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Can Steven Pinker save the world? Behaving rationally doesn't always make sense

Pinker sometimes has to make us suffer (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma via Getty Images)

Pinker sometimes has to make us suffer (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma via Getty Images)


October 20, 2021   8 mins

At the close of his new book Rationality, after 30 pages of references, the psychologist, psycholinguist and champion of Enlightenment liberalism Steven Pinker offers an alphabetical check-list of the “biases and fallacies” he has spent 10 chapters dissecting and despatching. More than 90 items long, this rogues’ gallery of conceptual crooks ranges from familiar rascals like the “ad hominem fallacy” to our ubiquitous social-media chum “tu quoque” — who now goes by the trendier name of “whataboutery”. 

Along the way his identity parade (all guilty, m’lud) takes in hardened malefactors such as “false dichotomy”, “guilt by association” and “straw man”, in addition to more exotic wrong’uns like the “motte-and-bailey tactic” (a kind of medieval cousin to that old lag “moving the goalposts”) and — a new favourite of mine — the “Texas sharpshooter fallacy”. First you fire a bullet into the barn door. Then you paint a bull’s-eye neatly round the hole. Ta-da! Much investment “advice” comes right out of that Texan barn.

Almost any arena of opinion and argument offers the prospect of a full card at Pinker Bingo. Political knockabout of the sort you hear weekly either in Westminster or on Question Time gives you the chance to shout “House!” within minutes. Even public debate that should bow readily to evidence-based reasoning, such as the international response to climate change, will throw up fogs of rhetorical pollution. Look at the preliminary positions, from both drastic-action radicals and kick-the-can gradualists, staked out in advance of the imminent COP 26 conference in Glasgow. With the planet’s future at stake, advocacy groups still tend to smother the clear light of reason in a dense cloud of confirmation bias, special pleading, guilt-by-association — and so on. You could argue that the comforting litany of targets and initiatives intoned by governments and agencies also deepen the sleep of reason. 

Trust in technocratic fixes may also function as a kind of mind-numbing cult. A century ago, the pioneering sociologist Max Weber — whom Pinker cites much less than he should — saw that the “iron cage” of bureaucratic rationality that defined modern life would become an official religion, prone to heretical pushbacks in the form of mystic, charismatic or ecstatic movements. The stand-off between top-down climate-change bureaucracy and the gestural militancy of the radicals proves him correct.

As in eco-politics, so in media, education, culture and even (arguably) the social superstructures of science itself. Within modern institutions, and modern selves, the sphere of rationality Pinker toils to expand cohabits with what he calls the “mythology mindset”, immune to reason’s charms and claims. Behind the Pinker project lies a teleology of his own, the a priori conviction he permits himself. That is the belief in long-term human progress — measured in indices such as declining violence, improving health and longevity, expanding empathy and solidarity — set out in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) and reinforced by Enlightenment Now (2018). 

Critics dismiss this principle of incremental betterment as groundless optimism. He treats it as simple historical factuality. “Progressives don’t like progress,” he has quipped about his radical detractors. “Our picture of the future,” he insists in Rationality, “need not be a bot tweeting fake news forever. The arc of knowledge is a long one, and it bends towards rationality.” 

Pinker’s steadily advancing reason is no alien, Mr Spock-like logic machine or unfeeling calculus of personal advantage. He often cites David Hume, who claimed in his Treatise on Human Nature that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”. Take “slave” here to mean something like “operating system” and you approach the Pinker ambition to subject our goals and drives — some selfish, many others not — to a more reflective scrutiny of the mental processes that underlie our choices.

Pinker’s wide appeal rests partly on the self-help, how-to character of his arguments. Wherever your will and desire (those driving passions) make you want to travel, rationality’s toolkit will help you reach your destination. Thus rational-choice theory, which he expounds in the new book with typical brio and lucidity, may serve idealistic as much as self-interested ends even though it sounds “about as lovable as Ebenezer Scrooge”. It powers, for instance, the results-oriented philanthropy of the “effective altruism” movement ­— to the dismay of puritans who expect guilt and lamentation, sackcloth-and-ashes, from would-be social reformers . 

