Today’s reading

Need something to read on this lazy Sunday? I have five items I commend to your attention; each screenshot links to the article:

1.) From the Business (?) section of today’s New York Times, the paper’s reporter (Philip Galanes) transcribes a conversation between himself, Bill Gates, and Steve Pinker held in Gates’s Washington State office. The conversation is largely about Steve’s new book, Enlightenment Now, that’s coming out in February, and continues the Better Angels thesis that the world is gradually but inexorably getting better—largely because of science. Gates has received an advance copy.

Two quotes:

PG But I was asking about the tribalism of the moment, whether your devil is the 1 percent or the bad hombres. Can science and reason really unbundle tribal thinking?

SP One of the biggest enemies of reason is tribalism. When people subscribe to an ideology, they suck up evidence that supports their preconceptions and filter out evidence that goes against them. Contrary to the belief of most scientists that denial of climate change is an effect of scientific illiteracy, it is not at all correlated with scientific literacy. People who believe in man-made climate change don’t know any more about climate or science than those who deny it. It’s almost perfectly correlated with left-wing versus right-wing orientation. And a move toward greater rationality would unbundle them and let evidence inform what the optimal policies ought to be.

and

PG Name a problem we may think of as intractable that you’re optimistic about solving in the near future.

SP War between countries. Civil wars are harder to eliminate because there are so many insurgent and militia forces. But there are only 192 countries. They could agree not to declare war on each other. I think we’re on the way.

2.) A note in the discussion above says that Bill Gates has reviewed Steve’s new book on his (Gates’s) book blog, and given it a great review. I didn’t even know Gates had a book blog, though I recalled that when Gates said, a few years ago, that Better Angels was his “favorite book of all time”, that book rocketed to the top of the best-seller lists. Gates gives Enlightenment Now an even better review (I noticed today that neither Kirkus nor Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review, though both gave it a good review).  Here’s the beginning of Gates’s take:

And a short video about the book, apparently filmed in Gates’s office. Notice Pinker’s cowboy boots; I think they’re black ostrich:

3.) When Joseph Heath was asked to select a prize-winning book on social sciences from a Canadian University Press, he came across a problem: most of the books weren’t just tendentious, but they didn’t even know how to make a normative argument properly. Their failures included the failure to admit that the books were tendentious, and an inability to define movements the authors were attacking. This led Heath to a general complaint about such books, “The problem with ‘critical’ studies“, that was published at In Due Course.

He also found the books badly written, as such things tend to be. Two quotes:

As I was reading through the stack, I couldn’t help but notice that the most reliable indicator that a book is going to be a complete mess, from a normative perspective, is that it contains either discussion or extensive citation of Foucault (and/or Bourdieu). From the perspective of someone in philosophy, where this stuff is dead as disco, it’s amazing to see academics still taking it seriously. In any case, the major thing that they seem to be attracted to, in this ’80s French theory, is the cryptonormativism.

And get a load of this sentence that appeared in one of the books:

In this socio-historical context, I position courts as a specific, semi-autonomous, and generative form of juridical power: specific, in that the courts currently hold a specific relation of power in Canadian society and, equally importantly, over other institutions within the larger juridical field; semi-autonomous, in that although shaped by various social and cultural factors (racialization, for example), the distinctive dynamics of the courts shape the production of logics not only irreducible to the dynamics of other social fields but potentially resistant to them; and generative, in that the dynamism of court struggles produces a form of “juridical capital” that rather than directly constituting social relations or (re)producing a “grand hegemony,” generates particular depictions and problematizations of social issues and classifications that can potentially shape the parameters within which subsequent political strategies and struggles ensue, but only upon their subsequent successful translation into those fields (63).

4.) From the American Association of University Professors site, we have this piece by Joshua Cuevas, identified as “an as­sociate professor and educational psychologist at the University of North Georgia, where he teaches courses in research methodol­ogy, assessment, and applied cognition”.  In case you think that only Leftists try to enforce ideological purity, Cuevas (a liberal and a Hispanic) shows how some things he said about the last Presidential election, and about the demographic breakdown among voters, mushroomed into a huge social-media onslaught of white supremacists and other odious people bent on harassing him. His university defended him, but it was rough going

One problem with this piece is that the “Far Right’s Use of Cyberharassment” is a purely personal story; there’s no attempt to document or discuss whether this kind of harassment is widespread. There’s surely more than one case, but you wouldn’t know it from this piece.

