Pinker: If the world is a safer place, why can I still die?

UPDATE:  From via reader roqoco (in the comments): Pinker and David Byrne discuss Byrne’s new book, with Pinkah in kickass footwear (my emphasis):


Former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne (left) and Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker (right) kicked off BU’s new arts initiative Monday with a talk focused on Byrne’s new book, “How Music Works.”

Pinker, taking the reins (appropriately, considering his commanding black cowboy boots), introduced theories and then explained why they’re likely wrong, while Byrne, often through nervous laughter, replied with a few alternate (and equally uncertain) hypotheses.

Is that cool or what?


This short and lighthearted video of Steve Pinker, posted just three days ago, is apparently part of a NOVA web series called “The secret life of science and engineers.” Each scientist has a single secret revealed in his/her clip.

Note that he’s wearing a Western belt; I wonder if there are cowboy boots below.

The show has its website here, and you can listen to dozens of clips from the technocracy (photos arrayed vertically on the left), which apparently are continuing to be posted.  If you’ve found some good ones (I haven’t had time to watch), let us know below.


  1. gbjames
    Posted December 22, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Permalink


  2. marcusa1971
    Posted December 22, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    Steven Pinker: Our wondrous and amazing cosmos is just a bit more wondrous and amazing with him in it.

    • Kevin
      Posted December 22, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

      He soothes every soul within each of my cells, if that were possible.

  3. Diana MacPherson
    Posted December 22, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    I watched a few a couple days ago after watching Steven Pinker’s. I liked the one where the evolutionary biologist, Danielle Whittaker tested if birds could smell. I also watched Mayim Bialik and was saddened when she said Einstein was her favourite scientist because he talked about god.

    • Suri
      Posted December 22, 2013 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

      Mayim Bialik is also a vaccine refuser (her children are not vaccinted),wrote a book on attachment parenting…oh, did I mention she ingested her placenta?

      She is the perfect example of a scientist who has a PhD and is also a moron….kind of like Rudy Tanzi.

  4. Marella
    Posted December 22, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    One of my favourite peeps.

  5. Posted December 22, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    That “How does the brain work in five words?” is reminiscent of the Ig Nobel’s 24/7 lectures. Selected researchers, sometimes including “real” Nobel laureates, are given first 24 seconds, and then seven words, to summarize their work. Almost all of the Ig’s 24/7 lectures I’ve heard have been impressive.



    • Posted December 22, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      I so, so, so wish that more humanities people understood that being able to give a concise summary of something, in clear language, is *not* something to be avoided. It is something to strive for. More than that, it’s a good litmus test for whether or not the idea in question has any merit.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted December 22, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Permalink


        Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I think humanities folks know this. At least the whipping, then the crying would start if you weren’t concise in your writing when I was a student. However, I do notice that many academics get used to long articles and write TL;DR posts and articles that would not be much beloved in the gritty world of brevity that the rest of us live in.

        • Posted December 22, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

          Full disclosure: I’m not well acquainted with academic literature in humanities fields other than the arts (and mostly music, at that). Musicology articles are DREADFUL these days. And I don’t use all-caps lightly. They say just about nothing. They epitomize Shakespeare’s “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

      • Diane G.
        Posted December 22, 2013 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

        Especially philosophers.

        • NewEnglandBob
          Posted December 22, 2013 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

          Succinct philosopher. Is that even possible?

          • Diane G.
            Posted December 23, 2013 at 12:00 am | Permalink

            Only Descartes. Otherwise a complete oxymoron.:D

        • Posted December 22, 2013 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

          Hegel, anyone?

          • Diane G.
            Posted December 23, 2013 at 12:05 am | Permalink

            You don’t have to go exposing my philistinism.

            • Posted December 23, 2013 at 11:49 am | Permalink

              I read somewhere that Hegel was sort of the progenitor that whole purposefully obfuscatory thing going on in certain philosophical fields.

      • Posted December 23, 2013 at 6:53 am | Permalink

        Not just the humanities; hard sciences, too. If Sean Carroll can clearly explain the Higgs and its significance, there’s no reason others can’t do the same with equally mind-bending and contra-intuitive concepts.