Pinker, though, also wants to uphold truth and morality according to his own liberal-secular lights. So he inflects his value-neutral account of the pitfalls on the road to reason with warnings against the dangers of populist irrationality in power. Enjoyably, he does point out the logical flaw in saying that “we’re living in a post-truth era” (if it’s true, it’s false, like that ancient Cretan liar). Still, the Trump years and their perceived assaults on reason have shaped this new work and — together with glancing allusions to the pandemic — given it a topical edge. He deplores the “myside bias” and skewed “motivated reasoning” of a polarised, them-against-us culture. And he rightly dislikes most forms of binary reasoning. 

In the end, however, Pinker himself reverts to a simple dualism between the “reality mindset” he endorses and the “mythology mindset” that underpins supernatural faith, elects frauds who tell 30,000 lies to the US presidency and — most recently — has killed thousands of conspiracy-prone anti-vaxxers. Near the end of Rationality, he reinvents the oldest wheel on the cart of sociology and anthropology when he states: “The function of these [mythological] beliefs is to construct a social reality that binds the tribe or sect and gives it a moral purpose.” Of course, but what then? How should we try to connect myth and reality? 

The pandemic has shown us that, even in the best-informed societies, the spread of evidence-free “mythological” beliefs and the willingness of millions to act on them can cost lives on a battlefield scale. The task of building bridges between the magical thinker and the reasoning creature — both of whom coexist in every human mind — feels more urgent than ever. Can Pinker’s mental toolkit span the gap?  

Pinker has little sense of dialectic. His clean-cut antithesis between “reality” and “mythology” in human thinking belongs in the lab, or the lecture-room, rather than in the messier interpersonal spaces where we live most of the time. Even Nietzsche — whom, again, he could have profitably consulted more than he does — saw the eternal wrangle between the reason, order and control of Apollo and the frenzy, fury and bliss of Dionysus as a perpetual to-and fro rather than a winner-takes-all struggle. With Pinker, the cause of reason tends to look like a zero-sum game: the light advances and the darkness diminishes, or vice versa.

Pinker is above all a teacher — a professor of psychology at Harvard since 2003. And teachers — unless, perhaps, they teach literature, philosophy or even quantum physics – need truth to vanquish falsity. His career-defining mission to advocate and communicate the tools of reason draws its strength from a pedagogic model rooted in his home-ground disciplines of experimental psychology and psycholinguistics. He may have written an entire book to disprove the tabula rasa picture of the human mind — The Blank Slate in 2002 — but he does believe that sustained effort can help rewrite our pre-existing scripts.

Like any caring teacher, Pinker sometimes has to make us suffer — but it’s all for our own good. “Submitting all of one’s beliefs to the trials of reason and evidence,” he warns, “is an unnatural skill, like literacy and numeracy, and must be instilled and cultivated.”  

It’s not all pain in the Pinker classroom, though. Much of the fun of Rationality comes in the counter-intuitive exercises that our keep-fit instructor sets his cerebrally flabby pupils. If these don’t make your brain (pleasurably) ache as dormant muscles flex into action, then they should. Few readers will forget in a hurry his probability work-outs, especially this one: “Suppose that the prevalence of breast cancer in the population of women is 1%.” A breast-cancer diagnostic test has a true-positive rate of 90% and a false-positive rate of 9%. A woman takes it and tests positive. What are the percentage chances she has the disease? Between 80 and 90%, a sample of doctors estimated. The correct answer is around 9%.

“Bayesian reasoning” — a key component of Pinker’s procedure in Rationality — will direct our attention to the “base rate” of any phenomenon (that 1% prevalence) and avoid distraction by the surface noise of the foreground figures. Base-rate neglect, as he demonstrates, plagues much policy-making, as does the cognate vice of the “availability heuristic”. Rare plane crashes sway behaviour more than frequent car crashes, a blue-moon terror outrage outranks the long-haul attrition of air pollution, and so on. Our judgments, individual and collective, repeatedly succumb to “psychological amplifiers such as recency, vividness, or emotional poignancy”. Hard, or lurid, cases make bad laws — and bad decisions. 

And so on, as the skittles of error fall to reason’s conquering ball. Pinker disentangles our confusions of correlation and causation. He guides us through the moves of formal logic that let us unpick the assertions of advertisers and pundits (some of them deeply intuitive, as when we sceptically say “that’s a big if
”). He outlines game theory and the Prisoner’s Dilemma that asks us to choose between potential gains, or losses, with no knowledge of the other players’ actions.

