For someone who so frequently and serenely proclaims that hes right, Steven Pinker can get curiously defensive. In Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, Pinker writes as if hes part of an embattled minority, valiantly making the case that the ability to use knowledge to attain goals is so underappreciated these days that the reading public needs a new book (by Pinker) to lay out rational arguments for rationality itself.
Pinker doesnt believe he has much hope of reaching the anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists who indulge in the florid fantasies of QAnon. We may be living through a pandemic of poppycock, he says, but he refuses to submit to the cynical view that the human brain is a basket of delusions.
After all, people use rationality all the time in their everyday lives, consulting the knowledge they have in order to get what they want. To illustrate this principle, Pinker gives the example of the San hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari Desert, who will assume that a set of ambiguous animal tracks come from a common species unless they get definitive evidence that the tracks must belong to a rarer one. This, he says, is the essence of Bayesian reasoning assessing evidence in terms of prior knowledge.
Still, Pinker is troubled by what he sees as rationalitys image problem. Rationality is uncool, he laments. It isnt seen as dope, phat, chill, fly, sick or da bomb. As evidence for its diminished status, he quotes celebrations of nonsense by the Talking Heads and Zorba the Greek. (Pinker is also vexed by the line Lets go crazy, which he says was adjured by the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.) Its precisely this cultural derision of reason, he says, that prevents us from appreciating rationalitys spectacular accomplishments. Human progress is an empirical fact, he writes. Progress is shorthand for a set of pushbacks and victories wrung out of an unforgiving universe, and is a phenomenon that needs to be explained. The explanation is rationality.
The argument will sound familiar to readers of Pinkers 2018 book, Enlightenment Now, with its insistence that everything is amazing and its repeated complaints about people complaining too much. (The example of the San hunter-gatherers appeared in Enlightenment Now, too.) This new book grew out of a class Pinker taught at Harvard. Like many psychologists, he writes, I love to teach the arresting, Nobel Prize-winning discoveries of the infirmities that afflict human reason along with the intellectual tools of sound reasoning. Most of Rationality is given over to ideas from game theory and behavioral economics parsing the discrepancy between model and reality. If a perfectly rational actor is expected to behave one way, why do so many people behave the way they do?
So Pinker spends page after page walking us through concepts like base-rate neglect (giving too little weight to the original probability of an event in the face of new information) and the availability heuristic (guessing the likelihood of an event according to what comes easily to mind). Despite Pinkers bombastic declaration in his preface that he knew of no book that tried to explain them all, a great deal of Rationality repackages (with due credit) the pioneering work of scholars like Thomas Schelling, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. When Pinker is dealing with abstract puzzles involving small-stakes situations, the book is familiar but fine.
The trouble arrives when he tries to gussy up his psychologists hat with his more elaborate public intellectuals attire. The person who succumbs to the small pleasure of a lasagna dinner instead of holding out for the large pleasure of a slim body is apparently engaged in a similar kind of myopic thinking as the half of Americans nearing retirement age who have saved nothing for retirement. His breezy example elides the fact that according to the same data the median income for those non-saving households is $26,000, which isnt enough money to pay for living expenses, let alone save for retirement.
Some of Pinkers observations on racial issues are similarly blinkered. Are mortgage lenders who turn down minority applicants really being racist, he muses, or are those lenders simply calculating default rates from different neighborhoods that just happen to correlate with race? (A long history of racist redlining may happen to have something to do with this too, but Pinker doesnt get into it.) He goes on to ask why race, sex, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation have become war zones in intellectual life, even as overt bigotry of all kinds has dwindled.
Anyone paying attention to whats been happening in the last few years might wonder where he got his information. In support of his vague claim, Pinker directs the reader to a footnote citing two sources: a study, whose data ended in 2016, that measured a persons explicit attitudes based on self-reporting (i.e. the respondents had to admit their bigotry); and a few (unhelpful) pages from Enlightenment Now.
The tone of Rationality isnt as relentlessly chipper as that of the previous book, but Pinkers optimism seems to have weathered the Trump years and the pandemic largely intact. He still disparages those who have the audacity to question his ideas about progress who argue that enlightened elites invoking the language of reasonableness havent always benefited humanity. He repeatedly says that by promoting rationality hes promoting epistemic humility, but youd be hard-pressed to find much humility here, as he pronounces that among the biggest barriers to rationalitys triumph is the universities left-wing suffocating monoculture.
As it happens, it was at Harvard University that Pinker taught a course on taboo with the lawyer and fellow professor Alan Dershowitz. A couple of years ago, Pinker came under fire when some photos surfaced of him with Dershowitzs onetime client Jeffrey Epstein. Pinker eventually explained that he and Epstein barely knew each other that he had never taken any funding from Epstein and couldnt really stand the guy. There is no reason whatsoever to doubt Pinkers account; to suggest that their mere acquaintance in any way undermines Pinkers work would be to make the kind of ad hominem fallacy that he rightfully pillories in this book.
