Today’s reading: Pinker in Skeptic magazine on rationality and “post-truth” culture

November 3, 2019 • 11:30 am

The much- (and unjustly) maligned Steven Pinker wrote the cover story for this month’s Skeptic Magazine, which is available free at the link below (click on screenshot).

The topic is the so-called “post-truth” era in which we live: an era in which reason is said to be expendable and the truth is only what is presented as truth.

Steve begins with an argument he’s made before but bears repeating, and is relevant on the claim of postmodernism is that “truth” is determined solely by those who have power or hegemony:

In his book The Last Word, the philosopher Thomas Nagel showed that truth, objectivity, and reason are not negotiable. As soon as you start making a case against them, you are making a case, which means you are implicitly committed to reason. Nagel calls this argument Cartesian, after Descartes’ famous argument that just as the very fact that one is pondering one’s existence shows that one must exist, the very fact that one is examining the validity of reason shows that one is committed to reason. A corollary is that we don’t defend or justify or believe in reason, and we certainly do not, as it is sometimes claimed, have faith in reason. As Nagel puts it, each of these is “one thought too many.” We don’t believe in reason; we use reason.

. . . As soon as you try to argue that we should believe things by any route other than reason, you’ve lost the argument, because you’ve appealed to reason. That is why a defense of reason is unnecessary, perhaps even impossible.

The “post-truth” era simply means, according to Pinker, that politicians lie, and that sometimes their lies are not only adamantly represented as truth, but also widely accepted as truth. I’ve known this personally since the repeated lies of our government in Vietnam. But those lies didn’t last: they were shown to be false by the very process of rational examination that is now maligned. The only genuine post-truth climate is one represented by Orwell in his book Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the government deliberately expunges any data that could be used to falsify its claims. And even in that novel, Winston Smith—whose job is to revise printed history—and his inamorata Julia clearly realize that the government is constantly lying.

But the main reason we should retire the posttruth cliché is that it’s corrosive, perhaps self-fulfilling. The implication is we may as well give up on reason and truth and just fight the bad guys’ lies and intimidation with lies and intimidation of our own. We can aim higher.

Steve goes on to explain why humans evolved to seek truth, giving several examples from hunter-gatherer societies, succinctly summed up with the aphorism “reality is a powerful selection pressure”, and explains why he persists in using data to persuade people to change their minds, an effort that many deem futile.

Humans are of course irrational in some ways: we have cognitive biases that make us cling to what’s palpably false, there are optical illusions and false conclusions drawn from what we experience in everyday life (e.g., the belief that a spiraling tetherball cut free will continue to move in a spiral path), and so on. Pinker gives a long laundry list of weaknesses in our rationality. But we’re still descended from humans whose existence depended on apprehending truth, and still retain the faculties and dependence on evidence that enables us to find truth.

The weaknesses in reason include what Pinker calls pluralistic ignorance, which he defines as “the spiral of silence, in which everyone believes that everyone else believes something but no one actually believes it.” To wit:

How does a false belief keep itself levitated in midair? Michael Macy and his colleagues show that a key factor is enforcement. Not only does the belief never get challenged, but group members believe they must punish or condemn those who don’t hold it—out of the equally mistaken belief that they themselves may be denounced for failing to denounce. Denunciation is a signal of solidarity with the group, which can lead to a cascade of pre-emptive, self-reinforcing denunciation, and sometimes to “extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds” like witch hunts and other bubbles and manias. Sometimes the bubble can be punctured by a public exclamation that the emperor is naked, but it takes an innocent boy or a brave truth-teller.

When I read this, it immediately brought to mind the behavior of the “cancel culture”, particularly on college campuses, a culture that thrives on denunciation and demonization. I’ll give an example in a later post today: the palpably false belief by some students and faculty at Williams College that the college, and its English department in particular, are infested with “structural racism.” There is not a scintilla of evidence for this, but many students believe it so firmly that they are now demanding the firing of English professors and are about to engage in a student boycott of all English classes.

Pinker goes on to give ways to counteract these mass delusions, including adopting “the technique discovered long ago by rabbis: first have your yeshiva students make the strongest possible argument on one side of a Talmudic dispute, then force them to switch sides.” (This in fact is a tactic I used when I taught “Evolution vs. Creationism” as a non-majors course at the University of Maryland. I assigned a series of debates on areas of evolution, and then assigned students to argue the position that was the opposite of their own.) In Pinker’s view, the counters to falsity are becoming stronger, so, as the many fact-checking sites attest, it becomes easier to show up widespread untruths for what they are. The Internet has been immensely valuable in this way:

Even everyday fact-checking has been has been revolutionized by the urban legend tracking site and by Wikipedia, which is now 80 times the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica and pretty much as accurate. (A recent cartoon captioned “Life before Google” shows a man on a barstool musing, “I wonder who played the skipper on Gilligan’s Island,” and his companion answering, “I guess we’ll never know.”)