As a primer for cognitive hygiene, and a booster pack for your powers of critical reflection, Rationality does what it says on the box — and lots more. Yet in Pinker’s pay-off chapter, cheekily titled “What’s wrong with people?”, his grasp falters. His recommendations for improving rationality in public affairs sound either self-evident or anodyne: those rule-governed contracts; scientific peer review; media fact-checking; “statistical and critical thinking” in education; “evidence-based evaluation” in health and social policy. Lamely, he suggests that “It would be nice to see people earn brownie points for acknowledging uncertainty in their beliefs”, or “questioning the dogmas of their political sect”. And who would bestow those coveted points on repentant zealots? Party activists rewarded for loyalty? Social-media corporations that profit from traffic-driving division? Although he throws harsh words against the blowhard simplifications of media commentators, Pinker’s own nostrums often hover around the op-ed level. The “mythology mindset” that flourishes both in party politics and social activism would find little advantage in his forms of deliberative doubt. Just now, polarisation pays.

A teacher to the last, Pinker knows, supremely well, how to lead willing students towards a greater light. What’s missing is a robust model of the “impartial” agencies – communal and political – that might enable people to learn, cherish and deploy the tools of rationality as citizens, not just as pupils or professionals. Correctly, Pinker regrets “the decline of class-crossing civil-society organisations”, like churches and clubs, where people meet for a shared, connective purpose – rather than gather virtually in “sociocultural tribes” made up of uniform but atomised opinion-consumers. But he can’t say much about how super-charged rationality alone would heal the rifts between “myside” and your side.

Curiously, just across the Harvard campus, a solution of sorts might await. The great Bengali-born philosopher-economist Amartya Sen fails to rate a single mention in Rationality. Yet Sen – a Harvard professor since 2004 – began his career as an analyst of “social choice theory”. He has devoted more than half a century of original work to the role of public reasoning in entrenching and enhancing democratic norms.

Sen grew up in Rabindranath Tagore’s utopian community at Santiniketan: the Bengali polymath’s visionary scheme to ground practical reasoning in peaceful and productive daily life. From famine prevention to women’s empowerment and the codification of the UN’s human development index (which he co-created), Sen has argued that the collective pursuit of rationality can serve common goods and deepen the bonds of belonging and community. 

Sen, an admirer of the Adam Smith, believes that strong institutions of collective reasoning can mitigate self-seeking and that “It is the power of reason that allows us to consider our obligations and ideals as well as our interests and advantages” (Development as Freedom). From village councils in India to the building (however incomplete) of accountable global agencies, he has done a lifetime’s best to make democratic rationality work in the public square. Think of it as a project to make Pinker’s “reality mindset” yield the same sort of collective pleasures and rewards as his “mythology mindset”. 

Pinker notes that, on a private level, people to tend to make pretty good sense, and good choices, about their lives. Sen asks how co-operative politics may do that too. For now, Pinker’s Rationality can tell us with forensic verve and agility how to catch out those faith-driven diehards as they blunder through their faulty premises, false syllogisms, illusory correlations and so on. So far, he can’t show convincingly how — or why — they should play a better game.  

Rationality: What it is, why it seems scarce, why it matters by Steven Pinker (Allen Lane, ÂŁ25)


Boyd Tonkin is a journalist, editor, and literary and music critic, and author recently of The 100 Best Novels in Translation.

BoydTonkin

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Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago

Someone who has only just discovered the Texas Sharp Shooter fallacy is not well placed to review a book on logic and rationality. Perhaps the book itself is an example of the fallacy – how would a surprisingly low-knowledge reviewer know? Would he realise that ‘whataboutary’ is the basis of case law and equal justice? Or the importance of doubt – nullius in verba, and judgement – the weighing of those facts against each other? Rationality is always presented as if there is a right answer – logic dictates – when often there are multiple answers and many unknowns. Because rationality is hard, a Baysian would say test and learn, and focus on likelihoods not truths, particularly about things that are unknown – like the future.

Matthew Baker
Matthew Baker
2 years ago

There’s an odd trend I’ve noticed in people like Pinker, Dawkins et al (very strong amongst the so called “new atheists”) which is to take proficiency in one area (psycholinguistics for Pinker, evolutionary biology for Dawkins) and assume it makes them masters of fields like ethics, philosophy, and theology (although of course they’d likely deny this last field has any value). I’ve privately noticed the same trend amongst many engineers I know.

