Why I’m not reading Steven Pinker’s latest

So You Want Enlightenment Now? - YouTubeI’m afraid this post won’t live up to the title above. It has its genesis in a long email I wrote someone who told me I just had to read Jeremy Lend’s critique of ‘Enlightenment Now’. I’ve mainly just topped and tailed it and stuck it up here – very much FWIW.

I’ll pass I’m afraid.

I’ve passed on Pinker whose optimism seems crude and tendentious to me. My decision not to read him is strengthened by the quote in the review of him describing certain environmental claims as “quasi-religious ideology… laced with misanthropy, including an indifference to starvation, an indulgence in ghoulish fantasies of a depopulated planet, and Nazi-like comparisons of human beings to vermin, pathogens, and cancer.”

I don’t know who Pinker is arguing against there, so his description may be accurate, but that raises the question as to why he isn’t addressing himself to the best such arguments, not the worst. I find people focusing on those who irritate them the most .… well .… I have to say I find them irritating ;). It’s one of the things I noticed when I was last in the UK as people had started doing this in a Big Way around Brexit.

And then we have his opponent who accuses Pinker of “a neoliberal, technocratic belief that a combination of market-based solutions and technological fixes will magically resolve all ecological problems”.

Why is the word “magical” in there? Does he take his readers for fools – we won’t notice him smuggling it into his argument? Is that really an accurate reflection of Pinker’s position? If he’s into magic, or even allowing for that slip into poetic licence, if he thinks some things will “resolve all ecological problems” why are we even discussing him?

His attack on GDP is ignorant I’m afraid. He says this “An oil spill, for example, increases GDP because of the cost of cleaning it up: the bigger the spill, the better it is for GDP.”

That’s true only if you ignore the economic impact of the oil spill, which is to generate losses including for the companies responsible for the spill and widespread economic and environmental damage – all of the former of which is captured in GDP and some of the latter of which will turn up as a cost in lost output and/or remediation. If he was right, Queensland’s GDP would have risen as a result of the floods but the opposite happened.

Then he mentions GPI. If you’re interested, I wrote about GPI here and here. Soft-left schlock I’m afraid. Silently left on the shelf by the Australia Institute and not maintained after I critiqued it – though the two things are probably unconnected. I never got any serious engagement from them on the shortcomings of the index they’d been promoting.

So I don’t trust either of these guys and that means reading them would leave me wondering where they were trying to pull the wool over my eyes. And given both are in deadly earnest, it’s clear they’re both adept at pulling the wool over their own eyes as a preparatory manoeuvre.

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17 Responses to Why I’m not reading Steven Pinker’s latest

  1. paul frijters says:

    I am a bit more sympathetic towards Pinker and not just because I agree in broad terms with most of the things he says.
    I think campus politics drives a lot of the tone and the energy of writers like Pinker. I am thinking here of Dawkins and Peterson as other examples, though these people of course wont agree with each other. Yet, they react to the pressures around them that offend them and against which they rile. Dawkins complains in his books of people heckling the idea of evolution in class. Pinker probably experiences strong quackery on his campus. Peterson will feel the pressure of rabiate political correctness around him. This upsets them and makes them feel they need to defend their views and explain them in a way those they feel pressured by might understand.

    I do see why you want them to be above all of that and aspire to loftier goals and loftier audiences. They will try that too in their academic articles that we dont read or hear about. Yet, unlike you, they have not escaped campus pressures by being a private entrepreneur who can choose his company. And of course, once you discover you can get attention, money, and all that comes with that from championing the ‘fight against’ something, then one gets sucked in. You start having a particular role.

    Being reasonable and high-minded is not a very effective strategy nowadays. There is not much demand for it.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    No – all true.

    I just get so dispirited by the idea that one gets anywhere by disagreeing with the most ridiculous things that are said by the other side.

