Pinker on Rubin, and a meta-review of his critics

After years of Dave Rubin trying to get Steve Pinker on his show, he’s finally succeeded. Here’s the first part of their interview: a 34-minute discussion of Pinker’s background, his secular Judaism, blank-slateism, sex differences in preference and behavior (he mentions the Larry Summers and James Damore affairs), whether some scientific scientific questions should be off limits, identity politics, free speech on campus, whether campus censorship helped elect Trump (Pinker says “yes), and the distortion of his views by the Regressive Left. (Part 2, which deals with his new book Enlightenment Now, is here, and the full hour-long interview, which I haven’t yet seen but will, is here). Although some will say that this is Rubin simply interviewing another “alt-righter”, Pinker’s words dispel that characterization. Here he calls himself a “centrist,” though I see him as a classical liberal. He certainly has no kind words for Trump and the Republicans either in this interview or his new book!

Note that Pinker’s wearing his black Lucchese caiman cowboy boots, which have now, as I warned him, split. (Caiman is not a durable hide; Pinker has since ordered a new custom pair in more durable belly alligator.)

I’ve finally finished Enlightenment Now, and although it’s a long read, it’s well worth your attention. I’ve also read many of the critics, and have rebutted a few but don’t really have the interest to go into depth. Further, since many of the critics take Pinker to task for historical and philosophical issues (e.g., “did he characterize Enlightenment thinkers properly?”), I lack the expertise to go into those areas.

However, regardless of whether you think Pinker’s view of the Enlightenment hews to history, that’s not his main point. There are in fact two main points: there has been palpable and substantial progress over the last few centuries in nearly all measurable aspects of human welfare (wealth, health, freedom from violence, freedom from accidents, increase in democracy, and so on), and that this progress is due to what we think of as Enlightenment values: humanism, science, the valuing of reason, and a reliance on science and empirical evidence. Those who deny that there’s been progress are simply wrong (that’s what Pinker’s 70-odd graphs demonstrate), and although you can argue whether humanism, reason and science are responsible for that progress, it’s hard to make the case that metaphysical disciplines such as religion have pushed humanity forward. (My favorite chapter is Pinker’s last, a paean to the virtues of science.)

A meta-analysis of all the criticism leveled at Pinker appears in the newest Quillette: “Steven Pinker’s Counter-Counter-Enlightenment” by Saloni Dattani, identified as “an MSc student in behaviour genetics at the University of London.” By and large I agree with her analysis, and will give a brief excerpt:

But many of Pinker’s critics are not simply objecting to the details of progress, they are hostile to the idea that progress has occurred at all. While this may be partly due to the Optimism Gap, the Negativity bias, and the Availability heuristic, there are hints that it may reflect a deeper anxiety – that progress, especially recent progress, directly undermines a belief on the radical Left and Right that worsening human conditions and societal decline demand institutional overhaul, insurrection, and revolutionary change.

Not only is the idea of progress repulsive to eco-pessimists who believe humans are despoiling the planet and plunging the world into irredeemable chaos, it is also anathema to anarchists and populists who would rather see the state burn to the ground than support incremental reform, and to ethnonationalists who believe liberal cosmopolitanism has brought Western civilisation to the verge of collapse. There are those who claim that the threats posed by radicalism and populism from the Left and the Right are exaggerated. But the middle ground between catastrophising and complacency feels particularly narrow at the moment, and it is necessary to identify threats early, if they are to be effectively resisted.

On this count, Pinker has come prepared. The reason he is always one step ahead of his critics is that the counter-Enlightenment arguments they rehearse are as old as the Enlightenment itself. The difference is that now the evidence is in. There are those who have grumbled that Enlightenment Now isn’t really about the Enlightenment at all, and in a sense they are right. This is not a work of philosophy but a work of social science. Those expending time and keystrokes angrily complaining that Pinker’s version of the Enlightenment does not accord with their preferred definition are missing the point. Pinker’s book is not a case for the Enlightenment that invites refutation, but a refutation of the arguments of the counter-Enlightenment which, it turns out, have been wrong all along.

I recommend once again that you read this book, even if you haven’t tackled the last one: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Both are works of thoughtfulness, reason, and unsullied secularism.

h/t: Paul


  1. KD33
    Posted March 25, 2018 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Dattani has captured this really well, IMO.

    This point is interesting, and possibly important: “… that progress, especially recent progress, directly undermines a belief on the radical Left and Right that worsening human conditions and societal decline demand institutional overhaul, insurrection, and revolutionary change.”

