Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Straw Wee-Wee

I think Steven Pinker gives Gladwell more than his due, but his diagnosis here is spot on:
The banalities come from a gimmick that can be called the Straw We. First Gladwell disarmingly includes himself and the reader in a dubious consensus — for example, that “we” believe that jailing an executive will end corporate malfeasance, or that geniuses are invariably self-made prodigies or that eliminating a risk can make a system 100 percent safe. He then knocks it down with an ambiguous observation, such as that “risks are not easily manageable, accidents are not easily preventable.” As a generic statement, this is true but trite: of course many things can go wrong in a complex system, and of course people sometimes trade off safety for cost and convenience (we don’t drive to work wearing crash helmets in Mack trucks at 10 miles per hour). But as a more substantive claim that accident investigations are meaningless “rituals of reassurance” with no effect on safety, or that people have a “fundamental tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking greater risks in another,” it is demonstrably false.

On the other hand, the structure described here is a paradigmatic strawman argument. One rarely knocks down a straw man for the sheer pleasure of it. The point of strawmanning is to introduce a counter-assertion that can be defended narrowly -- the "trite" version, which only an idiot, i.e. straw man or Gladwell's typical reader, would disagree with -- but is meant to sound like a broad (and usually indefensible) statement. And I must say that Pinker's evident irritation gives me some pleasure: this is, after all, a guy who straw-manned all of Western thought in The Blank Slate.

PS Gladwell's "igon values" reminded me of this old running joke Grobstein and I had about eigenworthlessness.

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