Igon Value: Pinker on Gladwell’s What The Dog Saw

I’m kind of surprised at the ignorance of some writers, especially when it comes to mathematical terms, such as Igon Value. For those of you who don’t know, it’s not igon value, but eigenvalue. Here’s what eigenvalues are all about. The name come from the German word eigen, which means “self”.

Eigenvalues, eigenvectors and eigenspaces are properties of a matrix. They are computed by a method described below, give important information about the matrix, and can be used in matrix factorization. They have applications in areas of applied mathematics as diverse as finance and quantum mechanics.


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,” “sagittal 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 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.


2 Responses to “Igon Value: Pinker on Gladwell’s What The Dog Saw”

  1. 1 Thoth Harris November 24, 2009 at 23:25

    Anyone who has read Thomas Pynchon’s most celebrated works knows that it is Eignanvalue – even if we don’t know what it is. There is a doctor or dentist in Pynchon’s V. called Eigenvalue. Ha!

  2. 2 range November 25, 2009 at 12:17

    It’s funny how Pinker’s review starts out nice and dandy, and then proceeds to rip the book to shreds.

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ranjitwithkinginbehand.jpgI'm Range, your host. On the menu, photos, art, stories, entertainment and reviews. Links, maths, education and social issues. I'm in Quebec (Canada) or Taiwan (R.O.C.). Follow me on Twitter.

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