Andrew Sullivan interviews Steve Pinker

October 30, 2021 • 11:00 am

Here’s Andrew Sullivan’s 72-minute “Dishcast” conversation with Steve Pinker, who’s doing a lot of events related to his latest book on rationality. The video was advertised in an email to Sullivan’s subscribers, so it hasn’t yet gotten many views. Here are the YouTube notes:

Pinker’s new book is Rationality. It’s like taking a Harvard course on the tricks our minds play on us. We had a blast — and I pressed him on several points.

. . . If you’d [like to] watch the whole episode in living color — and see the most famous hair in academia — we videotaped the remote convo in the Dishcast studio. It even has the view from Pinker’s window in the background.

I don’t have the book yet, so I don’t know what Steve’s definition of “rationality” is, nor is it discussed very much in the video, so I’ll give the Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of “rationality” and “reason” that seem to comport with this discussion:



I would amend the “reason” definition to add “and apprehension of truth” to “The power of the mind to think and form valid judgements by a process of logic.”

This is an excellent discussion between two smart people, one of whom (Sullivan) has a strong belief in the irrational tenets of religion (he admits they’re irrational), while Pinker is an atheistic rationalist. About 25 minutes in, this leads to a discussion that is conducted with such civility that you can almost miss it: “Can religion be rational?” Otherwise, the tenor and content of the discussion is at a very high level, and Sullivan does a terrific job of bringing out Steve’s ideas while challenging some of them.

Notice the big picture of Darwin behind Sullivan.

Some of the issues and questions covered:

Are we the only animals who are rational?

What might have been the selection pressures that gave rise to the evolution of rationality?

If we’re rational, why do so many people believe in paranormal phenomena, superstitions, and so on? Why do so many people reject vaccination when it seems the rational thing to do?

Re the above: how can rationality result in religious belief?

Since there are mathematical realists who believe that the structure of mathematics is “out there” somewhere, and that mathematical truths are in existence but waiting to be discovered, Sullivan wants to know if you can apply that same logic to God. (Pinker’s answer is “no”, but is very politely delivered.)

What does Pinker see as the most pervasive and problematic forms of irrationality in modern society? (#1: The “my side” bias.)

Can rational beliefs or action on the part of individual be irrational for their society?

Sullivan, speaking as a gay man, asks Pinker how to approach raising questions that could harm his community (i.e., the idea that homosexuality is produced by the behavior of one’s mother). Pinker raises two possibilities using the example of his own background, which is Jewish. (Pinker, by the way, mentions that his next book will involve the use of euphemisms, “genteel hypocrisy,” tact and taboo in producing a better society.)

A Kendi-inspired question: Is it rational to call people racists when they have no racist beliefs or intentions, but commit an act that some people see as racist (or, as Kendi might say, are not actively antiracist)? In other words, does intent matter?

Is it rational to ignore or oppose nuclear energy when it may be an important cure for global warming?

Why do iconic events like 9/11 or the murder of George Floyd lead to some irrational reactions?

How does Pinker maintain his composure in the face of continual attacks from the Left?

Have a listen!

An excerpt from Pinker’s new book and a new interview

September 30, 2021 • 9:30 am

Yesterday we discussed the Guardian’s “long read” on the life of Steve Pinker and his new book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why it Matters, which came out two days ago. We can expect a passel of publicity surrounding this book, including reviews, critiques, and interviews with Steve. I’m not going to highlight them all, of course, but the piece below, published in Quillette, is of interest because it’s an actual excerpt from the book and gives you a sense of its theme as well as its style. If you’re contemplating buying the book—which at 428 pages is a mere pamphlet compared to his bigger “doorstop” books—you’ll want to read it.

I for one thought the excerpt (probably the beginning of the book) was very good, though of course I’m biased. But I think anybody with a sense of prose has to admit that the writing is clear, succinct, and engaging, larded with Steve’s usual references to popular culture. Click on the screenshot to read for free. 