The problem with much of what I’ve read from Pinker is he provides good analysis on logical technique, and then waxes on about how logic and reason can make people “good.” But what is good, if you don’t bother to developed a metaphysic and ethical view to examine it? Ethicists for thousands of years have discussed “the good, beautiful, and true” as a vision of how people might rank equally valid desires to get a desired end. Read Aladair McIntyre for a fuller account of this sort of discussion (and why concepts such as teleology matter).

The obsessive focus on technique (pouring over lists of logical fallacies etc) is good to a point, but it’s a tool to be used in a greater pursuit, which is weighing competing visions of the good. The Blank Slate actually does a good job of this, arguing we don’t all start from the same place, which probably should lead one to argue we must find purpose in some sense in our limits and a vision of what our desired end would be. But I get the feeling reading Pinker that he is far too pleased in his cleverness and technique to reach that stage.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Baker

I get the feeling that everybody who will read this book will be far too pleased in their own cleverness. Comments about psycholinguistics, evolutionary biology and engineers suggests someone who has one knowledge but believes he can comment usefully on all others.

I am an engineer. I have a specific knowledge as well as a useful general knowledge of engineering, so I feel I can comment on a lot of engineering things – but not about psycholinguistics.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

I am an engineer and know a lot about jet propulsion. This comments section, as well as Pinker, has mentioned Dawkins, MacIntyre, Haidt and Peterson: I have all 5 authors’ complete works on the bookshelf beside me. My only comment is that each book was a great read and well worth the money I paid for it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Gordon Black
Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

I can also read but that doesn’t mean that my opinion is worth anything.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Worth more than those who can’t or won’t, I’d submit!

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Baker

It strikes me that the weakness at the heart of Pinker’s optimism arises precisely from the Humean point by which he sets such store: that reason is the slave of the passions – meaning reason is purely instrumental, cannot set goals and cannot criticise them, either, for they are matters of preference and taste. These may well be above, below, beyond or against reason and many people use the finest reasoning imaginable to set out and enact pathways to attain such ends. Likewise, many societies recourse to reason in pursuit of aims which the soi-disant rationalists of today condemn at once and out of hand – nationalism, for example. And yet, nationalism appeals to and perhaps appeases those very passions of which reason is held to be the slave. Why baulk at it, therefore? Two reasons: for Pinkerian liberalism, it too obviously demonstrates the human limits of the utilitarian agenda – Man does not live by bread alone; and for the left, which lurks malevolently alongside that liberalism, it gets in the way of Utopia. Paradoxically, it is Pinker-liberalism’s sad, involuntary, de facto alliance with the left which will lead to its complete destruction.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Baker

This doesn’t just happen with academics; how often do you see an actor, writer or “celebrity” wheeled out to give an opinion on the economy, housing, immigration or what ever? I don’t understand why their opinions, and it is always an opinion, they haven’t done any research, is any better than the man who comes to trim my hedge. In fact, the hedge-cutter may have a greater understaning of some aspects of society than the actor.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

Can Pinker Save The World?

NO

Can Pinker Increase the moral decline in the world?

YES

But I do not know him much at all – but for his aggressive atheistic, Post Modernist, TDS, Pro Lock-down Liberal/Lefty ways – which is all Utilitarianism and believes none of the values beyond the mundane which I hold as being the most important of all. An exceedingly clever and worldly ‘Pig Satisfied’ philosopher.

Bill Gates said Pinker’s book was one of the most important ever written. Gates is the antithesis of what I thing a good man is, and this reflects on Pinker’ philosophy – that all which matters is clever ways of proving more is better. (that it strikes such a chord in the very creepy Gates – maybe you cannot judge a book by its cover, but you can by who likes it) That Pinker was a friend of Epstein does not help to show his ability to see goodness and badness in the less tangible parts of humanity.

I would guess that the total capture of all non-STEM university thinking by the Critical Theory Postmodernists is exactly because such clever, soul less people like Pinker are at the top of their departments. I do watch the odd Jordan Peterson Youtube – same background, Canadian, Psychiatrist, Philosophy, Harvard professor – but Peterson values soul above the Bread and Circuses of Pinker’s ideal. Peterson is worth a watch if you feel like some inspirational thinking – and he was driven out by the Cancel Culture of the modern Universities…

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Many of the people whom I know have a very diminished capacity for being rational so anyone who is able to competently “spread the word’ is alright by me !

Lee Jones
Lee Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Wow, so many logical fallacies in only four paragraphs, well done you.

