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Igon Value Problem

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The Igon Value Problem is a way of summarizing the lack of depth often encountered in modern journalism that focuses on esoteric subjects in which the journalist (or any writer in general) is not personally an expert.

The problem states:

[W]hen 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.

This was coined by Steven Pinker in a review of Malcolm Gladwell'sWikipedia book What the Dog Saw.[1]

Its name is a humorous reference to eigenvalue problemsWikipedia in mathematics,[2] and stems from a misinterpretation of the term "eigenvalue" as "igon value" on p.71 of Gladwell's book, as discussed below.

Such problems arise because the writer in question doesn't have the full understanding of a topic that comes from a full education and becoming a true expert in the subject. They are then prone to comparatively simple errors arising from mis-hearing or misunderstanding a topic in their interview with an expert.

Obviously, a journalist can't literally become an expert in everything; and often the finer technical details aren't the point. But they, and their editors, need to be aware of the necessity of getting them right, as making obvious technical errors badly weakens any substantive argument they may be making.


What the Dog Saw is similar to Gladwell's previous books, attempting to use innovative kinds of lateral thinking to make insights into the way the world works.

Anecdotes are heavily used to illustrate his points, and Gladwell has a habit of coining new terms and trying to introduce them into the public lexicon.

This habit has succeeded in some previous instances, most notably with his first big success, The Tipping Point, whose titular phrase became very popular in the business world in 2000.

Unfortunately, Gladwell's anecdotes and other evidences for his theories often hinge on his misunderstandings of eclectic scientific or mathematical concepts. As Pinker describes:[1]

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).

Thus, Gladwell ends up looking hopelessly ignorant to anyone who is actually informed about the topics he uses as examples for his sweeping theses, even if the veneer of legitimate science in his essays can fool most of the public.

But as University of Pennsylvania information science professor Mark Liberman notes:[3]

[E]igenvalue really is a very basic concept in linear algebra, and the analysis of the eigenvectors and eigenvalues of matrices is not just some ephemeral bit of esoteric mathematical fluff ... Thus this silly mis-hearing tells us (as Pinker notes) that Gladwell's understanding of the ideas he's writing about is limited, here as often, to a sort of metaphorical caricature. And the resulting conceptual equivocation can be a critical part of the "insights" that he has to offer[.]

Other examples[edit]

The Igon Value Problem is often found in science reporting, particularly where scientists themselves do not hold approval on the final product.

Few reporters have any background in the sciences, an area that is unforgiving of dilettantes, and the problem is made worse by a media environment that has eliminated many of those reporters who specialized in science coverage even as the university press releases that the stories are based on are usually not technically incorrect.

This leads to some serious problems of perspective in the news, such as in a story in the Times where Dr Rajendra Pachauri's admission that "there may have been other errors in [the IPCCWikipedia report on climate change]" is taken as an admission of incompetence rather than a reference to the very heart of the scientific method.[4][5]

The Igon Value Problem is distinguished from simply lying, as when reporter John Harlow reported that a new study by Dr. Aaron Sell showed that "women with fair hair are more aggressive and determined to get their way", despite Dr. Sell having told Harlow explicitly there was no such correlation.[6]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]