Steven Pinker, He’s So Hot Right Now

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From Climate Scepticism


That’s because he has recently written a book titled ‘Rationality: What it is, Why it Seems Scarce, Why it Matters’, and he wants you to buy it. It is important therefore that you trust him to approach the subject matter in an authoritative, competent and, dare I say it, rational manner.

As a Harvard psychologist he certainly ticks the first box and, one would hope, the second also. However, rationality is a lot more elusive than authority and competence, and I’m afraid that leaves open a lot of scope for even the finest amongst us to drop the ball.

I hope Professor Pinker would not be too offended by my suggestion that there are parts of his book that beautifully exemplify his most important message: that there is no one amongst us who can avoid the omnipresence of irrationality. It’s just part of the human condition.

Don’t get me wrong. As a primer in the subject of irrationality and the various ways in which it fails us, his book does a fine job. It’s all there: logical fallacies, cognitive biases, probability theory, Bayesian reasoning, decision theory, game theory, causal analysis and a lot more.

All subjects are covered lucidly and, as far as I can see, it’s all technically correct as far as it goes. I could complain that he doesn’t go far enough because he fails to properly grasp the nature of uncertainty and how it relates to risk, but that is not my main concern here (besides which, I have previously commented upon the average cognitive psychologist’s grasp of uncertainty analysis). The real problem is that you can’t adequately communicate a point without providing real world examples, and as soon as you do so you run the risk of revealing one’s own prejudices and how they have impacted upon one’s rationale. This problem was evident as early as page 42, where Pinker poses the following pair of rhetorical questions:

“Was the Holocaust just one of the many possible narratives? Is climate change a social construction?”

Yes, I’m afraid Professor Pinker is one of those who thinks climate change scepticism can be mentioned in the same breath as Holocaust denial. And he doesn’t let up. Throughout the book, whenever he wanted to illustrate a point by reference to the quintessentially cognitively impaired thinker, he invariably picked upon either the climate sceptic or those who were supposedly irrational enough to doubt that Covid-19 vaccines could be anything other than the perfectly safe and effective interventions that the vaccine producers claimed them to be.

And, if there were to be any doubt that he was on safe ground, he was always able to point out that everyone’s paragon of irrationality, Donald Trump, fell into both categories.

So no, we are not here to sip tea with the good professor whilst debating the finer points of extreme weather event attribution studies, or the epistemic validity of climate model ensembles; we are instead classroom examples of what can go wrong when people fail to appreciate the rationality of following the crowd. Why do I say that? Well, it’s because of this Pinkerian insight on page 305:

“[E]ven among the highly educated, scientific understanding is shallow. Few people can explain why the sky is blue or why the seasons change, let alone population genetics or viral immunology. Instead, educated people trust the university-based scientific establishment: its consensus is good enough for them.”

Well, maybe good enough for you Professor Pinker, but isn’t that a good example of the very sort of irrationality that you had warned your reader to avoid on pages 3, 4, 90 and 291, where you referred to it as ‘argument from authority’? The fact that belief in scientific consensus is a good heuristic does not make it infallible. In fact, most cognitive biases are good heuristics that can often go wrong. That is the basis for treating them as an irrationality.

The problem with arguing from authority is that it can lower the threshold for the committal of further violations of critical thinking, all seemingly okay because one takes as axiomatic the fact that the unauthorised view is itself the product of irrationality.

So Pinker seems to see nothing wrong with assuming guilt through association (by constantly playing the Trump card), affirming the consequent (e.g. people who deny evidence can become climate change ‘deniers’. So if you are a climate change ‘denier’ you must be the sort who denies evidence), begging the question (climate change scepticism must be irrational because rational thinking leads to the acceptance of climate change), straw man arguments (climate change sceptics are just conspiracy theorists) and false comparisons (Holocaust denial and climate change scepticism are equally irrational).

Worse still, argument from authority can lead to some pretty dangerous proposals for combatting a presupposed growth in irrationality. Having disapprovingly observed that university campuses are becoming increasingly hostile to heterodox views, Pinker proclaims that:

“Like universities, news and opinion sites ought to be paragons of viewpoint diversity and critical thinking.”

Yes, yes, Steven, that is an excellent idea. What more do you have to add, Steven?

“To their credit, journalists have become more mindful of the way they can be played by disingenuous politicians and contribute to post-truth miasmas, and have begun to implement countermeasures like fact-checking, labelling false claims and not repeating them, stating facts affirmatively and not negatively, correcting errors openly and swiftly, and avoiding false balance between experts and cranks.”

No, no, Steven, that’s a terrible idea. How can you in one breath call for viewpoint diversity and in the very next hand over to journalists the role of deciding what is factual and true, based upon who they deem to be disingenuous or cranky? Have you not looked at some of these journalists? And I have to add, Steven, that you have some pretty naïve ideas regarding trusted sources:

“Wikipedia, in contrast, though not infallible, has become an astonishingly accurate resource despite being free and decentralised. That is because it implements intensive error correction and quality control, supported by ‘pillars’ that are designed to marginalise myside biases.”

Furthermore, why are you so pleased to be reporting the following initiative from those notoriously even-handed custodians of social media?

“The platforms have tuned their algorithms to stop rewarding dangerous falsehoods, inserted warning labels and fact-checking links, and damped down the runaway dynamics that can viralize toxic content and send people down extremist rabbit holes.”

So all is good then. No need to worry about abuse of power now that the IT magnates get to define what is toxic.

As I say, this must all seem very benign to Professor Pinker because, after all, we are dealing with unauthorised views that are therefore axiomatically irrational. And let us not forget:

“False beliefs about vaccines, public health measures and climate change threaten the well-being of billions.”

So there is an obvious moral imperative to the suppression of what Pinker sees as irrationality dressed up as an alternative perspective.

But despite all of this, there is one proposal that Pinker makes that I find very easy to agree with:

“In opinion journalism, pundits could be judged by the accuracy of their forecasts rather than their ability to sow fear and loathing or to fire up a faction.”

If by that he means stop sowing fear of an imminent existential threat from climate change, then I couldn’t agree more. If he means stop fomenting the loathing of those who have their doubts, then sign me up. And if he means stop firing up a faction that believes that the nobility of their cause justifies criminality and the endangerment of the public, then I say what is there not to like?

But somehow I don’t think he means any of the above. Pinker is a critical thinker, and it is critical to him that we think in step. Not to do so would be – well, uneducated, in his book.