Friday, August 16, 2013

The Entire Shallowness of Steven Pinker's Scholarship

Updated with apology below.

As I said, Steven Pinker's article is quite a rats nest and thinking about those being exposed to it who haven't read any background, being sold one bad assertion after another through it, can keep you from falling back to sleep.   People with power and influence read him and The New Republic, the distortion of reality he peddles might just get people killed.

This point was interesting to me because it impinges so directly on a post I recently wrote on the very subject of the causes of World War I as observed and analyzed by Vernon Kellogg one of the most eminent American biologists of his generation, one of the more well known exponents of Darwinism.  Pinker said:

Demonizers of scientism often confuse intelligibility with a sin called reductionism. But to explain a complex happening in terms of deeper principles is not to discard its richness. No sane thinker would try to explain World War I in the language of physics, chemistry, and biology as opposed to the more perspicuous language of the perceptions and goals of leaders in 1914 Europe. At the same time, a curious person can legitimately ask why human minds are apt to have such perceptions and goals, including the tribalism, overconfidence, and sense of honor that fell into a deadly combination at that historical moment.

There just happens to be direct observation that was made of that war in response to Pinker's assertion.  We have a very rare account of a fact finding, peace mission by Vernon Kellogg before America entered the war in which he found that one side of that war did understand it in terms of biology.  He began as a pacifist opposed to the war but what he found by way of reductionist thinking terrified him to the extent that he came to the conclusion that America had to enter the war to defeat the scientific reductionism he saw as demonic.

Well, I say it dispassionately but with conviction: if I understand theirs, it is a point of view that will never allow any land or people controlled by it to exist peacefully by the side of a people governed by our point of view. For their point of view does not permit of a live-and-let-live kind of carrying on. It is a point of view that justifies itself by a whole-hearted acceptance of the worst of Neo-Darwinism, the Allmacht of natural selection applied rigorously to human life and society and Kultur. 

Professor von Flussen — that is not his name — is a biologist. So am I. So we talked out the biological argument for war, and especially for this war. The captain-professor has a logically constructed argument why, for the good of the world, there should be this war, and why, for the good of the world, the Germans should win it, win it completely and terribly. Perhaps I can state his argument clearly enough, so that others may see and accept his reasons, too. Unfortunately for the peace of our evenings, I was never convinced. That is, never convinced that for the good of the world the Germans should win this war, completely and terribly. I was convinced, however, that this war, once begun, must be fought to a finish of decision — a finish that will determine whether or not Germany's point of view is to rule the world. And this conviction, thus gained, meant the conversion of a pacifist to an ardent supporter, not of War, but of this war; of fighting this war to a definitive end — that end to be Germany's conversion to be a good Germany, or not much of any Germany at all. My 'Headquarters Nights' are the confessions of a converted pacifist. 

So, one of the most eminent American biologists of his time, a champion of Darwinism, encountered exactly what Pinker discounts as a cause of World War I as being the understanding and motivation of the war, in so far as Germany was involved with it.  The reduction of human reality into something like natural selection doesn't only cause analytical problems in scientifically confronting the vastly wider world of experience, it also, when practiced by those with political and military power, has causal power.

The extent to which the British side and other sides saw the war in terms of "tribalism" that tribalism was, by then, fully informed by the scientific reduction of evolution, the creation AND SURVIVAL OF SPECIES in predominately biological terms, in specifically Darwinian terms.  The early enlightenment ideal as stated by Schiller and set by Beethoven, "All men will be brothers" was crushed by the struggle for life and the survival of the fittest - a term that Darwin, himself equated with natural selection in the fifth edition of On The Origin of Species.   By the time of the First World War, fifty-five years had passed since the publication of Origin of Species, the generation that sponsored and created that war was thoroughly indoctrinated in that view of life, especially the educated classes in the respective sides of the conflict. Darwin was a national icon in Britain, as testified by his burial in Westminster Abby in as highly honored a place as they could have put him.  We certainly know that Darwinism influenced government policy in other areas, it is nonsense to think that something so entwined with nationalism, racial identity as war would not have been intimately influenced by it and its further developments in the decades between the first generation of Darwinists and the WWI generation - some of them were still alive and exercising their maximum influence.  To discount the scientific contribution to their understanding of their war is historical distortion.

I gave a far longer excerpt from Kellogg at the link above with a link to his entire book, Headquarters  Nights.  His very scientifically informed eye-witness put it this way.