5.) I’ve written about Ben Shapiro before. Despite his age (34), he’s an influential right-wing commenter, and one of the few I try to read. (We all should be reading a couple of websites or magazines from the “other side.”) He causes the Left to riot when he appears on campuses, despite the fact that he’s pretty calm and not a provocateur like Milo Yiannopoulos. I find him interesting because, while I disagree with almost everything he says, he has concocted smooth arguments to support his right-wing views, while his college opponents on the Left haven’t; the result is that they’re often reduced to screaming and babbling. For a conservative, Shapiro is remarkably critical of Donald Trump; in fact, he hates the man.

Shapiro’s life and views are the subject of today’s cover story at Slate, and I find that the author, Seth Stevenson, shares my view:

I’ve listened to dozens upon dozens of episodes of the Ben Shapiro Show in reporting this piece. I almost always disagree with his rants, yet I find them fascinating. He often constructs well-crafted arguments that flow from first principles I deem wackadoo. This helps me understand conservative thinking even if it rarely changes my mind. Increasingly, though, I find I’m listening most closely to Shapiro to determine one thing: When it really hits the fan, will he go Trump? In a time of crisis, where will this shepherd of millennial conservatives lead his flock?

h/t: BJ, Hempenstein

35 Comments

  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 28, 2018 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    “ Contrary to the belief of most scientists that denial of climate change is an effect of scientific illiteracy, […] It’s almost perfectly correlated with left-wing versus right-wing orientation”

    How does he do it – this is the most refreshing notion I have heard in a while.

    • Posted January 28, 2018 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      I believe it all boils down to one important group of climate change deniers: scientifically illiterate right wingers. Pretty much everyone else supports anthropogenic climate change as settled science. Unfortunately, the scientifically illiterate right is in power at the moment.

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 29, 2018 at 12:02 am | Permalink

        I think there’s also a more devious motive behind much of the right-wing anti-climate-change crowd–the big bucks behind the oil & gas industries. They pump out a lot of the propaganda that allows some of their sheeple to believe there really ARE two sides to the issue…

    • Martin X
      Posted January 28, 2018 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

      Keep in mind that the measures of scientific literacy are geared towards the layman…those that know a lot still don’t know much more than those who know little. Those who know the most, climate scientists, have close to 100% acceptance of the reality of AGW.

  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 28, 2018 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Hey also – audio books. I dismissed them for far too long – they are GREAT. Enlightenment Now is available. If you have a good library, perhaps you can get them, and get the hard copy as well.

    Nothing quite like listening while commuting. And imagine going through the book multiple times. Makes it so easy.

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted January 28, 2018 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Maybe just indicative of the optimist, Pinker, to say no more wars. The U.S. has not declared war since 1941 but then we have sure been in many wars since then. Most all of them self imposed. Additionally, since we now know how to make war last much longer we don’t need as many as we use to.

    • Posted January 28, 2018 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      Pinker does do a good job putting numbers behind his claims. If the US had gotten involved in fewer wars, it would make Pinker’s statistical case even stronger.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted January 28, 2018 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

        Well, I do not have any world wide figures/stats but I know our history. We get involved in plenty of non declared wars since the last declared one. We have been in one now for 17 years and counting. All of them have been pretty much useless wars.

        • Posted January 28, 2018 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

          Agreed, they’re useless wars.

        • Posted February 5, 2018 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

          Those in Korea and Yugoslavia were not (at least according to many residents).
          I also think the one in Libya was not.

  4. Historian
    Posted January 28, 2018 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Pinker on war:

    PG Name a problem we may think of as intractable that you’re optimistic about solving in the near future.

    SP War between countries. Civil wars are harder to eliminate because there are so many insurgent and militia forces. But there are only 192 countries. They could agree not to declare war on each other. I think we’re on the way.

    ————————–

    War between countries may be eliminated, but I am not as sanguine as Mr. Pinker. If war should break out between North Korea and the U.S., would Pinker call this a blip? Prior to World War I, some intellectuals thought that war between the Great Powers was not probable. During the 1920s, as an aftermath of World War I, there were international efforts to end war and reduce armaments. The most famous of these was the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which Wikipedia describes as “a international agreement in which signatory states promised not to use war to resolve ‘disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them’.” We know how that turned out.

    Of course, the historical conditions of the first three decades of the 20th century were very different than today. In contrast to thousands of years of human history, perhaps the world is entering a tipping point where war between nations will be eradicated. I hope Pinker is right, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. Even a few decades of relative peace is far too short to state that international relations have entered nirvana. Some nations may agree not to declare war on certain other nations, but as a universal agreement, it will not happen, at least with some nations taking the declaration seriously.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted January 28, 2018 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      The first World War was the one to end all wars. So much for the optimist club.

