Consider those who say more than they know: FauxItAlls.
FauxItAlls presume for themselves a credential of knowledge, insight, or perspective that passes Low WATT or Biased High WATT inspection, but not Objective High WATT. Many are bright, have good undergraduate educations, and probably had a respected professor tell them they’d excel as scholars or scientists, poets or politicians. That puts you in the Club, right?
FauxItAlls beguile with expressiveness that passes for knowledge, talking the talk, but not walking the walk. FauxItAlls may also be deceptive, rhetorical frauds covering ignorance with illusion, but generally they are justified. They believe themselves. And, they are also able to convince others, mainly other FauxItAlls, who don’t want to die in a lab or library or garret or election. It’s just so much more rewarding to write for the New Yorker or appear on Charlie Rose or simply bedazzle the boys and the girls around the bar. Consider this exemplar.
Steven Pinker provides a takedown of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book and, along the way, Gladwell’s approach. I cringed while also agreeing with every vowel and consonant Pinker wrote. And, of course, Gladwell is only a poster boy for those who say more than they know.
FauxItAlls pretending to elevation in scientific fields like Malcolm Gladwell are not reliable for one great reason: They do not write for peer review. If you are a scholar, a researcher, a scientist, one who lives on, by, and with the Edge of Truth, you must survive peer review. FauxItAlls never write for peer review, but only for editorial review, market review, or legal review, certainly external standards of judgment, but standards aimed at style sheet, popularity, or lawsuits, not the anonymous approval of proven peers.
Peer review is a brutal process wherein you submit your writing to a proven, competent, and trustworthy peer chosen from a large, cantankerous association who then passes it on to several other proven peers for their anonymous opinion. If the editor (the first peer) and the reviewers (the other peers) accept your writing, it goes into print as both a statement of possible truth and a statement for further consideration. Other peers may then cite your writing as authority, take it as a launching point for further development, or laugh you out of the field. Peer review does not guarantee the Truth. But it is the closest thing to a guarantee we’ve discovered to date.
Pinker crushes Gladwell on one word, “igon.” Gladwell uses the word in the authoritative manner of a FauxItAll in describing a mathematical concept and procedure of importance in one of his articles. Gladwell clearly implies in his writing that he understands the igon, grasps why it is important to the people in his article, and that he could have done this himself if he wanted. He implies, too, that he learned this from reading about it which is impossible if you know what an “igon” is.
See, it is “eigen,” which is pronounced in conversation as “i-gon.” If you only hear it (as Gladwell probably did when he interviewed people for his article) and don’t read it (which Gladwell may have, but did not realize that “igon” is “eigen”) then you can confidently write about igons. If you are a top drawer FauxItAll, you can drop it meaningfully in conversation with other FauxItAlls, and no one will be the wiser all the while approving of your wisdom. Thus “eigen” becomes “igon.”
Except for anyone who has survived peer review in a field that uses eigenvalues as part of its vocabulary. Pinker knows about eigenvalues because he’s trained as a quantitative, experimental psychologist. Eigenvalues are useful statistics for understanding factor analysis, interpreting brain scan data, and just plain fun for those who like to invert matrices in their heads rather than solve crossword puzzles in ink. Otherwise, Igon’s may be interpreted as the name of Igor’s twin brother.
In this instance, the word “eigen” functions like Hitchcock’s McGuffin or the one mistake a killer makes on CSI. You don’t need to know anything about eigenvalues yourself. You just need to understand that this McGuffin reveals the point of the story, that it accuses and convicts the guilty party. A FauxItAll hears an unfamiliar word, but rather than admit ignorance and ask for help, the FauxItAll turns a vast, but undereducated, intellect upon it, determines its true meaning, and pronounces it loudly to the world.
Of course, this coinage reveals my envy and indirectly the envy of other suffering souls dying over data or metaphors or votes. FauxEnvy, perhaps. FauxGreen . . . but isn’t that Tom Friedman?
But, note: no post in this blog has survived peer review. I know the experience, but I provide here what I think I know without the benefit of the scalding you get from peer review. I just hope that Dr. Pinker approves!
P.S. While planning this post, I asked Melanie to help me think of a word to describe those who say more than the know. She thought about it and reeled off a couple of failures, then burst out, “FauxItAlls.”