The Latest from Steven Pinker

Today, a long interview with Steven Pinker about ‘progress’ despite human nature; about the value of rationality; about looking at data and not headlines to understand the state of the world; about cancel culture; about the perils and inevitability of narrative thinking;  about Bayesian thinking; about cognitive illusions and moral mythology; and about how even crazy conservative politicians don’t invoke superstitious ideas that people took for granted hundreds of years ago. Well, not all of them anyway. Progress!

Big Think, Steven Pinker, undated, The ultimate guide to rationality, subtitled “Steven Pinker explains how to cultivate greater rationality in today’s complex world.” (transcript)

I increasingly check out this site called Big Think, whose mission is to “introduce you to the brightest minds and boldest ideas of our time, inviting viewers to explore new ways to work, live, and understand our ever-changing world.” It does so by posting half a dozen pieces a day, or so, some short and others longer. Irritatingly, though, it doesn’t display post dates on the homepage, so you can’t tell at a glance how recent some particular article might be. Many of the articles *do* show a date on their own pages. But not all of them. Here’s an item today I clicked on just to see what the title was about, without realizing it was a long interview with Steven Pinker. The page itself — undated.

Anyway, the interview is quite interesting, because it’s obviously very recent, and so addresses some issues (like cancel culture) that have arisen since his last book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters (my review here) was published. (The intro of this interview says it’s a 2023 book, which it is not; it was published in 2021.)

He begins by summarizing the ideas of his earlier books The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now about the decline in violence over the centuries, and how other things like prosperity and freedom have increased.

Now, a question that I often get is: “Oh, does this mean that you believe in progress?” Well, there’s a sense of which I don’t believe in progress, at least not as a force in the Universe. I’d like to quote the humorous Fran Lebowitz: “I don’t believe in anything you have to believe in,” because there isn’t any arc bending toward justice. There’s no force that’s living us ever upward- quite the contrary. The Universe doesn’t care about us, and it often seems to be out to get us. There are pathogens and parasites that want to eat us from the inside, and they are Darwinian creatures, after all- they’re just interested in surviving, and we’re big, yummy hunks of meat from their point of view. And they can evolve faster than we can. There’s just the laws of entropy. There are more ways for things to be disordered than ordered. There are more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. So as stuff happens at random, stuff’s gonna get worse. There’s human nature. We were not selected by the processes of evolution to be particularly nice. We have the capacity to be nice, but we also have the capacity for revenge and exploitation, and bigotry and sadism, and much else. So that’s what’s lined up against us. All of those forces are going to push against progress, but, nonetheless, progress has happened. How do we explain that what might seem like a miracle? The answer is rationality. That is, we are a cognitive species- we do have the wherewithal to try to figure out how the world works. We’ve got language so we can share our insights, our discoveries, our epiphanies, our trial and error accidents, the results of our experiments, the mistakes we hope not to repeat. And if people deploy their rationality- including their cognition, their language, with the goal of making other people better off, making them live longer, happier, freer, more prosperous lives- well, every once in a while, our species stumbles on the means to improve things, to push back against all these forces that tend to make us more miserable. If we remember the ones that work, try not to repeat our mistakes, then the result over time is what we call progress.

Here again are the dueling aspects of human nature, to be nice in some situations, mean in others. We overcome destructive tendencies through rationality, the ability to think things through, and then to institutionalize them and try not to repeat our mistakes. But there will always be those who want to do undo progress, as we are seeing increasingly through the battle against “wokeness” and the denial of scientific conclusions among conservatives.

This leads to the measurement of progress and how to assess the state of the world. This dovetails with yesterday’s topic about avoiding (at least certain kinds of) news.

When people see my argument that many things have, on average, gotten better, the reaction is often, “Oh, it’s so nice you’re an optimist.” And I always resist that; I don’t really consider myself an optimist. I just consider myself someone who looks at data rather than headlines. Headlines are guaranteed to make you pessimistic, even cynical or fatalistic because headlines are a gone random sample of the worst things happening on Earth, at any given time. And most things that happen, especially things that happen suddenly, and photogenically, are bad things. Things blow up. There’s a shooter. There’s a terrorist. There’s a pandemic. Good things often consist of nothing happening: like a part of the world that is at peace, that people forgot used to be at war for decades. A city that is not shot up by terrorists, a city that is not plagued by a crime wave- but these aren’t like something that happened on a particular Thursday in October, so you never read about them in the news. It’s when you plot data, which includes not only the things that happened, but also the things that don’t happen, that goes into the denominator. And that includes gradual trends, things that might creep up by a few percentage points a year, but that can exponentiate and transform the world. You see with your own eyes in these graphs how things have gotten better as a fact about human history. Not a matter of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, seeing the glass as half-full, just an awareness of the world that is much more complete than either the stories and headlines, and images from the news, or the battles and kings and revolutions from conventional history.