    • Posted January 28, 2018 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      There are several important ideas that support Pinker’s thesis:

      – He measures war (and hunger, etc.) on a per-capita basis. The world population has grown immensely while the number of wars has stayed roughly the same or has gone down. I forget which.

      – On average, fewer people die in each war as we move forward in time.

    • Kjf
      Posted January 31, 2018 at 6:28 am | Permalink

      Agreed. Pinker’s view of history reminds me of those nineteenth-century progressive optimists and interwar idealists. It borders on complacency and the assumption that things will continue to get better and history will continue to march towards progress. The World Wars get recast as accidents along this path, and that strikes me as a little too teleological. I find it interesting that after the fall of the USSR Fukuyama wrote a book called “the End of History” (look at how that turned out) and so many of us assumed that Trump could not get elected because it seemed so backwards. Wasn’t Pinker’s new book going to be called “The New Enlightenment”? Imagine trying to sell that utopian vision in the age of Trump! I enjoyed Better Angels of Our Nature (despite its flaws) and I like Pinker in general, but I am sceptical.

  5. davidintoronto
    Posted January 28, 2018 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    I thought a recent article by Sean Carroll was quite interesting: “Beyond Falsifiability: Normal Science in a Multiverse.” And it since it was more philosophy than physics, I actually understood some of it.

    https://arxiv.org/pdf/1801.05016.pdf

  6. glen1davidson
    Posted January 28, 2018 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    People who believe in man-made climate change don’t know any more about climate or science than those who deny it.

    Most, sure, but that would be true of Relativity or geocentrism, too. You’re not going to get actual experts on the anti-science side, though, any more than you have truly expert IDists or creationists.

    It’s almost perfectly correlated with left-wing versus right-wing orientation.

    So are reactions to Pinker. And excuses for deplatforming at universities (not that the right wouldn’t do it if they were in charge of public universities, but mostly they’re not).

    And a move toward greater rationality would unbundle them and let evidence inform what the optimal policies ought to be.

    This is what makes me laugh. Uh, yeah, if people would just be rational and not “tribal” (in fact it has mostly to do with power, with tribalism being a useful aspect of gaining power) we might not be fighting attempts to rid ourselves of the the “luxury of free speech” and what-not.

    How is that going to happen? What upwardly-mobile group of young people aren’t going to grasp for power, using tribal “certainties” to “other” the side that’s being targeted?

    Of course university is supposed to inculcate values like curiosity, free-inquiry, and openness to all opinions. Never did it work very well (the ideal is strongly opposed by the will to power), but unfortunately the tribalism of leftist certainty has gained a remarkable tribal following at the present time, and it won’t go away any time soon. At best, they’re just going to have to be embarrassed over and over again by their hypocrisy and closed-mindedness even to make a dent in current SJW tribalism.

    Glen Davidson

  7. rickflick
    Posted January 28, 2018 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    I definitely look forward to the new Pinker.

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 28, 2018 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    “I couldn’t help but notice that the most reliable indicator that a book is going to be a complete mess, from a normative perspective, is that it contains either discussion or extensive citation of Foucault (and/or Bourdieu).”

    Not to put too fine a point on judging content from covers, but I’ve found in reading law review articles and other scholarly legal work, that if an author has any wit or sense of style, they usually find their way into the title.

  9. Austin Johnson
    Posted January 28, 2018 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    I can’t wait to read Pinker’s new book, everything he writes is great.

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 28, 2018 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Whoever wrote that load of a sentence should be sentenced to imprisonment until he or she can diagram it (or to life without parole, whichever happens first).

    • Posted January 28, 2018 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      It reminds me of the output from a computer program to generate poetry that I wrote for an assignment in a college class. The only way to get humans to produce such junk is to select for it in journal’s editorial practice and college faculty hiring. How sad is that?

    • Kiwi Dave
      Posted January 28, 2018 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

      A great many years ago, I used to be impressed by this sort of writing; strangely enough, it was Bourdieu himself who cured me of this enthusiasm.

      After rereading one rather densely written page some 4-5 times, in a book where he argued that traditional education’s high literacy requirements were part of an oppressive system designed to exclude the poor from knowledge, participation and success, I suddenly realized that the book could only have been written and read by successful products of the education system he denounced, as it required high literacy and careful scrutiny of statistics presented as evidence in favour of Bourdieu’s big abstractions.

