Tag Archives: stephen pinker

Dead people are not numerators

One more thing about the Steven 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 sprinkling of famines and non-state-certified genocides) and ranks them by “Death Toll (2oC equivalent.)  “The table takes past conflicts and tyrannies,” the Guardian explains, “and recalibrates their death tolls so their scale can be compared directly.”  In other words, you take the total death toll and you divide by the world population at the time; a single murder two thousand years ago is the equivalent, in this sense, of a 20-person killing spree now.

Bad idea!  I wrote in Slate a while ago about the folly of computations of this kind — in particular, why killing one Israeli is not the “equivalent” of killing 47 Americans.

(Not to mention the fact that the table asks us to compare “The Middle East Slave Trade,” which took 1200 years to rack up its total of 132 million “20th century deaths” (constituting 18m actual slaves), to World War II, which killed its 55m in half a decade.)

None of which is meant to argue against the thesis of Pinker’s book, which seems pretty uncontroversial.   I haven’t read it, but there’s no doubt that Pinker has access to, and uses, more sophisticated quantitative methodology than dividing one number by another and calling it a day.

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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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