Friday, November 27, 2009

The Limits of Journalism

Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book ‘What the Dog Saw’ has received a mixed press. It collects some of his articles from the New Yorker over a 10+ year period, and the topics range from interesting people to social issues to matters of problem solving and problem complexity.

On the positive side, these short pieces are thought-provoking and mostly well-written. In many ways, he is an original thinker, and I like the way he challenges our orthodoxies around important issues like intelligence, success and justice.

On the negative side, I think that he occasionally strays into areas that show the limits of his understanding. This is normal for journalists and nothing to be ashamed of. One is typically not an expert in the subject matter, and experts disagree, in any case.

The most glaring evidence of this was a reference to ‘igon values’ in his article on Nassim Taleb of ‘black swan’ fame. The correct term is ‘eigenvalue’ (roughly speaking, one of the roots of the characteristic equation of a matrix), and the misspelling was apparently caught by the original New Yorker editors, but not by the Brown Little editors of this book. (Shame on them.)

Steven Pinker recently faulted Gladwell in the New York Times for this gaffe, and used it as a means of casting doubt on the author’s probity. Gladwell acknowledged the faulty spelling, but went on to counter-attack. Needless to say, ‘igon values’ is more than a spelling error. It was an unlucky attempt to add verbal color to the story that instead revealed both ignorance of the topic and an oversight in fact checking.

We all pretend to know more than we do. Ironically, Taleb’s book ‘The Black Swan’ is an almost endless diatribe on this very topic, and Gladwell’s 2002 article on Taleb (‘Blowing Up’) is a rather successful summary of the book that Taleb had yet to write. But I find it a salutary fact of life that whenever I read a newspaper or magazine article on any topic that I know a lot about, I usually find both subtle errors of emphasis and unsubtle errors of commission and omission.

Henry Blodgett, Tim O’Reilly and other died-in-the-wool Webizens would say that this is why citizen journalism is such a great thing. Errors now get corrected quickly (by Pinker in this case) and then promulgated by bloggers. Unfortunately, news and book printing do not admit of instant correction, so Gladwell will have to live with this mistake until the second printing (if there is one), whereas the public corrigendum will live on indefinitely.