All posts filed under: Top Stories

Steven Pinker: Counter-Enlightenment Convictions are ‘Surprisingly Resilient’

Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist and is the author of several books including Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress published by Viking Press earlier this year. Editors at Quillette contacted Professor Pinker for a Q&A: what follows is a transcript of our Q&A, conducted via email. On Psychology Quillette: What are some of the classic experiments in psychology that you think an educated person should know about? Steven Pinker: Where to begin? I’d cite studies of illusions and biases, to remind people of the fallibility of our perceptual and cognitive faculties. These would include experiments on visual attention by the late Anne Treisman and others showing that people are unaware of visual material they don’t attend to, together with any experiment on memory showing how un-photographic our recollections are (for example, Elizabeth Loftus’s studies on the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, or even the low-tech study in which people are asked to draw a penny, an object they have seen thousands of times). Let’s add Slovic, Tversky, and Kahneman’s demonstrations of illusions in reasoning about …

Towards a Cognitive Theory of Politics

In recent years, a consensus has been forming about how we reason and develop the opinions we defend. In his influential 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt argued that the first principle of moral psychology is: Intuition comes first and reasoning follows. Intuition is the reflexive gut feeling of like or dislike we experience in response to the things we see in the social world around us. In Thinking Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman observed that conscious reasoning requires language, the construction of an argument, and therefore time, so it can happen only after our intuition has already told us whether we approve or disapprove of something. In their book The Enigma of Reason, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argue that the main evolved purpose of reason is to justify our intuitions and to persuade others that our own intuitions are correct. When it comes to social issues that we care about, reason is usually a post hoc rationalization of feelings already felt and decisions already taken. …

Is the Internet Complete?

In 2013, a debate was held between friends Peter Thiel and Marc Andreessen, the thrust of which was to determine whether we are living through an innovation golden age, or whether innovation was in fact stalling. Thiel, of course, played the innovation sceptic, and it is interesting now with five years remove to look back on the debate to see how history has vindicated his position. In short all of those things that were ‘just around the corner’ in 2013 are, sure enough, still ‘just around the corner.’ One strand of Thiel’s argument at the time (and since) was that the ostentatious progress made in computing in the last 15 years has blinded us to the lack of technological progress made elsewhere. We can hardly have failed to notice the internet revolution, and thus we map that progress onto everything, assuming that innovation is a cosmic force rather than something which happens on a piecemeal basis. Certainly, this argument has gained more traction since 2013. However, in this piece I’d like to add an extra …

Kevin Williamson Is Not a Free Speech Martyr

Just so we’re clear, this is how a hanging works. A gallows is erected, frequently in public. The rope is either long or short. With a long rope, the condemned person drops a certain distance and, at the bottom, her neck is snapped. This is quick and presumably relatively painless – if it works. With a short rope, or a rope not long enough, the person simply dangles by the neck from a loop that constricts her airway and blood vessels. Her hands are bound, so she cannot grasp at the rope. When the instinct to struggle sets in, she flails with her whole body, while she finds herself unable to breathe and while blood is cut off from her head, all of this happening with the force of her own weight cinching the rope more tightly around her neck. Eventually she will pass out, and then die; but first she will likely experience great terror, and probably a fair amount of pain. The short-rope strangulation is the sort that is used in the common …

A Life of Pretending: Being Egyptian and Atheist

Note: All the names in this story have been changed, aside from those of public personalities. The sun was almost directly overhead as I slipped out from the rambling alleys of the Khan al- Khalili into the open square. Al-Hussein Mosque towered ahead to the north. The call to prayer blasted from its pencil minaret, its solemn strains echoed by a cacophony of loudspeakers across the city. Exhausted and craving coffee, I headed for the strip of tourist-trap cafés lining the square’s western edge, and was barely seated when a young Egyptian couple motioned for me to join them for a game of backgammon. As I’d come to expect after nearly a dozen visits to Egypt over the years, the question of religious identity came up within a minute, and I answered honestly. Just as often I’d opted to lie, claiming to be Christian for civility’s sake, but I told this stylish young couple the truth: I’m not religious. A host of experiences answering the same question across Egypt had me braced for a look …

The Stifling Uniformity of Literary Theory

In 1976, the Nobel-prize winning economist, F.A. Hayek, published The Mirage of Social Justice, the second volume of his magnum opus Law, Legislation and Liberty.1 Despite being widely regarded as the definitive critique of social justice, today one would be lucky to find advocates of social justice in the academy who are familiar with the name ‘Hayek’, let alone those who have read him. Among classical liberals, libertarians, and conservatives alike, Hayek is one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century whose The Road to Serfdom represents one of the most powerful arguments against socialism ever written.2 But those in the academy who have perpetuated socialist ideas since the 1980s have practically ignored it. In this article, I will argue that this unwillingness to engage with the ‘other side’ is not only endemic in the radical intellectual schools that have overtaken literary studies, but also that it is symptomatic of their entire way of thinking which, being hermetically sealed and basically circular in its argumentation, has no language to deal with critics beyond …

Diversity and the Concert Hall

Orchestras have had a rough time lately. Rising deficits, inadequate facilities, internal financial squabbles, and an overall lack of interest from the general public have provided more than their share of hurdles for these venerable institutions. Now, in addition to these looming obstacles, orchestras are being faced with a whole new challenge: the call to diversify their programs with more music written by women and minority composers. To get ahead of this cultural trend, several institutions have started initiatives to synthetically bolster the number of performed works by composers in these aforementioned groups. In February, the BBC Proms announced plans for fully half of all new commissions to be granted to women composers by 2022. Earlier in March, the website ICareIfYouListen responded to a tweet accusing them of unconscious bias by reaffirming their commitment to “equitable programming” with a primary interest in “promoting the work of historically underrepresented and marginalized artists.” The website also detailed its apparently already existing policy of “turning down 100% of concert reviews and album reviews that feature works by all white men, with the only exceptions being portrait …