    • Posted March 25, 2018 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      Yes, this is something common to most, if not all, the reviews of Pinker’s book. The activists and observers on both Left and Right define themselves in terms of policy — how problems are to solved. They spend most of their energy revving people up as to how bad some problem is and how they have the proper solution. It is not hard to imagine such people do not like Pinker’s book. To them, he is telling the same audience things aren’t so bad and that the rational, scientific thinking that has worked in the last few centuries is also our best hope for the future. It’s an idea that lets the air right out of their theses.

      • Craw
        Posted March 25, 2018 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

        Well put.

      • Posted March 25, 2018 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

        People won’t do the (probably costly) things your ideology demands of them, if they don’t think there is a crisis that needs resolving.

        This is not just true of political ideologies but can be encountered in other spheres as well. Religionists do it. That’s what the concept of original sin was invented for. Even corporations do it. I get very cynical at the regular announcements by anti virus companies that there is finally a Mac OS virus in the wild.

  2. Posted March 25, 2018 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  3. Posted March 25, 2018 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Seeing “Pinker on Rubin” immediately brings to mind the phrase, “that would look great on your resume; not so good on mine.” Hopefully there is a subset of Rubin’s audience that can learn something.

    • Daniel Engblom
      Posted March 25, 2018 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      Never check the youtube comments, on all three videos you’ll only see depressing stuff.

      • Posted March 25, 2018 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

        True. Rubin does good videos, but the comments are horrendous.

  4. DrBrydon
    Posted March 25, 2018 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    . . . that progress, especially recent progress, directly undermines a belief on the radical Left and Right that worsening human conditions and societal decline demand institutional overhaul, insurrection, and revolutionary change.


  5. Martin X
    Posted March 25, 2018 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    A socialist journalist in my Twitter feed expressed great delight in a “take down” of Pinker that he posted a link to. The take down was really just snark, pointing out that we still had problems. Duh. Misses Pinker’s argument totally.

    I suspect the socialist resented Pinker’s argument because a successful capitalist society is not compatible with his agenda.

  6. Curt Nelson
    Posted March 25, 2018 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    I suppose that acknowledging overall improvement threatens the idea that I or some group is really really suffering right now, and needs help. There’s trouble, I tell you trouble, right here in River City.

  7. Greg Geisler
    Posted March 25, 2018 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    I’m about halfway through and enjoying the book and think it should be required reading for every adult. I’ve also been following the reviews and critiques of EN. One piece that got my attention was by George Monbiot of the Guardian whose work I tend to respect. He is critical of some of Pinker’s claims regarding environmentalism:

    • Historian
      Posted March 25, 2018 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      Actually, Monbiot is extremely critical of Pinker’s analysis of environmental issues. I do not know if his critique is justified, but it raises a question that is of concern to me. How wary should we be of people who talk about issues that they have had little or no training in? My answer is quite a lot. Pinker writes about areas of history, philosophy, and science that as far as I know he has had little training in. At least for the area of history, of which I have some acquaintance, I do get pissed off at what seems to be a common attitude that anybody can write it, even though they have had no formal training. I do not doubt that he attempted to diligently research these areas, but he cannot be termed an expert in these areas. Monbiot purports to be an expert in the area of environmentalism and has found Pinker wanting. Perhaps other experts will be more charitable. In any case, before I would accept Pinker’s contentions as “accurate” in areas outside of his training, I would first like to evaluate the reviews of experts.

      • Posted March 25, 2018 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        Maybe. But does Pinker get anything wrong in his book that invalidates any of his main points?

        Virtually every expert takes issue with what non-experts say in their field. At a minimum, they just seem to use the wrong words or put the focus on the wrong ideas. I get these feelings often when I read articles about computer technology written by people outside the field. It is fine to add some expert perspective but making the claim that they are wrong is much stronger.

        I haven’t read Pinker’s book yet but I am familiar with his work. It is hard to imagine he got very much of the environmental science wrong and even harder still that it significantly cut into his point.

        • Historian
          Posted March 25, 2018 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

          “But does Pinker get anything wrong in his book that invalidates any of his main points?”

          This is my point – I don’t know. That is why I have to depend on experts in fields I have no great knowledge, which are almost all. In the area of American Civil War history, which I do know something, I have read so-called history, written by people with no training in the area, that was egregiously wrong.

          We live in a world where the areas of knowledge that a person can claim expertise is growing smaller and smaller. The area of medicine is one example. Until recently I thought that a doctor referred to as a cardiologist would know just about everything about the heart. Well, I was wrong. There are several sub-categories of expertise within the world of cardiology. Thus, when Pinker writes about a wide area of human knowledge, he can only be a dabbler at best. There is no way to get around this. And, as such, what he writes is easily subject to error and is why I would want to evaluate the reviews of experts on the various subject areas he discusses before accepting them as correct.