LOL, as they say. But I remember those times. And so, says Pinker, we live in an area in which rationality is in general growing, but is also bimodal, so there are outliers in which delusion dominates (this is also the argument he makes for well-being and morality in The Better Angels of Our Nature).

One of those outliers comprises American colleges and universities, which in theory should be the guardians not only of truth, but also of methods for seeking truth. Professors have tenure, students pay lots of money for their education, and these institutions have credentialing abilities that make students seek them out for certification in knowledge and skills. But, as you know if you read here, things aren’t all beer and skittles on campus:

Yet despite these perquisites, universities have become notorious as monocultures of left-wing orthodoxy and the illiberal suppression of heterodox ideas (I won’t review the latest follies, but will mention just two words: Halloween costumes). As the civil libertarian Harvey Silverglate has put it, “You can say things in Harvard Square that you can’t say in Harvard Yard.”

(See here, here, here, and here for just a few examples of this year’s College Costume Policing.)

Disinvitations and deplatforming are rife—mainly by students and alumni from the Left—and certain areas of the humanities have become so invested in Regressive Leftist ideology that it becomes impossible to even mention some ideas. Pinker discusses the causes of this conundrum, but whatever the cause the results are clear:

Some of this regression is a paradoxical byproduct of the fantastic progress we have made in equality. Vanishingly few people in universities actually hold racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic attitudes (though they may have different views on the nature of these categories or the causes of group differences). That means that accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia can be weaponized: since everyone reviles these bigotries, they can be used to demonize adversaries, which in turn spreads a terror of being demonized. The accusations are uniquely noxious because it is virtually impossible to defend oneself against them.

Most of us, I think, including me, have to constantly police our views lest they lead to us being called out as bigots or tainted as impure. For example, despite my interest in cleaning up the excesses of the Left rather than repeating the endless denunciations of Trump (views I share, but which are so ubiquitous that it bores me to repeat them), I’m often chastised for bashing the Left instead of making this website into a clone of HuffPost. The result is that when I’m about to criticize Democrats, for instance, I’m obliged to repeat that I hate Republicans and would never vote for any.

And although many readers have said that we needn’t pay much attention to “PC follies” in universities, Pinker gives at least three reasons why we should, one being Andrew Sullivan’s statement that “We all live on campus now.” The result is this:

The regressive left is an incubator of the alt-right. I’ve seen it happen, including to former students. When they see that certain opinions are unexpressable, when they see speakers being deplatformed and people being assaulted or demonized for citing certain facts or advancing certain ideas, they conclude, “You can’t handle the truth!” Since they can’t discuss heterodox ideas with students and faculty in universities, they retreat into an alternative universe of discourse, mainly internet discussion groups, in which these ideas harden and grow more extreme in the absence of critical engagement. When the nuanced, statistical, multifactorial, qualified, tentative and ethically sensitive versions of taboo hypotheses are squelched on campus, the simplistic, all or- none, single-factor, exaggerated, invidious versions blossom outside it. This happens in discussions of capitalism, the causes of being transgender, and differences between ethnic groups and sexes

It’s Pinker’s own willingness to call out the follies of the Regressive Left that has led to his own demonization as a member of the alt-right (not to mention his characterization as a misogynist and white supremacist), despite the fact that he’s a Democrat who donated a sizable sum to that party. He’s also chastised for his conviction that we can progress both materially and morally—a conviction that angers the Chicken Littles of the Left, whose motivating belief is that things are not only getting worse (or at least are as bad as ever), but create a situation that can’t be fixed except by adopting their own remedies.

39 thoughts on “Today’s reading: Pinker in Skeptic magazine on rationality and “post-truth” culture

  1. He’s also chastised for his conviction that we can progress both materially and morally—a conviction that angers the Chicken Littles of the Left, whose motivating belief is that things are not only getting worse

    This part of their thinking, at least, I think I understand. If one senses a lack of urgency, one might labor under the impression that nothing will be done about a thing that might still need some fixing. So to frame things that need fixing as The Worst™ and The Most Terrible™ seems somewhat understandable. You want people to take notice and take action. Sadly, I think it might induce the opposite (boy who cried wolf and all that). Things are getting better and yet we still have work to do. Why can’t that be the rallying cry?

