Stephen Pinker is a member of the intellectual elite

Via Crooked Timber, Stephen Pinker has a new book about the relative non-violence of modern times.  Interviewed by John Naughton in the Guardian about the new book, Pinker has this to say:

JN: One of the most intriguing tables in the book is the one on page 195, which takes the death toll from distant atrocities, estimates what proportion of the contemporary population that toll represents and then computes what the corresponding proportion of the mid-20th century population would be. So the Mongol conquests of the 13th century, for example, killed 40 million people, which corresponds to 278 million in 1950s terms. Now although 40 million is obviously a huge number, converting it into its modern equivalent makes one see it in a rather different light. Somewhere in the book you make a similar point about 9/11: the attacks killed 3,000 people, which of course is terrible at one level. But as a proportion of the US population, the death toll from the attack on the Twin Towers is, relatively speaking, infinitesimal. (That doesn’t mean, obviously, that those deaths did not have a devastating impact on the friends and families of those who died.) So maybe one reason why we have such a warped historical perspective on the history of violence is down to what you call “the innumeracy of our journalistic and intellectual culture”?

SP: I think that a failure of statistical thinking is the major intellectual shortcoming of our universities, journalism and intellectual culture. Cognitive psychology tells us that the unaided human mind is vulnerable to many fallacies and illusions because of its reliance on its memory for vivid anecdotes rather than systematic statistics. Yet pundits continue to hallucinate trends in freak events, like the Norwegian sniper (who shot all those young people on an island) and make wildly innumerate comparisons, such as between Afghanistan and Vietnam, or between today’s human trafficking and the African slave trade. It’s a holdover of the literary sensibilities of our science-flunking intellectual elite, who would be aghast if someone didn’t know who Milton was, but cheerfully flaunt their ignorance of basic science and mathematics. I lobbied – unsuccessfully – for a course requirement at Harvard in statistical and logical reasoning.

It’s remarkable how I can agree in every particular with what Pinker has to say here, yet find completely off-putting his way of expressing it.  It is true that quantitative argument in the public sphere is in a sorry state;  that our military apparatus has worked very hard over the years to minimize the role of indiscriminate slaughter as an instrument of foreign policy; that people could be much better than they are at pushing back against their cognitive biases, and could even stand to be formally trained in so doing.

But you know who’s in the intellectual elite?  Stephen Pinker! And me!  And lots of other scientists and mathematicians!  Do people really “cheerfully flaunt” their ignorance of science and math?  They do not — they apologize for it.  Because science and math carry intense prestige.  Go around saying “Society can get along fine without the study of literature” and you’re a hard-nosed realist willing to make tough choices in hard times.  Try it with “Society can get along fine without scientists and engineers” and you’re laughed out of town.

Or try this:  Stephen Pinker, a cognitive psychologist, spent a sabbatical year researching and writing a 700-page book about the history of the world over many centuries.  His book is being respectfully reviewed everywhere and he’s interviewed in the Guardian.  What if a historian spent a sabbatical year researching and writing a 700-page book about cognitive function in humans, animals, and machines?  Would you have heard about it?

Scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, the quantitative tribe, have a very loud voice, inside the university and outside.  We are the ones who shape the way the public thinks about quantitative questions, and we have a responsibility to use our power for good.

Oh yeah, and:  Harvard does have a quantitative reasoning requirement, and has for decades.  Pinker may take issue with the fact that you can meet this course requirement by taking calculus or linear algebra or passing a placement test, and I think there’s a reasonable case for that.  But his quote makes it sound as if Harvard thinks those subjects are expendable.  On the contrary:  it’s hard to graduate from Harvard without taking any science or math, and very easy to graduate without reading Milton, Shakespeare, or the Bible.

Update:  I forgot I wanted to include this little gem from Crooked Timber commenter William Timberman:

Without arguing whether or not we’ve outdone the Romans or the Huns, it does seem safe to say that we’ve become more and more adept at breaking eggs, yet the promised omelets seem no more forthcoming than they were in Roman times, and when they are, the list of invitations to dine on them has been just as rigorously limited.

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8 thoughts on “Stephen Pinker is a member of the intellectual elite

  1. Victor Miller says:

    Hi Jordan, I have to come down more on Pinker’s side here. It’s not just a matter of a lot of the “humanities crowd” (whom I respect a great deal in many ways) being sheepish about their ignorance of math. They may pay lip service to the importance of math and science, but the good quantitative judgement isn’t there for day to day reasoning.

