Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker: Rationality Has Made Us Richer, Kinder, and More Free

The Harvard linguist says Enlightenment reasoning and critical thinking are behind massive increases in material and moral progress.

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In the controversial yet bestselling books The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now, Harvard linguist Steven Pinker made the case that humanity has been getting richer and less violent over the past two centuries.

In his new book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, he argues that our ability to reason and think critically is central to human flourishing and undergirds our phenomenal material and moral progress since the Enlightenment. Pinker lays out the basic cognitive biases that cloud our thinking and give rise to intensely polarized and tribalistic worldviews that threaten continued advances. And he tells Reason's Nick Gillespie how all of us can become better, sharper thinkers in all aspects of our lives.

Photo: Andrew West CC BY SA 4.0

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  1. Too bad we’re rejecting it because it’s racist.

    1. Pinker commends himself by citing physicist John Ziman:

      “The physics of undergraduate text-books is 90% true; the contents of the primary research journals of physics is 90% false.” It’s a reminder that Bayesian reasoning recommends against the common practice of using “textbook” as an insult and “scientific revolution” as a compliment.

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    2. Always nice to start the morning off with some right-wing signaling.

  2. In his new book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, he argues that our ability to reason and think critically is central to human flourishing

    The New York Times on critical thinking:

    Don’t Go Down the Rabbit Hole
    Critical thinking, as we’re taught to do it, isn’t helping in the fight against misinformation.

    1. The New York Times on taking a shit:

      Won’t Go Down the Rabbit Hole
      Taking a shit, as we’re taught to do it, isn’t helping in the fight to clear our bowels.

  3. Then Biden is the reciprocal of rationality.

    1. You misspelled “antithesis.” Fuck Be Unto Biden!

      1. Fuck be unto Tulpa!

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    2. I’d like to see you win a Presidential landslide and, in your first year in office:

      1. Liberate and dismantle a network of concentration camps,
      2. Deliver a vaccine and shut down a deadly virus, and
      3. Brilliantly handle America’s exit from Afghanistan.

      #LibertariansForBiden

      1. Don’t forget the billions of jobs he’s created since taking office. Literally rebuilt the economy Trump left in shambles he did.

  4. “humanity has been getting richer”

    According to Koch / Reason libertarianism, that’s not what really matters. Our primary objective is to make the richest 20 or 30 people on the planet — such as our benefactor Charles Koch — even richer.

    In fact, I’d argue humanity in general getting poorer would be ideal. Because poor people are more likely to want to immigrate to the US and provide cost-effective labor for Mr. Koch.

    #InDefenseOfBillionaires
    #ImmigrationAboveAll

    1. Shhh. Pinker is a Koch plant at Harvard, spreading the word about how good we all have it.

      1. At least he isn’t an MIT plant like President Bacow, bent on cleansing the curriculum of anything older than the Thoughts Of Chairman Zuck

  5. “Steven Pinker made the case that humanity has been getting richer and less violent over the past two centuries.”

    Two massive World Wars, the Holocaust, the Holodomor, Calles hanging Cristeros on thoroughfares from the Pacific to the Atlantic, the Belgian Congo, Neocon adventurism, the Killing Fields, the Great Leap Forward and the Great Chinese Famine, Soviet proxy wars, the Cultural Revolution, Shining Path, the Ethiopian civil war, the Dirty Wars, the 1945-50 expulsion of 14 million ethnic Germans, ad nauseam…

    The death toll from all sides of all the various Crusades, over two hundred years, across three continents, several religions and from a dozen nations – was the same as the number that Saloth Sar killed in the late 1970’s in an area the size of Kentucky.

    Men aren’t getting less violent or more violent. Human nature is the same as it always was.

    1. I like listening to Pinker because he makes me feel good, but he’s still a snake-oil salesman.

      I think Jordan Peterson is right when he says that the veneer of civilization is still very thin, and that the only difference between us and a Mongol horseman or an Auschwitz Guard is placement and opportunity. And that’s a sobering thought.
      That’s why personal vigilance is always necessary, because anyone can rationalize their way to totalitarian brutality.

      1. “That’s why personal vigilance is always necessary, because anyone can rationalize their way to totalitarian brutality.”

        Maybe. Personal vigilance can vanish in a heartbeat when the mob (or what Jung et al called the Phalanx Theory) confronts it. Desperate conditions and circumstances add to the collapse of the “good,” and to the end of things like vigilance.