      My delusion that big abstractions, statistics, and convoluted sentences were signs of profound social truths did not survive this collision of content and style.

  11. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 28, 2018 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    I’ve found Ben Shapiro worth reading again in the era of Trump, for much the same reason you mention. But when Obama was in office, Shapiro was off-the-chain crazy. I recall seeing this cringe-inducer on Book TV.

  12. Rupinder Sayal
    Posted January 28, 2018 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the link to Gates-Pinker interview. The video is quite amusing!

  13. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted January 28, 2018 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    Re: This post-modernist stuff
    “In this socio-historical context, I position courts as a specific, semi-autonomous, and generative form of juridical power: specific, in that the courts currently hold a specific relation of power in Canadian society and, equally importantly, over other institutions within the larger juridical field; semi-autonomous,”

    What is the difference between that and this speech by the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland??

    ““Be what you would seem to be”–or if you’d like it put more simply–“Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.””

    More relevantly,
    “Whoever knows he is deep, strives for clarity; whoever would like to appear deep to the crowd, strives for obscurity. For the crowd considers anything deep if only it cannot see to the bottom: the crowd is so timid and afraid of going into the water.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

  14. Martin X
    Posted January 28, 2018 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    Shapiro had a conversation with Sam Harris, but after his third snarky comment to Harris “You used the word ‘decide’ a lot for someone who doesn’t believe in free will”, I had to shut it off. I don’t think he’s really motivated to understand the points of view of others….it would only undermine his performance.

  15. Diane G.
    Posted January 29, 2018 at 12:38 am | Permalink

    That Cuevas article was chilling! It’s beyond depressing to realize just how many malevolent people we share a country (and world) with.

    One reason I, too, am skeptical about Pinker’s rose-colored glasses. Even if the evilness per person ratio is declining, the absolute number of people suffering from all avoidable afflictions must grow at least slightly as the population does. And when we get to the critical mass of population growth plus climate change…almost glad I may be dead by then.

    • rickflick
      Posted January 29, 2018 at 6:17 am | Permalink

      I think Pinker’s pink-colored glasses means that up ’till now we see improvement, so there is the potential for improvement in future. Certainly the trend could reverse in many ways, both catastrophically or by way of a potted frog on simmer. But, as human’s improve there circumstance the level of cooperation needed to address future problems is also rising. Certainly there are no guarantees.

      • Diane G.
        Posted January 30, 2018 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

        Love your figures of speech. 😉

        Wish I could feel the way you and Pinker do (which is more than just a feeling, of course; evidence has been found and analysed); but I’m afraid my glass will always be half-empty. At least until it disintegrates in a nuclear shock wave.

  16. Robert Bray
    Posted January 29, 2018 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    ‘One of the biggest enemies of reason is tribalism.’–Steven Pinker

    I would like to agree wholeheartedly, and for the longest time I did (which was one of the REASONS Abraham Lincoln was my touchstone for political leadership: he wasn’t tribal).

    But how does Pinker’s (and many others’ statement) comport with Homo sapiens’ being a ‘social animal’? Does not ‘social’ at least loosely equate with ‘tribal’?

    Yes, the DEMOS in democracy is the people as a whole; yet that ‘whole’ votes to sustain a polis that guarantees INDIVIDUAL rights. This was, I believe, the normative ‘ought’ in our founding as a nation.

    Two centuries on, democracy in the U.S. has manifestly failed to work in realizing equal rights for all its citizens: because of tribalism, which is evidently part of our physical, evolutionary human nature.

    A paradox? A conundrum? Or maybe I’m simply wrong.

    • danstarfish
      Posted January 29, 2018 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

      I was just thinking about this recently. I think tribalism is inevitable, but that it can expressed in ways that are so significantly different as to seem almost as separate categories.

      Some tribes are hyper tribal and cliquish. Some tribes have core tribal beliefs that support openness and counter more sectarian forms of tribalism even though paradoxically they will often harness tribal impulses to serve norms that counter more typical expressions of tribalism. For example, classical liberalism or Quakers.

      • Robert Bray
        Posted January 29, 2018 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for a thoughtful comment! May the balanced gravity (and gravitas) of your kind of tribalism prevail. For we must have it to survive.

  17. Posted January 29, 2018 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    I have some disagreements with some of Pinker’s work, but I do enjoy reading it and retaining out the good bits for later use.

    I still wonder about the problem of base rates when it comes to the violence theses.


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