          In the area of the environment, Monbiot thinks Pinker got a lot wrong. Again, I would like to get the views of several environmental experts. And, indeed, if Pinker is wrong on the environment, would this evaluate his overall thesis? I think that would depend on how “right” he is on the other areas he discusses.

          • Historian
            Posted March 25, 2018 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

            Change “evaluate his overall thesis” to “discredit his overall thesis.”

        • Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

          I think there’s room for caution on the environmental front. As I mentioned on a previous thread, there’s not much margin for error here.

          I think also he’s too quick with the discussion of inequality of incomes. There’s three separate versions of that, which have to be teased apart and analyzed separately. The falling incomes (at the bottom) and rising at the extreme of the top despite rising productivity in the US and elsewhere since 1970; the racial divide in same within the US and Canada (i.e., the distribution is multimodal with Native Americans and African Americans generally much worse off than others); the “North-South” divide, which is important because some of it is *due to the North’s policies*. IMF and WB are reforming, but there is still a lot to undo. Similarly multinational corporations (Canadian mining and arms dealing are a big deal to many of us here in Canada) screwing around in other countries has to be addressed.

          • Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

            I haven’t read Pinker’s dismissal of income inequality. Although I am not up on the details, my understanding is the world has experienced periods of income inequality before. Perhaps he is relying solely on the long view of history.

            I think income inequality is a very serious problem even if Pinker is right. He’s not claiming that we shouldn’t try to address income inequality as it will go away soon or doesn’t matter, right? That would be inconsistent with his overall theme of trying to motivate people to work on problems using rational, enlightened thought. Instead he’s telling people to take heart and keep at it. This seems like the right message and we shouldn’t shoot the messenger.

      • Posted March 25, 2018 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

        Monbiot is a journalist and activist. He’s not really an “expert” on environmental issues (in the sense of peer-reviewed original research), though he probably thinks of himself as such.

        The problem with activists is that one can never trust whether their evaluation of someone like Pinker derives from their activism.

        • Angel
          Posted March 25, 2018 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

          I’m still waiting to get his books, but I’ve red a synopsis of the chapter on the Environment (The Breakthrough, 8, 2018) I do mostly agree with Pinker’s points and proposed solutions, as well as with Ecomodernism as the main path to solve the environmental problems. However, I find that his assessment on the trend (slowing by 2100) WW overpopulation is not correct; Figure 1 (from his sources) don’t match the UN reports and others more commonly accepted data that WW population will reach 10.7 B by end of this century. This is up from 3.5B fifty years ago, and most of the increase will be in 3rd World countries. There will be necessary some actions (against themain religions oposed to abortion and family planning) to reduce the growth and, with time, later reduce the population. In my opinion the only way to reduce environmental problems and a more adequate wealth distribution.

    • Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      The one exception to Pinker’s important book is the chapter on environmentalism. I wrote him and said he fell in with the wrong gang: Stewart Brand, and the BreakThrough boys Nordhaus and Shellenberger. He even let them
      express their disdain for “tree huggers” and took their word for the desirability and need for nuclear power. This defect in the book was surpising as was Pinker’s failure to make a real effort to contact and consult the important environmental activists, writers and academics of the last half of the 20th century. I’ve already posted my comments to Pinker himself, and offered my assistance in rewriting that chapter.

  8. Posted March 25, 2018 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    I like Pinker’s optimism, although it is hard to keep it up in the winter of our Trump discontent.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted March 25, 2018 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it’s a nice attitude if you can maintain it. Trump is a here today gone tomorrow type of thing, however, people do not stop being stupid over night.

      • Posted March 25, 2018 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

        Or racist, or selfish, … I can’t wait for Trump to be over. If we survive him, perhaps the US population will have learned a lesson and a new age of enlightenment will dawn. Or not.

  9. Merilee
    Posted March 25, 2018 at 3:45 pm | Permalink


  10. Rajesh
    Posted March 25, 2018 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Readers of this blog might be interested in the following review of Pinker’s book.

    The first one is by Computational Complexity theorist Scott Aaronson

    This is mostly a favorable review but criticizes Pinker’s optimism on Artificial Intelligence.

    Like others, I’ve also been following critical reviews of the book and found George Monbiot’s review extremely clear and to the point.

    This is in stark contrast to criticisms from Taleb. His[Taleb] arguments are statistically grounded and should be taken seriously but I do disagree with his ego maniacal rants. A more persuasive statistical argument against the long peace hypothesis and the civilizing process hypothesis is available in Aaron Clauset’s recent paper on the topic.

    A similar analysis of other trends from Pinker’s Better Angels… and this one is quite possible.