Professor von Flussen is Neo-Darwinian, as are most German biologists and natural philosophers. The creed of the Allmacht of a natural selection based on violent and fatal competitive struggle is the gospel of the German intellectuals; all else is illusion and anathema. The mutual-aid principle is recognized only as restricted to its application within limited groups. For instance, it may and does exist, and to positive biological benefit, within single ant communities, but the different ant kinds fight desperately with each other, the stronger destroying or enslaving the weaker. Similarly, it may exist to advantage within the limits of organized human groups — as those which are ethnographically, nationally, or otherwise variously delimited. But as with the different ant species, struggle — bitter, ruthless struggle — is the rule among the different human groups. This struggle not only must go on, for that is the natural law, but it should go on, so that this natural law may work out in its cruel, inevitable way the salvation of the human species. By its salvation is meant its desirable natural evolution. That human group which is in the most advanced evolutionary stage as regards internal organization and form of social relationship is best, and should, for the sake of the species, be preserved at the expense of the less advanced, the less effective. It should win in the struggle for existence, and this struggle should occur precisely that the various types may be tested, and the best not only preserved, but put in position to impose its kind of social organization — its Kultur — on the others, or, alternatively, to destroy and replace them. 

Well, just in terms of the first requirement of science or any scholarly study,  Kellogg was there to make the direct observation of the contribution of science in motivating the war,  Pinker wasn't. Kellogg's analysis is actual evidence, Pinker's is a mere assertion of ideology.   

Pinker is generally on the side of recent scientific warfare that Gould and Lewontin identify as ultra-Darwinist, of seeing things as being primarily driven by adaptations that are biologically inherited.   A case could be made that his side of that ideological dispute in science is not that far removed from Kellogg's "von Flussen".   What could be made of that could be interesting.  In one of his recent books,  "The Better Angels of Our Nature," Pinker made a pretty ridiculous and statistically incompetent panglossian assertion that modern life has become so much less violent than in the past, including some remarkably naive and pseudo-scientific assertions.   Every time I dip into his writing I find that it is thoroughly and transparently ideological and entirely opportunistic in its choices of authorities cited.*   The scary thing is that this is the kind of stuff that gets published in influential and even near-influential journals and is thoroughly believed on its identification as a scientific view point, as presented by someone held to high standards of accuracy and rigorous scholarship when it is certainly not.   We haven't progressed at all from the standards current in 1914.  If anything, I think it's gotten a lot worse. 

In light of the above, his next paragraph reads like totally empty and hollow a collection of bromides and slogans as comprise the intellectual pose of his school of scientistic ideology.

The second ideal is that the acquisition of knowledge is hard. The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings, and even if it did, our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies, and super- stitions. Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge. To understand the world, we must cultivate work-arounds for our cognitive limitations, including skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests, often requiring feats of ingenuity. Any movement that calls itself “scientific” but fails to nurture opportunities for the falsification of its own beliefs (most obviously when it murders or imprisons the people who disagree with it) is not a scientific movement.

Yet that is what people really believe to be the real character of science as it really exists in the real world. 

*  Look at the last link for Craig S. Lerner's discussion of the "measurement" of presidents' IQs who died before IQ was invented.   To see how scientific the "study" was, it managed to assign an IQ to President Kennedy that is far different from the one he actually tested at during his lifetime.  Just to show you how reliable that reduction of intelligence into a numerical measure can be seen to be.   There has been other criticism of the book for its credulous historical citations,  its absurd statistical method and other problems with it. 

Update:  I just noticed that when I was typing this out my word processor was set at automatic spell correction, which can produce some rather unintentional Dada style prose.  I've corrected as much of that as I can in this quick re-edit.  I doubt it will be the last one.  As I've said before, one of my first discoveries in the early weeks of my blogging career is that a man who acts as his own editor has a blogger for a client.   You'll know I've won the lottery when my posts exhibit signs of competent editing.  


  1. Where to begin? With Pinker's preference for reducing complex scholarly and scientific issues into convenient and easily digestible "principles" which won't disturb the dust on the bowl of rose leaves in the mind of any reader of "The New Republic"?

    Or with this?

    Most of the traditional causes of belief—faith, revelation, dogma, authority, charisma, conventional wisdom, the invigorating glow of subjective certainty—are generators of error and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.