J Hop
J Hop
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Great comment. I concur on Peterson, and if you haven’t already would suggest watching his debate with Sam Harris on religion. The gist of the debate was really “Is it valuable to believe in things that may not be true?”. Facinating and I think Peterson made much more valid arguements in the end, which pleasantly surprised me. I’ve always thought that Peterson’s background as a working therapist helped to shape his worldview in profound ways. You can’t be in the messy business of healing complex people and convince yourself that humans are or can be purely rational beings.

Last edited 2 years ago by J Hop
Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  J Hop

Does anyone actually believe in things that are not true though? It might be personally beneficial to think something is true when it is not actually. It might even be beneficial to pretend – to yourself, or others – that this is your state of mind when you know better, as politicians know well, but consciously knowing something to be false and believing it is a definitional contradiction.

I also don’t think anyone claimed humans are, by large, rational. Some claimed all humans are potentially rational like Kant, although we see where that went in the French revolution. In fact thinkers like Hume and Voltaire lalassumed the teeming mass of humanity is princioally constituted by the congenitally irrational. Only that some people are more rational than others, just as with any other trait, which strikes me as a fairly obvious observation. There was a strong strain of support for monarchical enlightened despotism among the less naive of the enlightenment thinkers.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Gordon Black
Gordon Black
2 years ago

Heather Heying and Bret Weanstein’s latest book has a cogent proposition on how beliefs can be literally false, but metaphorically true.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
2 years ago

Enlightened despotism died a long time ago – since despots aren’t enlightened.

Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago

Human beings follow heuristics rather than strictly thinking things through all the time – we’re much more instinctual and emotional in making choices than rationalists would like to believe. The heuristics get honed over time by use, so mostly they work, because those that don’t are discarded, with heuristics that are believed to work being taught and passed on. A sort of a cheapskate social rationality by trial and error, not requiring towering intellect, just rules of thumb.
Some heuristics have benefits outside the purely rational – eg as social indicators like rituals, dress codes, manners of address. Others might have psychological benefits without being actually true, but are almost impossible to disprove (lucky charms, astrology, prayer). And others we’d like to be true, even though they are mostly false (lottery tickets, Santa Claus, dreams of success, heaven) because we have the capacity to hope and wish for better things.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I don’t know where you get the idea Pinker is a liberal/leftie. I’m on my third book of his and virtually everything he says seems to chime with my own libertarian values.

Trevor Law
Trevor Law
2 years ago

I haven’t read Pinker’s latest book, although I don’t expect its themes stray too far from his last effort. Of course, we should all try to be rational and to challenge dogma wherever we see it. And yet some of the least rational dogmas are entrenched in the scientific establishment, in which Pinker puts so much faith: CAGW (Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming), which also (somewhat disingenuously), goes by the name of “Climate Change”; public nutritional guidelines that are still broadly based upon the ancient and flawed research of Ancel Keys and ignore more recent studies; the simplistic and questionable assumption of causality in the link between “cholesterol”, specifically LDL, and heart disease (funny how these last two line up nicely with the commercial interests of parts of the farming and pharmaceutical sectors); not to mention the crisis of irreproducibility in many studies in the social “sciences”. Pinker thinks that science always progresses towards truth via mechanisms such as peer review, but I find myself thinking of it as: sitting around with your mates, marking favourably each other’s homework, whilst marking down the work of outsiders (a kind of cartel if you like).
All this might seem a bit off topic, but my point is that we are all (including Pinker), slaves to our “passions”, and our rationality is often simply an exercise in finding ever more sophisticated ways of justifying them.  Look, he seems to say: here are some wonderful tools of rationality you may use to abandon your dogmas! I say: the more effectively to embrace yours?

Paul Sorrenti
Paul Sorrenti
2 years ago

Reading this article I used my reason to establish this thought about Stephen Pinker: He must be hard to live with
An irrational passion grew inside me: I must check his relationship history on his Wikipedia page – I reasoned that googling his name and a couple of clicks would get me there
He’s on his third marriage: Reason dictates there could be all sorts of explanations for this

Ray Hall
Ray Hall
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Sorrenti

Trouble is that even terrible people get things right – sometimes. Hitler discouraged smoking for example. Presumably few people think that smoking is good because the Fuehrer hated it .

Paul Sorrenti
Paul Sorrenti
2 years ago
Reply to  Ray Hall

Shortening your life is the greenest thing you can do. Hitler knew this and, being the uberrottenegg that he was, most likely discouraged smoking to promote human proliferation and expediate armageddon

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Sorrenti

Sounds reasonable to me.