    I just attended a really nice talk by Neil Sloane on sphere packing (and other associated things). He spent the first 10 minutes of the talk mentioning a book by a well respected Oxford scholar (who wasn’t a mathematician) about the subject, and was riddled with misperceptions and errors. Actually this confounded me a bit, since, I would have thought that if someone were writing a book containing technical matter not in their field that they would have had handy experts to consult. And there are certainly a bunch of them at Oxford!

  2. Ira L. says:

    Tom Lehrer answered to Pinker a long time ago. While we in mathematics enjoy quantitative arguments, this confidence in one’s field being supreme over all others is a typical academic snobbery best to be ignored.

  3. Jay says:

    I think your claims of (un)acceptability of ignorance of math are a bit off. Although people certainly don’t think it’s shrewd or acceptable to say that there should not be math (et co.) in our society, it still is very acceptable for people to boast that they personally hate and avoid math. Math is only okay if they don’t have to deal with it. None of them consider by contrast how plainly ignorant it would sound if they replaced “math” with “history” or “reading” in their claims of hatred. And they feel so completely licensed by society to hate math that they show no hesitation to boast of it even to me, whom they know to be a mathematician.

  4. Jay says:

    oops forgot to sub to follow-up comments

  5. Nadia Hassan says:

    Not a quant (now….might switch to theoretical ecology in a couple of years), but a couple of points.

    It’s not hard to find examples of people admitting they don’t get quantitatively oriented subject matter. David Brooks has said, this. In an article on Ian McEwan, his wife mentioned something similar. You can see it in comment boards, too. I remember reading something to the effect of “I don’t have the science gene” in response to a diet article. I doubt that Pinker’s choice of words is apt to describe why people feel the way they do towards science and math-intensive subjects.

    A lot of folks seem to say, “I just didn’t get it” because a lot of others don’t. This might drive some of the admiration of quants. Cathy mentioned on her blog that people looked at her like she had super powers because she could do math. One downside of this dynamic could be that people conclude that good quantitative and statistical reasoning isn’t for them, and something those folks with those abilities do.

    Secondly, does this reflect a mentality of “Oh. My. God. You’ve never read Sophocles. Dante, Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, etc” to the extent Pinker suggests? Over 150 Republicans in Congress supported abolishing the NEA funding altogether. NEA grants actually make a lot of Shakespeare productions possible, and government funding is pretty important for live theater. I don’t know that it would be difficult to find examples of many of these same representatives distort numbers. Indeed, some of these same members of Congress want to get rid of the Congressional Budget Office and made some pretty misleading claims about health care reform and financial reform. This crowd probably has its fair share of shoddy usage of statistics, and it doesn’t seem like you can attribute that to a literary sensibility with them. Of course, one can claim that they’re not intellectual elites fairly, but they’re definitely a group that practices innumeracy in public discourse.

  6. Ruthi says:

    I dunno, I’ve had an argument with a mathematics student who was of the opinion that history was irrelevant when considering a situation. You may have an argument for reading though.

  7. qrr says:

    Pinker makes similar pro-quant remarks in various places (e.g., his review of Malcolm Gladwell’s book with the infamous “igon values”). I think they can be read as addressed to his colleagues, shots fired in the eternal quant vs qual power struggle within psychology and in broader academia. However, contra the blog posting, he is very much in an informed position to criticize the lack of teeth in the quantitative requirements at Harvard and most other US universities, and was hardly shooting from the hip:

    -Pinker was well aware of the QRR / Gen Ed “quantitative reasoning requirement” at Harvard when making his remarks. He was on the Gen Ed committee.

    -As psychology department chairman Pinker sat on committees that decide how much additional quantitative requirement to impose on psych concentrators. Due to the risk of alienating potential majors who are weak in math, it is strategic to shift the burden to a university-wide math and science requirement of the kind that he advocated.

    -Pinker also experienced the difference between teaching a cognitive science class at MIT, his previous employer, and at Harvard. At some point there is a need to use equations and mathematical ideas and it can be painful to see what happens to the I-hate-math crowd on such occasions. To some extent there is insulation by having TAs handle sections and office hours but the professor still gets a view of things when exams are graded.

    As far as quantitative requirements are concerned Pinker is as much of an informed stakeholder as anyone at Harvard.

  8. […] more thing about the Stephen Pinker interview in the Guardian, previously kvetched about here in October.  The interview leads with a very strange table, which lists mass killings (mostly wars, with a […]

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