    I swear William James would eat this man for lunch, and Wittgenstein wouldn't bother to notice him. Hume would wonder what kind of public idiot he was. First the very idea that "belief" is based on irrational acceptance of things that aren't true. Do I know that the world is composed of atomic material? Or do I accept that as true because I read it in a book somewhere? And what is the difference, to me, between accepting that truth, and confessing the truths of Christianity? The latter is belief, but the former is known to me? How?

    If I don't accept the very idea of atomic theory, then I don't accept the results of the last experiments from the supercollider in Cern. How can I? Those results are interpretations made in a system of thought I am told I should believe in, because I cannot possible empirically known for myself the truth of that entire system of thought. I cannot reconstruct all the experiments, follow all the mathematics, reproduce the insights of physicists. I accept it as true: I believe it.

    What else can I do? It makes sense. I'm told it explains the workings of computers and automobile engines and nuclear reactors. So it must be true? Why? Because I believe it....

    And I believe it based on dogma, authority (am I going to argue with Einstein? Hawking? Schrodinger?), conventional wisdom (nothing more conventional than atomic theory these days), and even "the invigorating glow of subjective certainty" ("We are smart! We make things go!").

    That latter is exactly the glow Pinker exudes, especially the further he moves from the field he was trained in, and the more he writes for popular consumption.

    What a maroon.

  2. I once asked someone pushing that line if they had verified all of the proofs of all of the mathematics they used in their scientific work, not to mention going through all of the data and other material in scientific papers. When I found out, during the Marc Hauser scandal that even the reviewers didn't look at those things, even when they could easily go look at them, I couldn't believe it. I think most areas of the humanities practice a higher level of review than the social sciences, including Pinker's field, do.

    Frankly, if he'd straighten his hair and cut it short he'd be unknown outside of his professional specialty today. It was the hair that was the entire basis of his fame and fortune.

  3. As Whitehead said, all of Western philosophy is just a footnote to Plato. Which means you have to know your Plato, not just have heard of his conclusions.

    I hadn't thought much of it, but there is a fundamental distinction to be drawn there.

    Really good work in literary criticism, literary history, philosophy, and theology, as well as jurisprudence (the areas I'm trained in) require a constant reassessment of source materials, and a constant awareness of them. Unless you are shifting a Kuhnian paradigm, on the other hand, I think you could validly say science takes more of its preceding work on faith than the humanities do.


  4. It was the hair that was the entire basis of his fame and fortune.

    Don't think he doesn't know that, too.

    (I get the impression from the bloggers at Crooked Timber that he isn't that highly regarded in academic circles. Why am I not surprised?)

  5. I've always been told I had nice hair, if I'd only known I could parley that into fame and fortune and a position at Harvard. Well, the last one wouldn't have appealed much to me. Maybe a good public university...

    I'm reminded of the character in the early days of Peanuts who was always going on about her "naturally curly hair".

    Ours is a superficial age with so much to be sifted out by the sifter of time.

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  7. Again, sorry. That part at the end is out of line and mean.
    What do you think of Haidt and his Righteous Mind, Anthony? Another questionable "social scientist." Have you written about that? Haidt and Pinker are cut from the same cloth.

  8. "remarkably naive and pseudo-scientific"

    Linked article removed.

    PS, this is good

  9. Like most good and devout reductionists, Pinker misses the nature of the mistakes involved, and therefore dismisses their consequences. Reductionism is a a pathology of logic, the formulation of a problem in inapplicable, usually quantitative conceptual terms. "Who is the best long distance runner who ever lived?" could be answered by a number, the one with the shortest time for a given event. If the best mile runner was not the same person as the best marathon runner, we should have to specify more carefully what we mean by "long distance." "Who was the best songwriter?" could also be answered by numbers, especially sales figures. But that procedure would give us Andrew Lloyd Webber, who is universally reviled among competent musicians and songwriters of every stripe. There is no quantitative answer to such a question, hence in any real sense, no answer at all. Absent the potential for an objective, quantitative or quasi-quantitative answer, the kinds of dogmatic certainty that Pinker yearns for and affects to achieve are out of the question; as are, grosso modo, the "results" he so shamelessly trumpets.

    1. He might understand it if you asked "Who was the best linguist who ever lived?" and the top ten didn't include Pinker. But even then he might not get the point. He is one of the most obtuse of those who are deemed some kind of public scientist (I will not classify them as intellectuals because they demean the intellect) in a list that would certainly include Daniel Dennett and other reductionists.

      "A pathology of logic" that's really good, a really good way to think about it. Logic disabled by those who refuse to see that their reduction is inadequate and the answers they'll get from that are inadequate.