Jane Vawter
Jane Vawter
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Sorrenti

Lol.

Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
2 years ago

Hmm… I’m unsure about Pinker’s thesis about reason. If I believe a certain medication causes autism, then yes, I should apply logical principles. But it’s less certain regarding ‘abstract’ subjects like art. If I wanted to preserve a medieval Gothic cathedral, I’m more likely to speak of its beauty, might, history… rather than how much tourist euros it brings in. Yes, that matters – but it’s not everything.
A difference I’ve always had with publications like Unherd and Areo Magazine is viewing the Enlightenment. Sure, the principles of reason, science, logic are attractive and necessary. But so is belief, art, and emotion. A world ruled solely by reason sounds cold (and not in a nice, snowy way!)
That said, a highlight of Enlightenment art is neoclassicism. Although I align myself more with Baroque and Romanticism, I’d love to see the Le Madeleine in Paris, as an example. Another cool contribution ‘reason’ made to art is the Golden ratio. Although I’m critical of Enlightenment praise, I see its value, particularly those who live in areas ruled by dogma.

J Hop
J Hop
2 years ago

One frustrating aspect of those who argue for pure rationality is their irrational lack of understanding that humans aren’t rational. I’m not calling for abandoning reason. I’m a solid classic liberal and see the value in it, but rather that it’s a piece of who we are and should be applied at times. When you are deciding on a life partner, for instance, it’s important not just to give into the throws of lust or passion or “spark” but determine if they share your religious worldview or financial outlook or view on raising children and such. However, a life full of just reason lacks meaning for most.
Also, perhaps more insidiously, by denying the emotional sides of ourselves we can cause a lot of damage in our lives and others. By denying our magical thinking parts, we can often fall into the trap of using intellectualism after-the-fact as a defense. My mother, for instance, is an emotion driven trainwreck, who nonetheless thinks of herself as logical since she can rationalize almost any petty and emotional action with a large vocabulary of intellectual garbage. (Academics and politicians are great at this.) Her insistance on being a “rational” person prevents her from developing the emotional intelligence needed to navigate life and relationships successfully. She’s split off from her messy parts.
I enjoy Pinker and his work, but the irony is that he seems to have one very large irrational gap in his understanding of people.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago

“Pinker himself reverts to a simple dualism between the “reality mindset” he endorses and the “mythology mindset” that underpins supernatural faith, elects frauds who tell 30,000 lies to the US presidency and — most recently — has killed thousands of conspiracy-prone anti-vaxxers 
 The pandemic has shown us that, even in the best-informed societies, the spread of evidence-free “mythological” beliefs and the willingness of millions to act on them can cost lives on a battlefield scale.“

I’d like to politely request that the author reflect on his dismissive use of the term “conspiracy-prone anti-vaxxers”. Such broad labels do not support rational analysis, they mislead, and they diminish and infantilise those who use them. Really, castigating the dead for their alleged idiocy and “mythology” is not a good look.

Rather than labelling them in this way, perhaps the author ought to step back and consider that they – like millions of others who are happily still very much in the world of the living – may have formed a view, on the basis of their own rational judgment, that the injections they may have been offered were not for them. Factors that a rational decision maker might take into account are the obvious lack of long term safety data, the absence of any serious official attempt to monitor the safety of the injections by systematically tracking and following up on adverse effects (if anyone knows of one, do share and I shall happily stand corrected), the accumulation of clear evidence from early warning systems in the US, EU, UK and elsewhere that they may have contributed to the premature deaths of tens of thousands of people (many of them previously healthy), the anecdotal evidence that surrounds us all (we all know someone who has not been well after a jab, and if it makes some healthy young people pretty unwell so that they are bed-ridden for a few days, surely could it do worse to some elderly frail people?), the absence of liability for the producers particularly in the context of the fact a track record, as proven in courts of law, of fraudulent and criminal behaviour, leading to a total of 412 civil and criminal settlements between 1991 and 2017, totalling $38.6bn in the US alone (https://www.citizen.org/article/twenty-seven-years-of-pharmaceutical-industry-criminal-and-civil-penalties-1991-through-2017/), their ineffectiveness at preventing transmission, the potentially increased risk of becoming an unwitting transmitter of Covid due to reduced symptom severity, the fact that one may rationally perceive oneself as relatively young and / or healthy and therefore at limited risk of any serious disease in the first place, and the repeated, widespread and ongoing attempts to censor and denigrate well-meaning people who try to draw attention to these facts often at significant personal or career risk.