But there was something else something that bears more directly on his thesis that rationality has been such a benevolent force for progress. In 2007 Pinker lent his professional expertise to Epsteins legal defense team, which argued that Epstein hadnt violated a federal statute prohibiting the use of the internet to lure minors across state lines for sexual abuse. According to Dr. Pinker, that is the sole rational reading in the English language, the affidavit stated a sterling example of a thinking process so confidently pristine that it can give unthinking cover to the grotesque.
Go here to see the original:
- Georgia Offensive Progress Report Week 12 - CalBearsMaven - November 28th, 2021
- Secessionism Threatens to Upend Bosnia and Herzegovina's Democratic Progress - The National Interest Online - November 28th, 2021
- Cuban happy with progress from Kidd, Harrison - The Official Home of the Dallas Mavericks - Mavs.com - November 28th, 2021
- Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac Continue to Make Progress in Their Rehab - OrlandoMagic.com - November 28th, 2021
- Letter to the editor: Anger is a cancer on democracy, progress - Bluffton Today - November 28th, 2021
- Europe is Tested by Waves of Cases that Threaten its Progress Against Pandemic - The New York Times - November 28th, 2021
- NY Jets Robert Saleh has complete faith in the team's plan, but must show progress - NorthJersey.com - November 28th, 2021
- This Thanksgiving, let's be grateful for human progress | TheHill - The Hill - November 28th, 2021
- RFID: Progress, Trends and Prospect - IDTechEx.com - November 28th, 2021
- Bidens confirmations progress at the 300-day mark - Brookings Institution - November 28th, 2021
- Pandemic progress: How far have we come and where are we going? - KXAN.com - November 28th, 2021
- As Focus Intensifies On Rising U.S, Cricket In China Remains A Work In Progress - Forbes - November 28th, 2021
- MEPC 77: For climate progress, shipping needs action from IMO member states on concrete initiatives - Hellenic Shipping News Worldwide - November 28th, 2021
- Shooting victim continues to make progress in recovery - The Salem News - November 28th, 2021
- Austin continues to make progress on bold 2016 sidewalk initiative - Austin Monitor - November 28th, 2021
- UN chief sees firsthand the progress and challenges five years after Colombia's historic peace deal - UN News - November 28th, 2021
- Native Americans See Progress, Work Ahead to Protect Cultural Lands - Voice of America - November 28th, 2021
- Preview of a farm show and a utility vehicle update - Farm Progress - November 28th, 2021
- 'No progress' ahead of Iran nuclear talks, says United Nations agency - FRANCE 24 - November 28th, 2021
- No Progress On John Wall Buyout Return To Rockets Incoming? - NBA Analysis Network - November 28th, 2021
- Scott Morrison digs in over federal Icac and tries to shift blame to Labor for slow progress - The Guardian - November 28th, 2021
- 9 charts to be thankful for this Thanksgiving: Progress on poverty, cancer, vaccines, and more - Vox - November 28th, 2021
- Ripple seeing 'good progress' in SEC case over XRP, outcome expected next year - CNBC - November 23rd, 2021
- Rams and Odell Beckham Jr. remain 'a work in progress' - Los Angeles Times - November 23rd, 2021
- Could Covid Lead to Progress? - The New York Times - November 23rd, 2021
- Hoping for shorter response times, city making progress on new North Tampa fire station - ABC Action News - November 23rd, 2021
- Breaking down the Celtics offensive progress - CelticsBlog - November 23rd, 2021
- England FA chief Mark Bullingham: Qatar making 'strong progress' on human rights issues ahead of World Cup - ESPN - November 23rd, 2021
- COVID and kids: Vaccine progress update - NEWS10 ABC - November 23rd, 2021
- Despite progress, McCarthy argues we were better off 10 months ago - MSNBC - November 23rd, 2021
- Where Will Patrick Gaspard Take the Center for American Progress? - The New Republic - November 23rd, 2021
- Halo Infinite Multiplayer Review In Progress - I Need A Weapon - GameSpot - November 23rd, 2021
- Breonna Taylor protesters reflect on a year of progress and pain in Louisville - 89.3 WFPL News Louisville - November 23rd, 2021
- EU's Sefcovic sees progress, hope in Northern Ireland Brexit talks - Reuters - November 23rd, 2021
- Cornfield achieves respectable yield in challenging year - Farm Progress - November 23rd, 2021
- Despite the Sabres' progress, the lack of reliable goaltending stands out again - The Athletic - November 23rd, 2021
- CJ Abrams' progress, free-agent starting pitching options and more: Padres mailbag - The Athletic - November 23rd, 2021
- Firefighters stop forward progress on 16-acre fire in Riverside - FOX 11 Los Angeles - November 21st, 2021