        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted December 23, 2013 at 7:50 am | Permalink

          It’s okay. They have other skills. 🙂

          • Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:13 am | Permalink

            True…but this is a skill that they all could use. For the grant proposals and press releases, if nothing else.


            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:25 am | Permalink

              They hire Humanities grads for that. 😀 I’ve seen jobs requesting people to write grant apps, etc. Ugh that would be so boring that I’d want to put the occasional joke in there just to liven things up & that would go over badly.

              • Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:47 am | Permalink

                Curiously enough, I’d be more inclined to give grants to researchers with a sense of humor…which is probably why I’m not on any grant boards….


              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:49 am | Permalink

                Yeah me too. I’d probably base hiring decisions on the funniest guy too (in addition to other qualities to do the job).

  6. Posted December 22, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Cowboy boots?No doubt about it! see : Guess new atheism is heading for a showdown at the OK corall.

  7. Posted December 22, 2013 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    David Byrne wrote a book called “How Music Works”.

    Oh, dear. You know, to each his own, and all that. I won’t tell anyone what they have to like (which doesn’t mean all music is intellectually equivalent), but if a musician purports to explain “how music works” s/he’d better know his or her onions. I’ve seen too much evidence to the contrary in Byrne’s case. A TED talk he gave was rife with misconceptions and gaping holes in knowledge.

    And anyone who describes Bach’s compositions as “doodling up and down scales, as he was wont to do” really can’t be called a musician at all. This is not simply a knee-jerk reaction to someone dissing my musical hero, it is an objective observation that if you can’t grasp what Bach was doing, why those pitches were arranged the way they were, you have no business writing a book called “How Music Works” (which I know is partly memoir). I might as well write “How Quantum Mechanics Works”, the point being I am an extreme novice wrt physics.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted December 22, 2013 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

      Nobody will buy a book on how music works if it’s written by someone with academic credentials!

      • Posted December 22, 2013 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

        I would.


      • krzysztof1
        Posted December 22, 2013 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

        So would I, and I have. For example, most of Charles Rosen’s books. If you really want to know more about classic and romantic music, they are essential.

        You know, I took a look at Byrne’s book–listened and followed along to the first chapter or so, on the recommendation of a friend. I wasn’t really impressed.

        I am not opposed to books on music written for the nonspecialist, if they succeed in helping someone think like a musician.

        As an example of that sort of thing, think about Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, or JAC’s WEIT. And many others. I am not a specialist in those areas but I know they are, and if they can explain the principles behind their special fields in a way that I can understand, that is a good thing!

        Perhaps if Pinker is on the same stage with Byrne, though, maybe I should take another look at the book. . . .

        • Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

          Charles Rosen. Yes.

          He seems to be the only person I know if who agrees with me that Vivaldi’s music is rather poor.

          • Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink


          • Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

            Hey! Vivaldi wrote a great concerto!

            …he just re-wrote it a couple hundred times, is all….


            • Posted December 23, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

              If only that one concerto had been any good…

              • gbjames
                Posted December 23, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink


              • Posted December 23, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

                Well…you gotta give him an “A” for effort….


              • Posted December 23, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

                A for Antonio!

          • krzysztof1
            Posted December 23, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

            I like Vivaldi in live performance, but with recordings the thrill is gone.

            • Posted December 23, 2013 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

              You raise an interesting point. Have you considered the possibility that things other than Vivaldi’s notes are responsible for your enjoyment of the live performance experience?

              I’ve experienced this myself: I attend a concert in which a piece is performed that I don’t respect, compositionally speaking, yet I still find my attention engaged and maybe even get goosebumps. But I think my reaction is due to the electricity of live performance itself – admiration for the performers’ capabilities, an almost voyeuristic “let’s see how the soloist handles that one difficult passage” element, the buzz of being in a large group, etc.

              My wife used to sing with a professional choir, and their conductor was notorious for programming lesser-known pieces simply for the sake of programming lesser-known pieces. The result was that they sang a lot of garbage. But I had to remark to her, after one concert, “You guys are really good. You know, a good performance can make poor music tolerable”.