    Yaneer Bar-Yam of NECSI New England has criticized what he considered to be an overly misguided argument against GMO. Till date, I’ve not seen any quantitatively precise arguments as to why man-made organisms (GMO) are any different than selective breeding practices that have been known forever. Some point to the differences between the incremental nature of selective breeding practices and the shock-and-create approach of biotechnology, but I am not come across systematic evaluations of risk involved in using GMO.

    I do wish to point out one common theme of critical reviews: Pinker does not have expertise in the topic he writes about. I find it funny and surprising that in an era where there are no barriers to writing and publishing work, people call out Pinker for writing on topics that he does not know well.

    It is only by presenting clear refutable arguments can we make scientific progress. Rather than make fun of it, it is this precise fearlessness to make a fool of oneself that is commendable about such books. He certainly has enough street cred to write books. He has things to say. If some people have objections to his claims, they could make a case in a journal or a news paper article and demonstrate the limitations of Pinker’s claim.

    At a time where no one person can master more than a few disciplines, it is unreasonable to mock such attempts because it discourages integrative trans-disciplinary efforts that are much needed to understand and solve the biggest intellectual and societal problems of our times.

    Last I checked, nobody has granted Steven Pinker with intellectual sainthood or offered him an infallibility cloak. I look forward to reading his books, applauding his insights while simultaneously evaluating them for mistakes. One can do both, right?

    • Rajesh
      Posted March 25, 2018 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

      In the discussion of Yaneer Bar-Yam, please correct argument against GMO to arguments about anti-GMO groups. Apologies.

    • Historian
      Posted March 25, 2018 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

      “At a time where no one person can master more than a few disciplines, it is unreasonable to mock such attempts because it discourages integrative trans-disciplinary efforts that are much needed to understand and solve the biggest intellectual and societal problems of our times.”

      You are absolutely correct that such efforts are needed. But because “no one person can master more than a few disciplines,” the task to produce a quality work is Herculean and whoever does it successfully should be roundly applauded. The question of whether Pinker accomplished this needs to be thoroughly debated in all the book’s aspects. Only then can we judge whether Pinker has proven his thesis.

      • Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

        I think one has to ask *which thesis*?

        I ask that because one of my problems with the book (in a minor way) was the two big themes: “what happened” and “what to do next”. It is the former which is much stronger, IMO, though still not perfect. The latter is dangerously close to “and carry on”, which I think is wrong in the environmental and economic (and to a lesser extent, the IT security) topics.

        He’s also accused of giving short attention to the history of the actual Enlightenment, but I think that’s a strawman, myself.

        • Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

          If Pinker is saying “carry on”, is he not saying it to those that are working on solutions to global climate change, income inequality, etc? He’s not saying “don’t worry” but to continue worrying and acting in a rational, enlightened manner.

  11. Posted March 25, 2018 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    I concur whole heartedly with your comments on ‘Enlightenment Now’ Jerry, except for the alligator boots section (I can’t afford ’em).


  12. dd
    Posted March 25, 2018 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Did anyone catch which Vox article they discuss about free speech?

  13. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted March 25, 2018 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    Great interview

    What else is there to say?

  14. poltiser
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 12:20 am | Permalink

    … in the dusty, bloody and noisy atmosphere created by fanatics and extremists, balanced view of scientists should be voiced loudly and proudly…
    No voice – no discussion – no freedom – no progress.

    I will read a book, as the controversy it created is like an open window letting fresh air into dormitory full of old stench growing again…

    Thank you both for a good news…

  15. jay
    Posted March 26, 2018 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    “Enlightenment values: humanism, science, the valuing of reason, and a reliance on science and empirical evidence. ”

    … and free markets, which many on the left hold in denial.

  16. aljones909
    Posted March 28, 2018 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Should we be optimistic about the environment?

    1. Humans seemed to have caused the extinction of the bulk of the megafauna on every continent – except Africa. The African megafauna is now under great pressure.

    2. Africa’s population is projected to quadruple by the end of this century.

    And an astonishing facts from one of Bill Gates’ favourite authors – Vaclav Smil

    3. Humans and their domesticated animals make up 98% of the mass of all land vertebrates.

  17. wetbook
    Posted April 3, 2018 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Here’s an unflattering critique that Pinker mangled the history and philosophy in his book.

    Leiter’s different (than Coyne’s) take on the book is interesting because Leiter’s blog is much like this one: run by an academic, tilts politically/ideologically progressive, and plenty of disdain for regressive leftists.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted April 3, 2018 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      “Leiter’s different (than Coyne’s) take on the book is interesting because …”

      Do I understand correctly, that a review, that presumably is important to read, is interesting for reasons that have nothing to do with the content of the review, yes?

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