Lots more good stuff here, but let’s jump down to this:

NARRATOR: How does cancel culture stifle rationality?

PINKER: The thing about campaigns of intimidation is that they can often take root, even if they’re not particularly popular because everyone assumes that everyone else thinks they’re a good idea. This is sometimes called “pluralistic ignorance,” or the spiral of silence, where in a famous case, all the members of a fraternity thought that it’s really stupid to drink until you puke and pass out, but everyone thought that all the other frat boys thought it was cool. It turns out no one thought it was cool, but if you don’t have people blurting out what they think, if you don’t have a little boy saying the emperor is naked, then these beliefs can be entrenched- especially when there is punishment. If a person who does breach the consensus gets fired, driven out, be shown a world of pain, then people can sometimes think, “Well, I better punish, lest I be the one who’s punished.” And you might even have everyone punishing for a belief that they don’t think is so bad in the first place. Now, I don’t know to what extent some of the repression of heterodox beliefs, of beliefs that are actually held by a majority of Americans outside universities, are also held by people inside universities because you get punished if you say them, leading to the spiral of silence. So what’s critical is to have the little boys who say the emperor is naked, that is have a space in which people can say things that they think are true without getting punished. And there is a pushback. There are organizations like the Academic Freedom Alliance, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the Heterodox Academy, that are saying what a lot of people think privately, but are afraid to express. Namely, disagreement is good, disagreement is inevitable, that the kind of things you get canceled for saying might even be true. How are we gonna know unless you can say them?

Further topics: the tragedy of the commons; the perils of narrative thinking…

We are storytelling animals: we spin narratives. That’s one of the ways that we make sense of the world, but often the narratives can be more entertaining than accurate in terms of an understanding of the world. Now I have nothing against narratives, and we need them to make moral sense of our world. We need them as a constructive way to occupy our brains, but we do have a habit to fall back on narratives when it comes to big important questions like: How did the world come into being? Why do bad things happen to good people? What really happens in corporate boardrooms, or the White House, or 10 Downing Street? Now if you’re a scientist, if you’re a historian, if you’re a journalist, you say, “Well, we can find the answers to those questions: Microbiology and immunology tell us why people get sick, and cosmology tells us how old the Universe is, and government transcripts of conversations among leaders tell us what actually happened in the White House.” And with enough dogged work and attention to detail, and facts and peer review and open criticism, we can kind of figure out what really happened, what really causes grand, cosmic, historic events, but this is a radical, revolutionary, unnatural mindset. It’s a gift of the Enlightenment that we have good objective science and history and recordkeeping, and data sets and journalism. The human mind hasn’t really kind of caught up to that. And so, when it comes to these big cosmic questions, we seek narratives, we’re satisfied by narratives: “Why is there a Depression?” “Well, it was conspiracy of the the rich Jews.” “Why is there an epidemic?” “Well, a nefarious ethnic minority poisoned the wells.” They’re great stories. They would make fabulous fiction. They’re false, and they can be dangerous needless to say. When we put on the mindset of what really happened, we are much better off kind of setting aside our narratives, keeping them in the realm of fiction, and trying to determine what really happened.

Another recurring theme here: people prefer narratives to reality, religion to science, conspiracy theories to mundane coincidences.

Then: about cognitive illusions, with a great summary of the most common ones, with examples, and how some beliefs are driven by a kind of tribal, moral mythology:

