I piled cringe upon cringe Friday -- first because I read Steven Pinker's vivisection of Malcolm Gladwell's new essay collection, second because of what I found when I Googled a flub Pinker wielded against Gladwell.
Reviewing What The Dog Saw for the New York Times, Pinker slapped Gladwell like this:
He ... 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 aperçus, 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.
Because Gladwell once took time to chat with me at a journalism conference, because my daughter loves Gladwell's Blink, because Gladwell replied to my daughter's fan e-mail once, I wanted Pinker to be wrong. I wanted "igon value" to be some legitimate alternate spelling. So I Googled "igon value."
The Google results, as I said, made me cringe.
First, a timeline. As I write this, it's 2009. Gladwell's original "igon value" essay appeared in The New Yorker in 2002. So that gave Gladwell -- or his source for the story, or a reader -- seven years to notice the "igon value" error. Had someone noticed, "igon value" could have been switched to "eigenvalue" in time to deny Pinker the mocking bludgeon of the "Igon Value Problem."
Someone did notice. On the first page of Google results for "igon value," you find this blog post. But the blogger doesn't mention "igon value," doesn't even mention Gladwell. No, that would be too easy. Rather, a reader of the blog posted this comment: "One of my favorite journalistic gaffes is 'igon value' from one of Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker pieces. I guess he and his editors never took a single linear algebra course. (I actually really dig Gladwell's pieces in general)."
This amounts to a ghastly parable for the conscientious writer, for any of you with a semi-obsessive impulse toward using the Internet as a tool to track your reputation, your triumphs, your "igon value" screwups. It's one thing to Google yourself. It's another thing to read every comment on every blog post that mentions your name.
Or maybe it's not a parable at all. Maybe it's just another way of saying that you can't be perfect and that you can't spend your whole life trying to track down every mistake you might have made. Realistically, Pinker would have bludgeoned Gladwell with something else if he'd corrected the spelling of "eigenvalue" in time for the book. Indeed, Pinker praised Gladwell's writing but tarred him for being a "minor genius who unwittingly demonstrates the hazards of statistical reasoning and who occasionally blunders into spectacular failures."
Am I the only person who'd rather be called an "idiot" than a "minor genius"?
Back to the point, here's what feels most broken about all this. We have a blog commenter who says "I actually really dig Gladwell's pieces" and somehow the error he detected did not get fixed. Why? Well, we can't know at this point. I e-mailed the commenter Friday and asked this: "I'm just curious as to whether you wrote to Gladwell or the New Yorker about the error you found. If so, did you get a response? If not, why do you think you chose to write a comment on a blog instead of alerting Gladwell? Oh, and what did you have for lunch on that day in 2003? Surely, you remember all of this perfectly."
If I get a response and the commenter is cool with being quoted, I will write a follow-up post.
In the meantime, try to resist the can-of-worms impulse to Google yourself.
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