One of his main points, which he’s alluded to before, is that we cannot justify using reason from some kind of theory or first principle. (The same goes for the toolkit of procedures we call “the scientific method”, which of course stems from reason.) We use reason mainly because it works in helping us find the truth, and that is justification enough. Here’s his definition of reason, which he sees as closely aligned with but not identical to “logic”. There is also no alternative to reason if you want to have a productive discourse.

My own position on rationality is “I’m for it.” Though I cannot argue that reason is dope, phat, chill, fly, sick, or da bomb, and strictly speaking I cannot even justify or rationalize reason, I will defend the message on the mosaic: we ought to follow reason.

To begin at the beginning: what is rationality? As with most words in common usage, no definition can stipulate its meaning exactly, and the dictionary just leads us in a circle: most define rational as “having reason,” but reason itself comes from the Latin ration-, often defined as “reason.”

A definition that is more or less faithful to the way the word is used is “the ability to use knowledge to attain goals.” Knowledge in turn is standardly defined as “justified true belief.” We would not credit someone with being rational if they acted on beliefs that were known to be false, such as looking for their keys in a place they knew the keys could not be, or if those beliefs could not be justified—if they came, say, from a drug-induced vision or a hallucinated voice rather than observation of the world or inference from some other true belief.

. . . With this definition the case for rationality seems all too obvious: do you want things or don’t you? If you do, rationality is what allows you to get them.

Steve also makes the case that even people who are irrational, like anti-vaxers with no good reasons or conspiracy theorists, are not always irrational (see interview below). The same is true of postmodernists who deny the existence of any real “truth” that isn’t just a narrative designed to buttress power.

And ultimately even relativists who deny the possibility of objective truth and insist that all claims are merely the narratives of a culture lack the courage of their convictions. The cultural anthropologists or literary scholars who avow that the truths of science are merely the narratives of one culture will still have their child’s infection treated with antibiotics prescribed by a physician rather than a healing song performed by a shaman. And though relativism is often adorned with a moral halo, the moral convictions of relativists depend on a commitment to objective truth. Was slavery a myth? Was the Holocaust just one of many possible narratives? Is climate change a social construction? Or are the suffering and danger that define these events really real—claims that we know are true because of logic and evidence and objective scholarship? Now relativists stop being so relative.

There’s a lot more to digest in the piece, so I’ll give just one more bit, where, clearly mindful of the Zeitgeist, he relates reason to social justice and takes a lick at universities that, by trying to suppress free speech, are at the same time denigrating reason, the basis for persuasive speech. These words follow directly after the paragraph above. The bolding is mine:

For the same reason there can be no tradeoff between rationality and social justice or any other moral or political cause. The quest for social justice begins with the belief that certain groups are oppressed and others privileged. These are factual claims and may be mistaken (as advocates of social justice themselves insist in response to the claim that it’s straight white men who are oppressed). We affirm these beliefs because reason and evidence suggest they are true. And the quest in turn is guided by the belief that certain measures are necessary to rectify those injustices. Is leveling the playing field enough? Or have past injustices left some groups at a disadvantage that can only be set right by compensatory policies? Would particular measures merely be feel-good signaling that leaves the oppressed groups no better off? Would they make matters worse? Advocates of social justice need to know the answers to these questions, and reason is the only way we can know anything about anything.

Admittedly, the peculiar nature of the argument for reason always leaves open a loophole. In introducing the case for reason, I wrote, “As long as people are arguing and persuading…,” but that’s a big “as long as.” Rationality rejecters can refuse to play the game. They can say, “I don’t have to justify my beliefs to you. Your demands for arguments and evidence show that you are part of the problem.” Instead of feeling any need to persuade, people who are certain they are correct can impose their beliefs by force. In theocracies and autocracies, authorities censor, imprison, exile, or burn those with the wrong opinions. In democracies the force is less brutish, but people still find means to impose a belief rather than argue for it. Modern universities—oddly enough, given that their mission is to evaluate ideas—have been at the forefront of finding ways to suppress opinions, including disinviting and drowning out speakers, removing controversial teachers from the classroom, revoking offers of jobs and support, expunging contentious articles from archives, and classifying differences of opinion as punishable harassment and discrimination. They respond as Ring Lardner recalled his father doing when the writer was a boy: “‘Shut up,’ he explained.”