        Something more permanent and reliable is needed to repulse the dark side. So Pinker’s prime candidate is critical thinking. Of course. What’s or who’s an intellectual without critical thinking skills? Every fireman needs a hose to display his bonafides.

        But to be fair, it’s not a horrible place to begin the analysis and brings to mind Churchill’s maxim that it’s better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.

        Sometimes.

        The problem with these musings (of why nature becomes nicer or why sober minds lead better to a spirit of Kumbaya) is that they always seem akin to thinking that the map is the terrain. It isn’t.

        So you’re right about human nature ain’t much changing. The wars and brutalities you noted all had their share of critical thinkers. It’s just that the monsters within them didn’t much care. I hate when that happens.

        Pinker needs to remind himself that our enlightenment today doesn’t foreclose upon any or all of us becoming tomorrow’s “enlightened” mass-murderers the instant things get seriously ugly.

        1. Pinker needs to remind himself that our enlightenment today doesn’t foreclose upon any or all of us becoming tomorrow’s “enlightened” mass-murderers the instant things get seriously ugly.

          Exactly. Well said.

        2. Pinker is well aware of the perils and pitfalls that face us. I suggest you read or listen more to him and this becomes clear. He insists only that we acknowledge the progress and incredible success of humans (which he proves with data) and which argues for the possibility of our success facing these challenges. The default human attitude is that we are f..ked, most news is bad – that’s what sells – and that therefore science and reason are no more game changers than the latest university fad. Indeed, post modernism is his main target in this book.

    2. From another perspective, the Killing Fields existed only for about 5 years, and impacted only the people “in an area the size of Kentucky.” The Crusades, as you say, existed for over two centuries, impacting people in several regions across 3 continents and dozens of nations. Can you imagine if we were still at war with the UK over independence today? That’s what the Crusades were like.

      Look at the last century of war for us here in the United States. We call Afghanistan a war, our longest war in fact, yet more people died in 6 months in Vietnam than 20 years in Afghanistan. More people died in 1 week of WW2 than 20 years of Afghanistan. Our definition of “war” is getting less and less destructive

      1. For perspective, the Xin Dynasty’s enslavements and massacres in unifying China, Roman slaughters and conquests, the Mongol conquests, The Crusades, the Inquisition, The Thirty Years War, The Black Death (exacerbated by the Church burning cats as “familiars” of witches, which enabled rats to multiply and spread, which then carried the insects which carried the Bubonic Plague,) Pogroms and Expulsions of Jews, The Ottoman Empire’s atrocities…All took place prior to 1800, the point where the Human Species reached the One Billion mark in population! Hence, all of these horrors took up a greater proportion of the population.

        Also, the perpetrators of these ancient horrors also did not have the mass-murdering technology of the Fascists, Nazis, and Communists. If tyrants and warlords of the past had this technology of today, wouldn’t they be even worse than they were?

        Then and now, as Professor Rudolph Rummel observed, the defining conflict of human civilization is between the will to destroy and the will to live.

        1. But my argument isn’t that we are worse now or better now, but that we are the same.

          And whereas everything I mentioned happened in basically in one century, you’re referencing a period of two millennia. So no, even adjusting for population it winds up equal.

          1. We are different: In the 14th century, the Bubonic plague killed between 1/2 and 1/3 of all Europeans. Survivors – primarily ignorant and illiterate – roamed from village to village self flagellating and murdering Jews – didn’t work. In the 21st century, a global pandemic broke out. We developed several effective and safe vaccines within 11 months, and they worked.

            We are the same: In the 21st century we developed several effective and safe vaccines within 11 months, but 40% of the people – literate and educated – decided devils were involved in the vaccine development and refused to take it.

            There’s your problem.

            1. Yup. Ken Shultz doesn’t use the word “devils” when speaking of progressives, but he might as well. While he categorically declares a good chunk of his fellow citizens as evil, he claims he is driven by logic rather than emotion.

            2. We do think differently.

              In ancient times, nobody saw a problem with mixing reality and myth together in historical accounts.

              According to Jordan Peterson, in ancient times “reality” included one’s dreams.

              “Science” in ancient times, before the invention of the scientific method, was coming up with a good, entertaining story that sufficiently explained the phenomenon you were seeing, if you weren’t too critical about your observations.

          2. You do understand, though, that this means that Atheism is not a synonym for tyranny and mass murder and that these evils exist for a variety of motives, even several motives at once, right?