    1. If you’ve read Pinker’s last two books, your penultimate sentence characterizes them precisely, as he says there are pressing problems that we can’t ignore, including global warming, and that we need to tackle them.

      If he’s said that, then how can you agree with critics who mistakenly argue that he hasn’t said that? Seriously, it’s all in those two books

      I sense that a lot of Steve’s critics haven’t really read his books, perhaps because they’re big and fat (the books, not the critics!)

  2. If he’s said that, then how can you agree with critics who mistakenly argue that he hasn’t said that? Seriously, it’s all in those two books

    I don’t agree with the critics & I have read (and do agree with) Pinker’s opinion here. I suppose I’m more wondering outloud how to get people on board with this type of framing.
    I agree with your last sentence, getting people to read anything these days seems to be a bit of a chore, let alone a doorstopper like Pinker’s.

  3. Pinker:

    As Nagel puts it, each of these is “one thought too many.” We don’t believe in reason; we use reason.

    That’s interesting. Personally I do *believe* in reason. I believe in reason because of personal experience: when I was a child, intuition was a strong force in my life, but experience taught me the erroneousness of intuition and the strength of reason. Reason has proven to work.

    I find it interesting that Nagel and Pinker kind of punt on justifying reason, or rely on Nagel’s Cartesian argument, which I don’t find very strong.

    1. To believe in reason puts the emphasis on some logical necessity, a philosophical justification. The idea that we use reason emphasizes the fact that it works.

      1. Not sure I agree with that. Very simple, minimally intelligent systems are capable of learning, and I think it would be a stretch to say reason is involved. And a lot of learning in humans occurs without conscious thought.

        Certainly reason can facilitate or turbocharge learning, but I don’t think reason is a requirement for learning.

        1. When a mouse learns to turn the right way in a maze, IMO it is applying some kind of primitive reasoning, although of course it is not aware of it. However, one might argue the definition of “reason” in this case is somewhat stretched.

          The only way someone can learn a *general* principle (like, for example, that reasoning is usually more efficient than throwing a dice or “gut feeling”) is by using reason, i.e. the act of generalizing requires reasoning.

  4. I see the real irony of this departure from truth and reality on the far left very similar to the same going on in the far right. So what is left to speak the truth but a few of us siting in the middle. I hope Pinker can have an affect on this disease in the schools today but I am not betting money on it. The danger is the far left will end up in the same bloody mess the right is already swimming in. And the reason what is happening in the right is more important is obvious every time you look at the news. See what is happening right now with the added help of FOX TV and all the propaganda being shoveled out daily. Can truth on a few channels overcome this deluge and speak truth to all this noise. I have my doubts about that as well. The danger in the near future is there will be no truth left and democracy will just be something you can look up in a book or google.

  5. “Even everyday fact-checking has been has been revolutionized by the urban legend tracking site …”

    Though Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? There are suspicions that snopes has been infiltrated by the Woke.

  6. So the way it works today is, you make up a new truth and then repeat it over and over. When someone questions your truth you pound them into submission. This is the new truth. We just learned the reason why Trump is so negative on Ukraine and continued to extort them to find stuff on Biden and also to show that Ukraine is the origin of the Hacking and not Russia. Even though we know it was Russia. How did we learn this, because CNN and Buzz Feed initiated lawsuits to free up documents from Mueller. It shows that Manafort was pushing this Ukraine hacking BS as early as the summer of 2016. He and others kept pushing this crap and Trump bought it. Trump blamed Ukraine for Manafort getting into legal trouble. So Trump is the perfect person to feed conspiracy junk and he is also the perfect one to push it out.

      1. The skull in the box points to a Baudrillardist hyperreality, contextualised into a constructivism that includes language as a paradox and uninformed by nihilism.

        Or maybe it’s just a halloween thing.

  7. Slightly off topic: for a terrifying look at the disastrous potential of post-truthism, watch the mini-series Chernobyl on HBO.

      1. Well there was a disclaimer at the end stating the ways in which HBO story wasn’t accurate, e.g. the real-life team of nuclear scientists fighting for truth was encapsulated in a single character (the female nuke scientist).

  8. Trump obviously lies very often. However, his most damaging lies are those where he takes a position that plausibly might be held by someone ignorant or stupid. It makes us wonder, “He can’t possibly believe that, can he?” For example, he maintains that he believes that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 election. He also maintains that he thinks that investigating the Bidens is a reasonable thing for the President to ask the Ukrainian government to do. He attempts show his innocence by convincing us that he really believes these things to be true. He has quite a talent for this.