None of this is to deny that, sadly, some of those who declined the offer of an injection and subsequently died of or with Covid might well still be with us if they had made a different choice; or that there are people who are still with us who would otherwise not have been had they chosen not to accept the intervention. To deny that would be a bit silly in the face of evidence to the contrary. But it would be equally silly to deny that they have led to severe illness and deaths; and that, for some people, it may be perfectly rational for them to decide not to accept an injection. And whether an observer perceives it as rational or not, it is each individual’s choice to make for themselves and they should be given as full an information set on which to make that decision – unless we want to overturn hard won human rights, one of the most basic of which is bodily autonomy. Remember, the eugenists of the first half of the 20th century thought they were being perfectly rational in actuating their scientific theories or, let’s say, “following the science”.

So I do think it beholds all of us to try to be a little more respectful of others, particularly the departed; to be mindful that not everyone sees the world in the same way, and reasonable, rational people may differ on some pretty big things; and to be humble enough to know that, however well academically or otherwise qualified, we don’t know everything and we may well be wrong. Let he who lives in a glass house throw the first stone.

Thank you for reading my comment.

.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

Great balanced comment sir – and when was it that you were considering public office ??

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago
Reply to  chris sullivan

Thank you. I would last about five minutes! Too much hating, too many egos, too much compromise of personal integrity, and too many lies. I greatly admire good people who give a go, though they inevitably get dragged down by and into it all, however humble and courageous they may be.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

“With the planet’s future at stake, advocacy groups still tend to smother the clear light of reason in a dense cloud of confirmation bias, special pleading, guilt-by-association — and so on. You could argue that the comforting litany of targets and initiatives intoned by governments and agencies also deepen the sleep of reason. ”

Texas sharpshooter fallacy right there in the first six words…

Last edited 2 years ago by John Riordan
Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

I hope Pinker’s book is more lucid and engrossing than this article.

Steve Walker
Steve Walker
2 years ago

It wasn’t just me then?

Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago
Reply to  Steve Walker

Nope.

David B
David B
2 years ago

Another thinker that might have been mentioned as a counterpoint to Pinker’s totalising rationality would have been Jonathan Haidt. His work The Righteous Mind explores human motivations and cites the same Hume quote as the article. It tries to provide at least partial answers to many of the questions that remain after Rationality, not just unanswered by Pinker but unasked.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

Philosophers have argued for millennia about ‘how to live’ and ‘what is good’ without drawing towards a consensus. Clearly rational thought alone is insufficient to form an answer… which suggests that philosophical questions are not well formed.
I like Steven Pinker. He has produced thought inducing works which show that some of our attitudes are poorly thought out. I expect more rationality would be a Good Thing… but people are people and seek personal advantage which is often contrary to the ‘pure’ rationality that Pinker endorses.
Is Pinker smug – he comes across as such, although he has much to be smug about. Does his ‘rationality prescription’ apply well to an ordinary person struggling to raise kids on little money? I suspect not.

Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

For the mathematically inclined, philosophy maps a multi-dimensional space (real life) to a single dimension ‘good-bad’. It implicitly assumes paths exist through the multidimensional space that continue to map to higher and higher ‘goodness’.
In practice, if you look at where the good-bad maps from you’ll find hills and valleys, local maxima, cliffs and discontinuities, trade-offs and balances. We can determine one thing is ‘gooder’ than another, but there is no logical reason to expect a single best point, or necessarily continuous pathways that only go up or that connect high points.
We may have many different ‘bests’ disconnected from each other. A universal ‘solution’ simply may not exist. Worse, if good-bad is like ‘height’, we may be standing on molehills, unaware of the mountain behind us, but also unwilling to climb down (get worse) to take a different path to somewhere higher.
And in this space we are still exploring and learning. Sometimes we only discover better things by making mistakes and learning from them. Painful lessons are still lessons. And communities of smart people still make errors or poor judgements, despite their rationality.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

Quite so. Much self help/philosophy advice presents the ‘one thing you have to do or idea you must take on board’ as The Answer.
But one size does not fit all people, nor does it fit one person through all the stages of their lives or changing situations.
I’ve decided that my goal in life is to die content, and how I get there is incidental and I don’t need ‘The Answer’ to get there. Of course there will be other people with different views…