            1. Where does she state such a claim? She’s only disproving Pinker’s nonsensical claims.

        2. Also, I don’t think that you realize that contrary to popular culture imaginings many of the examples you give didn’t have particularly high death tolls (and your cat story is a modern myth).

          1. One murder to achieve some ideal of “Utopia” or “righteousness” is damnable from a Libertarian standpoint. Morality is not a matter of numbers.

            Oh, and it was not a myth that Mideaval Europeans burned cats for their alleged “familiarity” with witches and embodiment of “devils.”

            Cat-Burning–Wikipedia
            https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cat-burning

            I am not a “rat-is-pig-is-a-dog-is-a-boy” supporter of “animal rights,” but there is something to the idea that animal cruelty bespeaks and belies and co-exists with cruelty to fellow humans. With the Bubonic Plague, those cruelties reinforced each other in a danse macabre Ring-Around-The-Rosie.

            1. https://museumhack.com/black-cats-black-death/

              You claimed that cat burning caused the Bubonic plague. That’s the myth. Do not spread lies like that again.

        3. Rummel (RIP) ‘s website is a trove of that sort of data. Glad it’s still up.

          1. The “Visualizing Democide” section alone is jaw-dropping.

      2. Our definition of “war” is getting less and less destructive

        20 years and only the US, isn’t a trend. If we make it to 2050 without a major kill-off then we can talk.

        1. 75 years since WW2, the last cataclysmic war. Not an eternity, but a good stretch.

          1. Don’t move goalposts. The last century has been the bloodiest over any century before. And war is still all around us.

            Pinker needs to eat his words and see how limited his ideology is.

      3. Clerks was your best work. Go back to make that type of things.

    3. I really wish I could like your comment. Pinker fails to recognize that human rationality has its limits, and it’s more limited than he thinks.

      1. Pinker recognizes that.

        1. Not with the way he acts.

  6. Ban high capacity quivers. Bow down to authorities.

    1. William Tell could regale us with an Overture against this.

  7. Not according to “philosopher” Matthew Stewart, interviewed at Vox:

    https://www.vox.com/the-goods/22673605/upper-middle-class-meritocracy-matthew-stewart

    If you get rid of the false idea of meritocracy that everyone earns what they deserve and substitute the idea that meritocracy means holding power accountable to rational standards of public scrutiny, you have a class that can actively contribute in a positive way toward equality. There’s nothing more dangerous to inequality than a society where people and activities are held up to rational standards.

    And by “rational standards”, he means taking money away from the most productive people and giving it to those who can gather the biggest mob to threaten them.

  8. our ability to reason and think critically is central to human flourishing and undergirds our phenomenal material and moral progress since the Enlightenment

    And then somebody went and invented television, which requires the suspension of critical thinking skills, and it’s all been downhill from there.

  9. Who did he vote for? Can’t judge his ideas until you know which team he’s on.

    1. Here’s your attention, sarcasmic. Enjoy.

    2. Corollary: If you didn’t vote at all, or voted Libertarian or Green, you voted for Biden.

  10. I guess Tom Baker took his scarf back.

  11. Wait! No one’s going to make the point of what a cunning linguist Pinker is? I’m disappointed in you.

    1. Because we only do original, nonderivative jokes, like calling him Steven Pinko.

  12. Rationality also built us the capacity to destroy the civilized world several times over with advanced new weapons.

    Really, it’s about how you use it.

  13. he argues that our ability to reason and think critically is central to human flourishing and undergirds our phenomenal material and moral progress

    This is why Pinker pulls down the big bucks.

  14. The ability to think critically may well undergird the more positive aspects of this civilization, but there is much to suggest that it is simply not enough. That there are too many people who eschew critical thinking, that embrace bias and pure emotional response. Witness the reaction to the Trump presidency, and its tangential fallout, the cowardly freakout over any information that does not fit with one’s worldview on say, vaccines.

  15. Too bad that a lot of the time he forgets this in order to be ideologicaly pure. (Murray Straus was a better researcher than Micheal Johnson.)

  16. Wasn’t this guy for infanticide in the 90s?

  17. Critical thinking is sure in short supply at Harvard or for that matter any economics department.

    It is time to deep six keynsian astrology once and for all and take the proponents and deport the lot of them back to whatever former commie place their grandparents came from. no matter the uproar from their friends and relatives in the media

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