    So what do we call this kind of lying? I thought for a moment that it’s “gaslighting” but I am not sure it is, based on definitions I read online.

    1. He may believe some of it anyway. As I said earlier, Manafort and others were pushing the garbage that Ukraine hacked the DNC, not Russia and Trump just bought it and has stayed on it ever since. According to the Washington Post his prejudice against Ukraine goes back to Manafort and he does not want to give them aid. He also knows Russia would like him to take that stand. The whole insane idea is to get sanctions on Russia lifted. That is Trumps overall goal. You also have Flynn doing absolutely nothing to get himself out of legal trouble and is totally relying on a Trump bailout.

    2. This is how civilizations die. The very improvement in quality of life is what precipitates the fall. The phenomenon responsible is known as “oikophobia”. Civililations ascend when people believe in and advance the founding principles. Once they reach ascendancy over external threats and become materially wealthy, there is a tendency for certain personality types to find ways to assert moral superiority over their fellow citizens. It usually manifests as a contempt for their own countrymen and anything domestic. It shows up in Britain as descriptions such as “Little Englander” and “Gammon”. The British political class, civil service, media and academia are infected with it. The very strata of society that hold the delusion that they are the gatekeepers of reason are caught up in the phenomenon.

      1. Civililations [sic] ascend when people believe in and advance the founding principles. Once they reach ascendancy over external threats and become materially wealthy, there is a tendency for certain personality types to find ways to assert moral superiority over their fellow citizens.

        Historical examples?

  9. Yes, the far left is an incubator for the alt-right. But the opposite is true as well. Right wing radio was also important in the rise of the alt-right. Of course, there is Trump. It is hard to find a more diligent practitioner of post-truth than Trump. It is a chicken and egg problem. This dynamic is indicative of American society’s downward spiral.

    The question is whether truth and rationality can resist the assaults from both the far left and right, particularly when the Trump cult has no use for them. In a post at the Atlantic site, Emma Green argues that the divide over Trump’s impeachment and the prevalence of extreme partisanship is reflective of the fact that Americans hate each other. Hate is a strong term and perhaps it is hyperbole. But, the divide is bitter, each side having totally different world views. Extreme partisans are willing to believe the worst of their opponents, without feeling the need to check on the validity of the arguments. Hence, post-modernism on college campuses is but one symptom of an extensive disease in the American body politics. These partisans do not believe the world is getting better, regardless of what the truth may be. Sometimes perception is more consequential than reality. For those who do believe in truth and rationality as necessities to build a better world, the task at hand is to fight back against those who reject these precepts. The outcome of this struggle is far from certain.

    Pinker writes that “humans indeed are often irrational, but not always and everywhere.” Yes, but when people consider themselves under extreme stress, the irrational takes control. This seems to be the case today for people becoming more and more polarized by politics. Does rationality have a fighting chance under these conditions? I don’t know, but I do have anxiety about the future of a society seemingly running amok.

  10. As for the claims of “structural racism”, it is well-known that the phrase “structure” is now used to make the cause of some phenomenon unfalsifiable. Instead of saying that events are caused by individuals’ behavior, one can always blame it on some invisible “structure” that is presumed to cause whatever one talks about.

  11. Fuckin’ Pinker. Here he is bringin’ the commonsense, data, trenchant analysis, and pellucid prose again. Whaddya gonna do with a guy like that?

  12. I was with fingers upon the off button when
    upon the television screen, just after the
    conclusion of last evening’s 60 Minutes
    episode ? ON to the screen comes this
    darling infomercial / commercial / whatevs of
    Mr PINKER ! = !

    Needless to state: I did not press the off.
    I was heartened to not only see and hear it fully
    but also that the CBS network aired it !
    My first time seeing it actually upon a(ny) network.
    Anyone else seen it ? Anywhere ?


    1. Just saw this this morning, too, from

      ” Watch our ad on ’60 Minutes’

      Our freethinking ad featuring Ron Reagan got
      a phenomenal amount of attention when it
      aired during the most recent Democratic
      debate, and naturally that got some folks
      riled up. Catholic League blowhard Bill
      Donohue fulminated against the ad, proving
      that we did something right. An ad campaign
      that’s currently going well is Harvard
      Professor and best-selling author Steven
      Pinker endorsing us during ’60 Minutes.’
      The ad aired last Sunday, and will run again
      the next two Sundays on the show. Check it
      out! ”


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