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
2 years ago
Reply to  Saul D

Thank you for an excellent review of ‘The Moral Landscape’ by Sam Harris.

robert stowells
robert stowells
2 years ago

The idea that “rationality” is the end goal (if that is what Pinker is proposing) strikes me as a dull, empty and flawed objective. I certainly agree more with David Hume that reason “ought to be the slave” but not slave of the passions (i.e. emotions) but of enlightenment, inspiration or genius, the rational mind being just a tool or indeed wonderful “operating system”.  I believe that there is a higher faculty than the rational mind and that this higher faculty is the seat of wisdom and route of enlightenment which is present now but will consciously awake in the future in humanity in a scientific way. Presently humanity is comfortable with Newton’s physical laws but the Hermeticists (and probably the Gnostics) taught that there are also laws of the mental realm equally scientific but higher. For instance, “as you sow so shall you reap” applies in the mental realm just like Newton’s physical law that action and reaction are equal and opposite (Honi soit qui mal y pense?). When humanity is practising consciously in the mental realm then will humanity understand what Jesus meant when he said “greater things than this shall ye do”. For me such things are instinctively true rather than the vastly limited, limiting and barren Rationality which I presume is peddled by the likes of Pinker and Dawkins.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago

Well put – because above rationality (best for me) is spirituality (best for me via best for all) which also leads to Jesus’ ‘the poor (in spirit) will always be with you’ – not very encouraging but seems to fit the evidence….

robert stowells
robert stowells
2 years ago
Reply to  chris sullivan

The way you express the difference between rationality and spirituality reminds me of the esoteric term “ring-pass-not”. My limited understanding of this esoteric term is that the “ring-pass-not” is a fluctuating or, presumably hopefully, expanding field or boundary (as we evolve) which encompasses all that we recognise as being part of, or an extension of, ourselves, identity and interests. For the very selfish person their “ring-pass-not” is a field that presumably does not extend beyond the end of their noses. Perhaps there is to some large extent a “blind” to anything beyond the “ring-pass-not” which enables individuals to learn from their life experiences and better focus without being flooded by stuff beyond and this may also to some extent explain the very apparent limitations of our understanding of life and the human condition (including even implications of rational psychology) only gradually being unveiled as the shadows are pushed back. I do not understand the reference you have made to Jesus and also suspect that there may be general debate or disagreement about what “poor in spirit” means. On Googling some sources seem to understand it as “humble in spirit” with “spirit” further also being interpreted by some more as “enthusiasm”.

Last edited 2 years ago by robert stowells
Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
2 years ago

Scanning through the comments, I get the feeling that the average UnHerd commenter knows a lot more about reason and rationality than Steven Pinker. How could that be?

Last edited 2 years ago by Christopher Chantrill
robert stowells
robert stowells
2 years ago

Pinker is not just talking about dismissing religion and mythology as fiction. Pinker is using those as examples in saying that he is dismissing “anything” beyond, or even behind, rationality and it is that arrogance and absence of humility which I find utterly unacceptable and ignorant.  In science always leave open the possibility that you are wrong and that some more inclusive theory will come along which utterly changes the landscape. Always stay humble and accept how little is known, never define and limit the boundaries of what you believe it is possible for humanity to discover. Yes, things must always be scientific. However, the spirituality behind religion and mythology may, and I believe will inevitably, through evolution, one day be proven and experienced scientifically. So yes put religion and mythology aside as unproven but never dismiss it entirely as “fiction”, without base, for someday the spiritual essence behind aspects of such things as religion, mythology and indeed what is “driving” rationality (and even the explanation of consciousness) itself may (or will) and indeed must come to be better and better understood by humanity. The spirituality and mythology that we have today, although distorted and transformed into ugliness, by religion/humanity through the centuries, may come from the testimony and teaching of that very small section of humanity that has advanced or evolved beyond. Pinker says that religion and mythology is a good thing if consumed as “fiction” but humanity will soon consume all that religion and mythology and will want “new” as all this stuff is centuries old. In his strictly rational world where will that, I would say necessary, “new” testament of spirituality as is embodied (sometimes even grotesquely) in religions and mythology come from particularly if society starts a tyrannical persecution of anything beyond rationality (embracing the antithesis of scientific) which is something I see happening in the trend of acceptance of the works of the likes of Pinker and Dawkins.  I see a very possible Dark Ages emerging.

Last edited 2 years ago by robert stowells