  3. John Quiggin says:

    Pinker has always been like this. Here’s the opening line of my review of The Blank Slate from 2002

    The nature-nurture debate is not one with a tradition of fair play. Rather the standard practice has been to present a fairly complex and nuanced version of your own side of the debate, while setting up and demolishing a straw man as the opponent.

  4. John Quiggin says:

    And, on the same lines

    Even more common in the debate is the tendency to put forward a strong version of a theory but, when it comes under attack, to retreat to a version so moderate and reasonable in its claims that no one can seriously object to it. In the case of the nature-nurture debate, the ‘strength’ of a position can be crudely assessed in terms of the percentage weights allocated to nature and nurture. In various defensive passages, Pinker appears to imply that his criticism is directed solely at ‘100 per cent’ nurturists like the behaviorists Watson and Skinner and the most extreme proponents of postmodernism. But it is clear from reading the book as a whole, that Pinker wants to claim a dominant role for genes, at least in relation to issues of real social concern.

    • R. N. England says:

      The assertion that Skinner was a 100% nurturist is untrue, and an example of Pinker’s straw-man technique. Skinner’s position was that for operant behaviour, nature and nurture are inextricably linked, but if you want to change the behaviour of individuals, their environment is all you have to work with. The genes-only position is more attractive to libertarians who believe that changing human behaviour is wrong (except when they need to be imprisoned or executed).

  5. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks John, I enjoyed your review.

  6. conrad says:

    I assume the problem Pinker faces is that he feels the need to release books within relatively short periods of time and that these books must be on topics controversial enough to get readers and show how smart he is.

    So, the basic problem is that over time he’s gone from writing stuff he would have thought endlessly and argued endlessly with other people about, and stuff he really did have some claim to knowing more about than essentially everyone else (basically stuff to do with language), to stuff that seemed important but he clearly hadn’t thought about as much. So his language stuff is generally really excellent, his stuff on nature and nurture readable but clearly not as good (this can be seen in his much shorter debate with Elizabeth Spelke on gender stuff and mathematics), and other stuff worth giving a miss since there are clearly people that know more than him.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      I wouldn’t characterise the issue as ‘knowing more’. Pinker must ‘know’ a lot about the Enlightenment from his reading for the book, but he could have done any amount of reading. He wasn’t really reading it to understand it in the fullest sense, because doing that would make it very difficult to characterise for the (tendentious) purposes of his book.

      I’ve not read his earlier stuff but at least as far as the basic argument is concerned John Quiggin has given me pause. (Or as John Quiggin’s pet cat once said – to me, I was there at the time – John Quiggin has given me paws.)

      It’s also of interest that his stuff has become more controversial and worse over time. There’s a kind of logic of reduction going on I suspect.

  7. Non rhetorical question (guess I must be hopelessly out of touch)

    why do the opinions etc of Pinker matter ?

    • conrad says:

      His earlier stuff on language was important because at the time there was a movement which felt a lot like a neo-behaviorist movement. He defended the old-school rules-and-symbols approach to language. In hindsight, and looking at a post here from a few days ago, both groups are wrong (but I can’t tell you what right is :), unlike some examples people gave there).

      His later stuff to me feels like popular science without the academic insight his previous stuff had. So it can be a a fun read (he is a great writer and speaker), but I don’t think his opinion matters that much and I wouldn’t read those books in the same way as his earlier stuff (the blank slate book feels somewhere in between).

  8. What do you think Mr Lend means by “centrist values” in the following quote?

    “By slyly tethering the concept of progress to free market economics and centrist values, Steven Pinker has tried to appropriate a great idea for which he has no rightful claim”

    • conrad says:

      I’m under the impression that Lent thinks that the reason Pinker ascribes to humanity getting better is incorrect. So whilst he is good at collecting mountains of data, the underlying reasons he ascribes for them occurring isn’t necessarily well connected.

