Pinker’s course on Rationality online—for free

I didn’t realize that Steve Pinker was teaching a general-education course on Rationality at Harvard, nor did I know that it was livestreamed—for free. All of us can watch this course, and I’ll be tuning in from time to time. Here’s the relevant tweet with the link.

Today’s lecture begins with one of my favorite songs (and presumably Steve’s): “Reason to Believe”—the Rod Stewart version. I guess he precedes each lecture with a song, which is a great idea. From that I’ll be able to discern his taste in music.

Anyway, I’m watching this lecture at lunchtime (today’s topic: “Why should we follow reason”?), and you may want to peek in. A screenshot:

When you go to the lecture page, you’ll see a small video screen in the left corner and the Powerpoint slides, larger, to the right. If you want to see the video full-screen, click on the white box in the upper-right corner of the video. And you can toggle back between Powerpoints and the video.

Always the fashion plate, Pinker lectures in a tie and nice shirt, though I can’t see if he’s wearing cowboy boots.


  1. Ann German
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    “Reason to Believe” was written by Tim Hardin, who died of a heroin OD, which was heart breaking. The opening lyrics are in the Alcoholics Anonymous “Reflections” reader, and I always thought it ironic, given his addiction from which he did not recover.

  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    This is great

    I noticed Neil DeGrasse Tyson has a not-free “Masterclass” on “how to think”. I wonder if the timing means anything. Was going to send it to PCC(E) but why. It’s amusing to wonder if Masterclass sought out Pinker – likely not.

  3. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Always the fashion plate …

    Heh, I’d like to meet his tailor.

    Wonder if ol’ Steve’ll start off a lecture with THAT tune.

    Reckon I’ll have to tune in myself to find out. 🙂

  4. factvsfaith
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    Is there a way to view all of Steven’s lectures without enrolling in the course?

  5. merilee
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:15 pm | Permalink


  6. Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    I’ve not seen the lecture, but it’s peculiar that there is a calculation for some kind of E-field for a 3D charge distribution. Maybe from an earlier class?

    • Posted February 3, 2020 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      Yes, that’s almost certainly what it is.

      • Posted February 4, 2020 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        Reminds me of a game show for academics that my philosophy of mind instructor at McGill proposed: One where one competes to improvise lectures on random blackboard contents.

  7. Posted February 3, 2020 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    Reasin to Believe.

    Reminds me of one of my favorite songs:
    Long December

    The video is great. Features pictures of an yet unknown Courtney Cox displaying various stages of despair. .

  8. uommibatto
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps “Reason to Believe” was chosen not because it’s a great song (which it is), but because the class is about Rationality? As in, “Still I look to find a reason to believe.”

    If future lessons start with “The Logical Song” by Supertramp (I hope not; I detest that song), or perhaps “Mind” by Talking Heads (“Religion won’t change you… I need something to change your mind…”), then maybe I’m onto something!

    Larry Smith

  9. rickflick
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    Pinker! I’ve never heard a clearer explicator.

  10. sted24
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    I am sure Pinker’s many videos expounding topics he has written about are familiar to most readers here. This is a rather different one:

    It was delivered at a FIRE conference last November discussing WHY some of his views are now considered controversial.

  11. KD33
    Posted February 3, 2020 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    Watched the first lecture. Should be lots of fun! And Dawkins will give the final guest lecture, apparently on God Delusion subject matter.

  12. TJR
    Posted February 4, 2020 at 4:57 am | Permalink

    Pinker recently made an appearance on “Stewart Copeland’s Adventures in Music”, a 3-part BBC4 documentary where our eponymous hero travelled the world listening to and talking about music and why it means so much to us. Worth a look.

    (And if you don’t know who Stewart Copeland is then shame on you!)

  13. Posted February 4, 2020 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    I watched it. Pinker is a great presenter. I was reminded of the famous Feynman Lectures.

    At one point he explains how rational thinking via science and mathematics is a better “story” than alternatives by telling the audience that you could bet on the predictions made by the former and make way more money. I was a bit surprised that he would choose that over the desire for truth but perhaps it hits home with his student audience. Since woo still competes rationality even with a Harvard audience, I hope he spends more time on this issue during the course. I would also be interested in hearing the students’ reaction.

    • Posted February 4, 2020 at 9:59 am | Permalink

      It looks like my question was answered even before I asked it. Here’s the second lecture:

  14. Posted February 7, 2020 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    Not to carp too much about what is a great idea – but I wonder whether or not he will tackle so-called “economic rationality”, which is often ideological. (A good *critique* of it is welcome in such a course, but I am often dismayed to see it included uncritically!)

  15. Paul Turpin
    Posted February 7, 2020 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, can you continue to post links to Pinker’s reason lectures in emails?

    • Posted February 7, 2020 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

      Pinker has posted links to the first two via his Twitter account, @sapinker. I assume he’ll do likewise for the rest.

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