              • Posted December 23, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

                Given a choice between a performance of a masterwork and something I know nothing about, I’ll almost always go for the unknown. I already know the masterworks. They’re wonderful, yes, but it’s not like I haven’t heard (or played) them before.

                There are exceptions…minimalists I avoid if at all possible, if at all possible, if at all possible, if possible, if possible, if possible, if possible, possible, possible, possible, possible, possible….


              • krzysztof1
                Posted December 23, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

                Agree on all counts! I wouldn’t call Vivaldi a ‘bad’ composer though–some of his googol concerti are better than others. The 4-violin B minor concerto is a good one.

              • krzysztof1
                Posted December 23, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

                I remember my composition teacher in college said that Toscanini’s recordings of von Suppe overtures almost made him think they were great music — almost.

    • Posted December 22, 2013 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

      Just to illustrate:

      “On this they could agree: Music is related to the natural rhythms in daily activity and speech…”

      Ok. So far so good. Rhythm in music certainly arises from things like heartbeat, walking cadence, etc. But there’s a lot more to music.

      “…and sounds have the potential to carry inherent meaning. Byrne pointed to a study in which people across cultures were asked to name two shapes — a spiky star figure and a rounded blob — either “Kiki” or “Bouba.” He said 95 percent to 98 percent of respondents agreed that Kiki was the jagged one and Bouba was the curved one.”

      Okay, but that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with music qua music. What about absolute music – music for only instruments? That has nothing to do with either Kiki or Bouba. There is logic that governs how pitches relate to each other across time. This is perhaps the most important thing about music, and the thing in which Byrne seems to be most deficient.

    • thh1859
      Posted December 23, 2013 at 5:33 am | Permalink

      [Byrne]…describes Bach’s compositions as “doodling up and down scales, as he was wont to do”.
      An example of monumental ignorance accompanied by tin ears.

    • Posted December 23, 2013 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      There are contexts in which I might state that all music, even Bach, is “merely” scales and arpeggios. Such as in convincing a student to practice scales and arpeggios.

      But to (seriously) imply that there’s nothing more to it…well, it’s clear that he’s never even taken a freshman-level theory class. The voice-leading rules alone just for a single melodic line are much more complex than Byrne’s statement applies, and that’s long before we get to harmony and rhythm.


  8. Kevin
    Posted December 22, 2013 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    A lot of repetitive athletic activities form mental bonds with music, like swimming and running, both for inspiration, but also for the rhythm.

    Byrne is awesome, like Zappa. Dedicated to innovating with the talent he is given.

  9. krzysztof1
    Posted December 22, 2013 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    What seems to get lost in the discussion about how music relates to the rest of life, and grows out of it, is the fact that it also has transcended its psychological roots and taken on a life of its own in the brain. There’s some quote by Stravinsky that I strain to remember: it’s something like “there is in music something not of this earth,” but that isnt’ quite it. I think it was in his Poetics of Music. If anybody can find it let me know. I looked through many internet Stravinsky quotes and didn’t find it.

  10. George
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Yeah, Pinker’s footwear may be “kickass” because his height is not. What do people get out of cowboy boots? An inch?

  11. Dave Ricks
    Posted December 23, 2013 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of David Byrne, here’s a musical joke from a CD he made with Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (2008). Eno had some instrumental tracks lying around, and Byrne agreed to make lyrics for them because it would make him use chord progressions he wouldn’t have made up for himself. One song in particular Strange Overtones repeats this 10-bar form over and over:

    [: Db/Gb | % | Gb | % | % | Db | Ab/Db | % | Ab | % :]

    I like that it’s made from very little, and it rolls around every 10 bars in an strange way, and I like that the chords don’t move from bar 4 to 5 as I would expect. Anyway, Byrne sings about overhearing someone living next door who’s writing a song:

    Your song still needs a chorus

    I know you’ll figure it out

    Get it? This song is about writing this song. Eno’s repeated form has no chorus, so Byrne had to figure out how adding lyrics and vocals could make the repeated form change feel from verse to chorus and back.

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