of 120, higher intelligence does not bring greater intellectual achievements."

Do you agree or disagree with that statement? I think the studies I cite address it rather specifically.

Note he doesn't say "greater job success" or "greater wealth" -- he's quite specific.

Derek said...

Pinker doesn't say "greater success" but Gladwell does. Pinker says "greater intellectual achievements," but if you read the book that's clearly not what Gladwell is talking about. Pinker misrepresents Gladwell's point, you blindly follow, criticizing Gladwell for a claim he never made. Again, disappointing and sloppy. To me, this is worse than any benign Igon Value Problem.

Derek said...

I apologize, my entire comment didn't post.

I see what Pinker wrote, but Pinker mischaracterizes Gladwell. You admitted in the comments Gladwell's true point from Outliers.

From Outliers: "But there's a catch. The relationship between success and IQ works only up to a point. Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn't seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage." [page 79]

Pinker doesn't say "greater success" but Gladwell does. Pinker says "greater intellectual achievements," but if you read the book that's clearly not what Gladwell is talking about. Pinker misrepresents Gladwell's point, you blindly follow, criticizing Gladwell for a claim he never made. Again, disappointing and sloppy. To me, this is worse than any benign Igon Value Problem.

Steve Hsu said...

Gladwell: "... Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn't seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage."

This quote sounds familiar to me. I think that unless one interprets this very narrowly it is demonstrably incorrect.

Does the ability to gain admission to Harvard Law School constitute a "real-world advantage"? (See LSAT average at HLS.)

How about having an idea sufficiently novel and important to warrant a US patent? (See SMPY data.)

Regarding the actual research, everything I've read by Ericsson (the psychologist MG is channeling), seems vulnerable to the criticism that individuals with more innate ability get more positive feedback and are therefore *more likely* to put in the 10000 hours of practice he claims is the most important ingredient for success. Both Ericsson and Gladwell seem to misunderstand the difference between a necessary and a sufficient condition.

who said...

I would raise the bar to IQ 140. Then what Gladwell said is largely true. But he did bring a good point about hard work and persistency, the important factors contributing to success, when other variables are equal (same IQ). Steve, take you for instance, you IQ probably can win you a Nobel but did you? Did you ever ask yourself? Maybe you got a little side tracked by other things such as financial modeling, quant, wall st. CBO's?

Shane said...

It was my understanding that there was a weak correlation at best between IQ and success, and that there are other metrics more closely correlated with success. Such as the classic "here's a marshmallow, but if you wait you have have two" experiment on children.

Maybe the accuracy of this claim falls into question when you define "success" as "becoming an eminent scientist," but that seems like a specific enough case that it doesn't actually disprove Gladwell's claim.

And this is, without getting into the details of how malleable IQs are and at what ages - how much does prenatal care and early childhood nutrition play into it? How much can training on the types of questions that show up in IQ tests help individuals? Because in the case of the LSAT (the only test of intelligence that I'm familiar with), it's pretty easy to train people (especially those near the median) to dramatically improve their scores.

I don't dispute your evidence, but I do dispute the weight you lend to such evidence.

Anthony said...

I largely agree with the commentary on Gladwell, but as a social scientist, I wince at the characterization of social science and social scientists as wrongheaded on the basis of a method - anecdotal - that good social scientists deplore. I am a social scientist; I don't ignore this literature; what does this mean for your category?

Anonymous said...

It's been a while since I read Outliers so my memory of this particular section of the book may be flawed. As I remember it, Gladwell was writing in very general terms about the "real world" advantage of IQ. As I understood his idea, the person with a 140 or 150 IQ doesn't really live much better than the person with a 125 IQ.

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