I’ll be reading it soon (I get a free copy as a sort of “books for boots” reciprocity).  If the words above intrigue you, I think you’ll want to read Rationality too, even if you dislike Pinker. The prose alone is worth the price.


Second, there’s an interview with Steve at Smashing Interviews Magazine (click on screenshot):

This deals with the topic broached in the title, and has a few provocative quotes. I’ll give just two. Here he’s talking about tribalism as an impediment to reason:

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Leaders of these “sides” are influencers as well. Doesn’t that compound the problem?

Steven Pinker: It does indeed. Whether the subject is vaccines or treatments or climate change, spokespeople should be chosen that are trusted by different political constituencies. So the best way of getting people to appreciate climate change is not to parade a bunch of leftists or Democratic Party spokespeople out there to tell people why they should act on climate change but find people who are libertarians or from the right.

Likewise, the best thing that could’ve happened for vaccines would have been if the press said, “Yeah. Donald Trump helped get vaccines developed and circulated quickly. So let’s give him credit for that, and everyone can take the Trump vaccine.” A lot of them would’ve rather died than said that, but it may have been more effective in getting the political right to be on board with the vaccines since so much is driven by tribalism.

and, related to that:

Smashing Interviews Magazine: In the book, you said, “We should care about people’s virtues when considering them as friends but not when considering the ideas they voice.” So we should try and separate the idiotic ideas from our friend who has high moral standards? I’m wondering how to do that (laughs).

Steven Pinker: (laughs) With friends, we’ve got to sometimes tell white lies and polite hypocrisies. But when it comes to evaluating public figures, what’s the best way to run a democracy, what’s scientifically true or false, then, yeah, we’ve got to forget who’s a nice guy and who’s a scoundrel and evaluate if what they’re saying is true or false, beneficial or harmful.

Here’s an obvious example. Thomas Jefferson was, in many ways, a despicable human being. On the other hand, he had some great ideas such as democracy. Conversely, an even more extreme example is that scientists who discovered smoking was harmful and could cause cancer were the Nazi scientists. For years, the tobacco companies said, “Oh, you can’t believe that smoking causes cancer. That’s Nazi science. Are you going to believe what the Nazis say?” Now, that was convenient for the tobacco companies, but it’s irrelevant to the question of whether smoking really does cause cancer. We did make a big mistake by discounting scientific facts because of where they came from. There is something called genetic fallacy that has nothing to do with genes or DNA. It’s an old term referring to the genesis or origin of an idea, how it was generated.

This reminds me of some readers who won’t read a post I write if the source is from the Right, and tend to discount everything from such a source.

At the end of this interview is a long disquisition by Pinker on what he thinks we need to do to “bring more people over to the rational side.”  I’ll let you read that for yourselves. Enjoy; I’m going over to get my booster shot!

McWhorter: The anti-racist “Elect” are as antiscience as the anti-vaxxer and anti-masking Right

May 20, 2021 • 1:30 pm

John McWhorter’s latest article on his Substack platform may seem a bit hyperbolic, comparing as he does the antiscientific beliefs of “the Elect”—the name he gives to Woke, ineffectual, performative anti-racists—with Trofim Lysenko, the Russian agricultural charlatan who caught Stalin’s ear and subverted Soviet agriculture for decades. As a result, there were famines, and millions died.