I’m a cognitive psychologist, and like many cognitive psychologists, I think one of our proudest achievements are the various fallacies and biases, and quick shortcuts and rules of thumb that people use instead of actually applying the optimal statistical, or logical formulas. This work has been made famous by Daniel Kahneman, and Amos Tversky among others. Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for it, and it is an essential set of insights about what makes us tick, but I love teaching it, I plan to write a book about it, but I quickly realized that a lot of the fallacies, and irrationalities that we see around us are not just because of the classic cognitive illusions. So among those illusions, for example, are the “availability bias.” That is we tend to overestimate the likelihood of events that we can easily recall from memory. If there’s a plane crash, we think that plane travel is dangerous. If there’s a terrorist attack, we’re afraid to go out in public. If there’s a shark attack, we don’t want to get in the water, and we forget all the boring things like people falling off ladders, and getting into car crashes, that actually kill far more people, but that don’t have gaudy headlines that engage this availability heuristic. We tend to reason by stereotypes: So if I describe to you Penelope, who is sensitive and loves composing sonnets, and loves to summer in Italy and France, is she more likely to be a psychology major, or an art history major? People say art history major ’cause she fits the stereotype. They don’t really stop to think there are many, many more psychology majors than art history majors. Psychology is often the most popular major. So knowing nothing about her, you’ve got to start off with the assumption that she’s more likely to be a psychology major regardless of how well she matches some other stereotype. It’s another classic fallacy called “representativeness.” Anyway, there’s a long list, the “gambler’s fallacy”- if a roulette wheel lands red five times in a row, you bet on black ’cause it’s kind of due for black, a misunderstanding of the so-called “law of averages.” People think the law of averages is that the random processes kind of go outta their way to try to look random and fair, whereas, in fact, the roulette wheel has no memory. So the chance of a red or a black is exactly 50% regardless of the string of reds beforehand. Anyway, there’s a list of those fallacies, but what I quickly discovered is they’re not gonna explain QAnon. Why do people believe, with no evidence, that there is a cabal of Satan-worshiping, cannibalistic pedophiles in the American deep state. The gambler’s fallacy gives you no insight. And so, I had to range into other parts of our psychology that could explain these ‘nutball’ beliefs. And among them are the fact that we often aren’t so committed to the factual veracity of beliefs that have a strong moral component, that are more in the realm of mythology. So if you consider a person who thinks that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring out of a pizzeria in Washington, like, a completely crazy belief- what does it actually mean when they say they believe that? It’s not as if they call the police, which is what you do if you really thought that kids were being raped in the basement. Some of them would leave a one star review on Yelp, but it’s really an open question whether I believe that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring is really just another way of saying, “Boo, Hillary!” “I think she is depraved enough that she could do it!” And whose to say whether she did it or not? You can’t find out.

I’ll separate out the final lines of this section as key:

A lot of beliefs are in this mythological realm where people just, they don’t care whether they’re true or false, they’re good things to believe in that moral community. So I think that’s part of the answer. We have to recognize, at least those of us who have a kind of modern, Enlightenment, scientific mindset, namely, there is a truth. Potentially you could find out what it is. You ought to believe only things that are true, and not to believe things just because they are pleasing narratives. That’s a very unnatural cognitive mindset. It’s a good mindset; I think we should try to encourage it as much as possible, but left to their own devices, that’s not what people fall back on.

“There is a truth.” And then quite a discussion of Bayesian reasoning — how to update your provisional conclusions, or beliefs, based on new data.

Concluding with this, how we can see that progress has been made, by looking back, and thinking about the kinds of once-common irrationality that even modern crazy people like Donald T and MTG don’t invoke.

Well, despite our vulnerability to fallacies, and conspiracy thinking, and paranormal nonsense and ghost stories, and superstitions and magical thinking, and all the rest, there is a capacity in us to become collectively more rational; we can just see it looking backwards. Several hundred years ago, people believed in the existence of werewolves and unicorns. They thought that there were omens in eclipses, and rainbows and comets. They believed in astrology, some people still do, but it used to be the common knowledge belief. People believed that you could placate angry gods by sacrificing innocent people, making a blood sacrifice. People would settle disputes by dueling among men of honor, like Alexander Hamilton. People would take the whole family out to laugh at the insane in an asylum for entertainment on Sunday afternoon. In area after area, we really do see progress. Sometimes it’s slow, sometimes it’s hard to see. It doesn’t eradicate irrationality, but even in what many people would consider to be the most irrational presidential administration in recent memory with former President Trump advising people to inject bleach to treat COVID, and insisting that the 2020 election had been stolen, all that nonsense, but still he didn’t evoke any astrology, or past lives or omens or messages from God. There are whole areas that become more and more off-limits, even in the wild arena of American politics. So there is hope, it doesn’t happen instantly. It doesn’t happen to everyone. There’ll always be big pockets of irrationality, but we can try to kind of steer the ocean liner slowly, and gradually in the direction of greater rationality.

On the other hand, I’ll note, some conservative politicians do invoke omens and demons and messages from God. And many seem to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Yet even they float such notions only to their followers, and not to the general public, where they know they’d be laughed off the stage. Progress!

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