      This is the same problem with the why-are-Harvard-professors-male debate which I often point to when I complain about Pinker, since people can dig through the slides quickly and see for themselves. The basic idea was to see whether you can attribute exceptional mathematical and reasoning ability to genetics, and that these differ between males and females. If you dig through Pinker’s slides, you mainly get large amounts of data, most of which has no hope of separating out social factors (e.g., mental rotation scores with adolescents — a task which you can teach people different strategies for, and a task which is clearly affected by socialization and training). There is also stuff seemingly unrelated to the question that shows males and females differ, and that somehow because there are lots of other differences, this must support the idea that genetic differences between males and females are responsible for high level mathematics (e.g., aggression in non human species…).

      If you look a Spelke’s reply, she first describes what mathematics actually entails, and the precursors to these abilities . This way, rather than just present a mountain of data, you actually have an idea what you should be arguing about and hence what data is likely to be relevant. If you don’t find differences in the precursors, for example, it is much harder to say what you learn after that has a genetic bases likely to differ between males and females.

      If you’re interested, the slides are here and you can find the actual talk on youtube.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        Thanks for that Conrad.

        Of course this happens in economics a great deal when things get aggregated and then regressions are run and ‘hey presto’ you’ve got your paper.

        Careful attention to nested patterns of cause and effect? Well you’ve got to shift the product to keep those journal articles and books rolling and that kind of stuff really slows you down!

        Here’s a lengthy extract from a recent paper – “On the Efficient Use of Mathematics in Economics: Some Theory, Facts and Results of an Opinion Survey” – by two highly regarded economists which reads, to me anyway, as a parody.

        We assume that economics knowledge is socially useful. It is produced through the application of human capital and disseminated through the publication of journals and books. Mathematics is one of many inputs into the production of this knowledge and human capital. Therefore mathematical economics has a positive social product. More specifically, this productivity takes the following form.

        First, mathematics can be a precise language. As such it can contribute to logical rigour, the cumulative nature of knowledge and innovative analytical approaches. Second, mathematics has permitted the development of structural and dynamic models in the form of input- output tables and linear-programming models, which have contributed substantially to the understanding of how economies work and to the application of measurement techniques.

        Third, mathematics is an input into the training of economists. As such it has increased the efficiency of the education process and served as an effective screening since mathematical abilities appear to be useful in the study of economics.

        The validity of the preceding statements is independent of a precise definition of ‘mathematics in economics’ or ‘mathematical economics’. This is a great advantage of our methodical approach since it allows us to avoid having to deal with very technical and contentious issues such as the type of mathematics used, the quality of the mathematical economics and the need of different types of students to know mathematics. Concerning these dimensions of the problem we simply assume that the mix of types, quality and targets of mathematics input in economics are optimal and thereby focus our attention on the quantity.

        Starting with these premises, the question about the growth of mathematics in economics can now be formulated technically and neutrally as follows. Is the quantity of mathematics applied to the production of knowledge and human capital efficient? Is its marginal product equal to that of other inputs, such as economic and doctrinal history, political science, sociology, statistics, the natural sciences, law, liberal arts, accounting and grammar?

        Economics knowledge and human capital are sold in markets. For most economists this implies a strong presumption that both are priced correctly and produced efficiently. Any university using too little or too much mathematics teaching economists should find that its graduates are at a competitive disadvantage, its training program should shrink and finally disappear. Similarly, knowledge that contains inappropriate amounts of mathematics should lose out in the market and its production will contract or cease.

      • Conrad thanks for the link to the slides.

        The persistence and appeal of arguments along the lines of ; the higher status etc of the particular group I belong too is ; natural genetic , eternal and not a passing temporary product of ‘chance and necessity’ is not that surprising .

        I think the slide with the chart for counting ability says much, the majority only got one or two attempts right and then there’s a small group way out on the right of the chart that got six attempts right.
        People of either gender that intrinsically have exceptional abilities are rare individuals , therefore it would not take that much of social selection bias against women to result in ‘ all the professors are male ”

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