Well, nobody dies from adhering to the tenets of Ibram Kendi or Robin DiAngelo, but, argues McWhorter, the Elect’s disregard of the facts is just as blatant as Lysenko’s disregard of the facts of genetics. Click on the screenshot to read:

Here are the areas that, claims McWhorter, are touted as incontrovertable truths by The Elect but have little or no empirical backing.

a.) Microaggressions (I’ve indented McWhorter’s words); they are not, claims McWhorter, defined as easily as their adherents assert, nor do they correlate so clearly with real racist sentiments.

Take the idea that microaggressions are a grinding problem for black Americans, exerting significant psychological damage upon us, and motivating claims that black students ought be exempt from certain scholastic demands as well as that entire programs and schools should be transformed into Antiracism Academies. A prime motivation of this, reported endlessly, is to relieve black people of the eternal harm that microaggressions condition.

But Edward Cantu and Lee Jussim have patiently demonstrated that the academic “literature” undergirding this depiction is too full of holes to even begin to serve as the basis for societal reform. This is frankly obvious from reading almost any of the work in question – I recommend taking up just one such article and noting the hopeless circularity of argumentation – but Cantu and Jussim have done a useful job in summarizing the lot of it. The literature ignores legions of black people it surveys who deny that acts are microaggressions, does not show that supposed microaggressions correlate with racist sentiment of any kind, is based on tiny sample sizes, is never replicated, and explains away discrepancies with glum little speculations that would not pass as scientific reasoning among any evaluators not cowed by The Elect.

I’ll let the authors speak for themselves:

“Microaggression research provides a veneer of scientific credibility to vested critical premises, as those studies have statistics, p-values, and reliability coefficients, all useful for creating the appearance of scientific foundations for assumptions, so long as one does not examine the methodological details too closely. But the undertone of much microaggression research is not one of caution commensurate with the guardrails normally imposed by the scientific method.”

b.) DEI training programs.  I think we’ve all read about the studies showing that DEI training is ineffectual at both diversifying the workplace and promoting inter-racial harmony. In fact, these programs seem to increase tribalism.

Another example – the jury has long been in: “diversity, equity and inclusion” training programs simply do not work. This has been proven by many scientific surveys. These programs neither further diversify the workplace nor foster interethnic harmony (and in fact, if anything, increase it).

This literature has no effect on the flowering of these programs nationwide.

c.) Racism-based killing of African-Americans by cops.  I think the data are pretty unequivocal that there is indeed a pattern of racism in encounters between cops and citizens: we know from several studies, for example, that cops tend to stop black people more often than white, a disparity that decreases during twilight when you can’t see who’s being stopped. And we also know that cops kill black people at a higher rate than the proportion of African-Americans in the population: in fact 2.5-fold higher. But data also show that when you account for the rate of encounters that could lead to violence, this disparity disappears, for African-Americans are disproportionately involved in such encounters.

Unfortunately, McWhorter appears to defuse the “cop-racism” accusation by claiming that many more whites than blacks are murdered by cops each year. But that is not the point at issue. The point is whether the murders are disproportional to the existing demographic proportions, which is undeniable, and whether those murders reflect racial animus or encounter rates (the latter seems to be the case). This is how McWhorter attacks the “nonscientific” claim of police racism:

As I mentioned in this space, it is an article of faith among The Elect that the cops murder black men out of racist bias. Arguments that the data do not demonstrate this are ignored as serenely as evidence against The Big Lie. Never mind that Roland Fryer has shown that when push comes to shove, it’s whites who are more likely to be murdered by cops; never mind calm, authoritative reports on these issues by black writers like Coleman Hughes; never mind that the numbers alone show that the cops murder many, many more whites a year than blacks.

Instead, we are demanded to assent to an idea that the United States is occupied by a murderously racist police force, as the media scrupulously neglect the myriad killings of whites by cops, leaving black people under the understandable impression that it’s only black people who the cops come after. (Remember, the fact that black people are 2.5 times more likely to be killed than our proportion in the population would predict is a statistic known mostly to policy wonks – what primarily moves people to protest is the news, not this statistic.)