- Here's a look at Riot's in-progress fighting game, Project L - PC Gamer - November 21st, 2021
- Evan Mobley making progress in recovery from sprained elbow, but Cleveland Cavaliers wont rush return - cleveland.com - November 21st, 2021
- West Side Rag 20th Precinct's Chief Explains Mixed Progress on Thefts, and Concerns About $2 Bail - westsiderag.com - November 21st, 2021
- Ted Nordhaus on how green activists mislead and hold back progress - The Economist - November 21st, 2021
- After years of rebuilding, the Rangers are finally showing progress - Forever Blueshirts - November 21st, 2021
- Following Through on Metas Civil Rights Audit Progress - Investor Relations - November 21st, 2021
- Guardiola delighted by progress of City youngsters after Everton win - Manchester City FC - November 21st, 2021
- Where Denver's progress stands on lead pipe removal - Axios - November 21st, 2021
- Market predictions, harvest progress, and China-Iowa relations topic of 'Trade Talk' webinar - Successful Farming - November 21st, 2021
- Checking in on Fabian Lysells WHL progress - Stanley Cup of Chowder - November 21st, 2021
- The COVID Pandemic Worsens Food Security Progress in MENA - Al-Bawaba - November 21st, 2021
- Houstons backcourt tandem is still a work in progress - The Dream Shake - November 21st, 2021
- Driving home a point: After a set-up correction Cameron Smith is seeing progress off the tee - usatoday.com - November 21st, 2021
- Noah Syndergaard Reportedly "Making Progress" on a Deal with the Angels (UPDATE: It's Happening) - bleachernation.com - November 21st, 2021
- The Road to 2023: Assessing progress and accelerating delivery on the UN Common Pledges in advance of the next Global Refugee Forum - November 2021 -... - November 21st, 2021
- CSPD says progress being made in construction site theft investigations - KOAA.com Colorado Springs and Pueblo News - November 21st, 2021
- New reduced costs of dual HIV/syphilis rapid tests to accelerate progress toward elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis -... - November 21st, 2021
- Pokemon Brilliant Diamond / Shining Pearl Review-In-Progress - GameSpot - November 17th, 2021
- Port of L.A. making 'great progress' in clearing cargo backlog, director says - The Week Magazine - November 17th, 2021
- The U.S. Is Still Blocking Climate Progress - The New Republic - November 17th, 2021
- Paradox says it's "happy" with progress of Bloodlines 2 under new developer - Eurogamer.net - November 17th, 2021
- Transit Making Progress On New Park and Ride - ButlerRadio.com - Butler, PA - butlerradio.com - November 17th, 2021
- The progress (and failures) of COP26, in 3 charts - Grist - November 17th, 2021
- Waters 2021 Sustainability Report Highlights Progress on ESG Initiatives and Response to COVID-19 - Yahoo Finance - November 17th, 2021
- Column: Progress, Columbia State and my grandfather go hand in hand - Columbia Daily Herald - November 17th, 2021
- ACELYRIN Scores $250 Million to Progress Innovative Antibody Mimetic - BioSpace - November 17th, 2021
- Timberwolves see progress, but can't keep Suns from their ninth win in a row - Minneapolis Star Tribune - November 17th, 2021
- Roc the Future highlights progress at 10-year mark - Rochester Beacon - November 17th, 2021
- These researchers are trying to stop misinformation from derailing climate progress - NPR - November 17th, 2021
- Worlds fastest street circuit - What is the current progress of the Jeddah Street Circuit, set to... - The Sportsrush - November 17th, 2021
- Blue River, CDOT make progress on proposed chain-up area in town - Summit Daily News - November 17th, 2021
- Kentucky football: Spoiled football fans? Thats the surest sign yet of progress - Saturday Down South - November 17th, 2021
- Sage Therapeutics Alzheimer's drug likely to progress: regulatory roundup - Clinical Trials Arena - November 17th, 2021
- Don't reverse progress in teaching history honestly - Smithfield Times - Smithfield Times - November 17th, 2021
- Heres the irony of racial progress in Britain its now harder to call out racism - The Guardian - November 17th, 2021
- Kyler Murray is making good progress, has a chance to start next week at Seahawks - NBC Sports - November 17th, 2021
- Bears 1st-and-10: What is George McCaskeys definition of progress? - Chicago Sun-Times - November 17th, 2021
- Can Progress on Diversity Be Union-Made? - The New York Times - November 9th, 2021
- Cattle Rally In Progress, Calf Markets Uneven - Drovers Magazine - November 9th, 2021
- Development Of Magnetic Locking Idea Shows Great Progress - Hackaday - November 9th, 2021
- Todays Hot Topic: Wendy Williams Says Shes Making Progress Toward Returning to Her Show - Black Enterprise - November 9th, 2021
- College Football Playoff Rankings: How Much Progress Will San Diego State Make in the Top 25? - MWWire - November 9th, 2021