However, the Big Lie is hidden in the sentence below, but isn’t so clear in the above:

Never mind that Roland Fryer has shown that when push comes to shove, it’s whites who are more likely to be murdered by cops. . . .

A world of nuance is hidden in that link there, so have a look at it. Context is everything.

d.) “Systemic racism.” This has long been a beef of mine because I always thought of “systemic racism” as “racism codified within a system,” like legal segregation or policies concocted to promote racism (like voting laws).  Now, however, it seems to have become synonymous with “racism” in general, or, in a way I’d rather construe it, as “a systematic pattern of racism within an institution, even if it’s not codified.”  Yes, the idea of pervasive systemic racism in nearly every institution is presented as an unassailable truth, which I guess you could claim is a “scientific assertion.” And in that sense it doesn’t hold water, for part of the claim is that if there is a pattern of “unequal representation”, or “inequity”, it MUST perforce reflect racism in the institution at hand and at the present time. That idea comes straight from Ibram X. Kendi, and it’s an unexamined assertion in his book How to be an Antiracist. 

This even goes for academic departments in my University, despite the palpable lack of racism in the hiring process and desperate attempts to achieve diversity and equity (I’m not talking about “pipeline” problems tracing back to centuries-old racism). The assumption that unequal representation unquestionably reflects bigotry is clearly unscientific, and can be dispelled by data from the American Medical Association on the proportion of men vs. women in various medical specialities:

Based on key findings, women make up a larger percentage of residents in:

    • Family medicine (about 58 percent)
    • Psychiatry (about 57 percent)
    • Pediatrics (about 75 percent)
    • Obstetrics/gynecology (about 85 percent)

The data show male residents prefer to specialize in:

    • Surgery (about 59 percent)
    • Emergency medicine (about 62 percent)
    • Anesthesiology (about 63 percent)
    • Radiology (about 73 percent)
    • Internal medicine (about 54 percent)

Note that the AMA uses the word “prefer to specialize”, emphasizing that these data must reflect some element of preference rather than purely bigotry (though there may be some bigotry involved). But I’ve never heard anybody say that there are fewer male pediatricians because they are the victims of a bigoted medical system. These data may largely reflect preferences held, either culturally or genetically, by the two sexes.

McWhorter closes saying something he’s said before: it’s useless to argue with The Elect about these issues—just as useless as it would have been to argue with Lysenko about genetics. McWhorter goes after the open-minded and those on the fence, just as people like Richard Dawkins aim their anti-theism not at staunch theists, but at the young and those with doubts.

Be that as it may, you may think that McWhorter is exaggerating when he says stuff like this:

Of course, The Elect are not exerting the physical violence and assassinations that Stalinists exerted. My comparison is of the relevant frames of mind. However, The Elect are indeed doing great harm to our society. Anyone who thinks the transformation of our educational establishment is not a real problem is someone I’m not sure I quite understand. And it may be only me who is chilled, disgusted and frightened to see an enlightened Establishment being transformed not by suasion but by simple fear. However, I doubt it, and simply cannot see that what happened in Washington, DC last January means that my concerns are trivial.

The mask-resistant person who sits soberly insisting that Joe Biden stole the election should mystify and appall us no more than the people soberly insisting that microaggressions saddle black people with ongoing PTSD, that organizations will benefit from DEI programs, that any claim of victimization from a descendant of an African slave is automatically valid, that black people should walk in eternal fear of being iced by a cop, that any way that whites and blacks are not equal is due to bigotry “somehow,” and that to disagree with these claims is to be a backwards, heartless pig.

He’s got a point here, but we’re become inured to the unscientific and often non-rational claims of The Woke simply because it costs too much, psychically and reputationally, to oppose them.


Lysenko and his big buddy, Stalin: