Features, Interview, Politics, Social Science

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 Progresspublished 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 probability and risk. Overconfidence and the Lake Wobegon Effect (everyone is above average). Cognitive dissonance and our self-serving rationalizations. The Fundamental Attribution Error — we overestimate the importance of individual traits, and underestimate the power of the situation. And the basic findings of behavioral genetics: that all individual differences are partly heritable.

Q: Who is the most underrated psychologist of the 20-21st Century?

SP: Judith Rich Harris, who was kicked out of the graduate program in my department (Harvard psychology) in the 1960s because she “didn’t fit the stereotype of a psychology grad student”), and after writing several textbooks, came out in 1998 with The Nurture Assumption, the first book on parenting and personality that took the results of behavioral genetics seriously. She showed that people (including psychologists) were deluded by the heritability of personality into overestimating the effects of parenting on personality, and that peers, not parents, are the primary socializers of children.

Q: Who is the most overrated (or most influential beyond the strength of their theories)?

SP: The “attachment theorists,” for the same reason — all studies of the effects of parenting on anything are fatally confounded by genetics unless they use adoptees, twins, or polygenic scores.

On Art

Q: Your latest book places a great deal of emphasis on the value of reason and its contribution to human progress. What role do music, poetry, dance, painting, the novel etc play in human self-understanding and flourishing? Are there areas of the human condition that the best art can illuminate that reason and empiricism cannot?

SP: In The Better Angels of Our Nature I endorsed the theory from Lynn Hunt, Martha Nussbaum, and others, that realistic fiction encourages readers to put themselves in the shoes of others unlike themselves, expands their circle of empathy, and makes them more receptive to humanitarian reforms such as the abolition of slavery and torture. There is some evidence from psychology studies of empathy for the hypothesis, though it is far from proven. Ironically, literary scholars tend to hate this theory—it seems to make fiction too utilitarian, too Oprah.

Q: Elon Musk has responded to your arguments about AI by distinguishing functional/narrow AI (used for cars) from general AI which apparently has the potential to be many millions of times more powerful than narrow AI. Do you still hold the same views on AI given this distinction?

SP: “General AI” does not exist at present, and is probably an incoherent concept: a sloppy extrapolation of individual differences among human beings. Intelligence has to be defined relative to goals and the knowledge needed to attain them. In any case the argument against the doomsday fear-mongering of existing AI extends to more powerful systems: any system that monomaniacally pursued one goal (such as making paperclips) while being oblivious to every other goal (such as not turning human beings into paperclips) is not artificially intelligent: it’s artificially stupid, and unlike anything a technologically sophisticated society would ever invent and empower. And scenarios in which the systems take over themselves commit the fallacy that intelligence implies a will to power, which comes from confusing two traits that just happened to come bundled in Homo sapiens because we are products of Darwinian natural selection.

On the Academy

Q: There has been much discussion on Quillette and at Heterodox Academy about the leftist tilt of the academy, especially within the social sciences and the humanities. Yet some of our critics have argued that these concerns are overblown. How does one strike the balance between scrutinizing academic trends without becoming pessimistic or alarmist about the state of education in general?

SP: As with anything else, empirical data are essential: one has to assess how orthodox, how intolerant, how narrow professors and students truly are, and compare them (as best one can) to comparable data from the past. The Heterodox people have cited some alarming trends, though recent findings from the General Social Survey (analyzed by Justin Murphy) indicate that support for free speech (in principle) remains strong.

On fostering dialogue and open inquiry

Q: Part of the cause of our current polarisation seems to be a narrowing on all sides of the scope of reasonable disagreement. Where might a reasonable person put those limits? Is there, in other words, a means by which you distinguish between ideas so beyond the pale that they must be opposed and those about which reasonable people of goodwill ought to be able to differ in good faith?

SP: The answer must differ when it comes to the law (where the question is the exertion of government force) and the academy (where it concerns the institution’s goal of developing knowledge). One can endorse the neo-Nazis’ right to publish and demonstrate without inviting them to give a departmental colloquium or a slot on the op-ed page. In the case of the university, the criteria should include scholarly thoroughness, intellectual rigor, and the absence of an obvious motive to demonize or antagonize for its own sake. It’s clear that many of the famous protestees have in fact met this standard and have been persecuted simply because their views are heterodox.

Q: What can some of the thinkers from the 17th and 18th Centuries teach us about the importance of reason and open inquiry? What do you think they would say to us today, particularly if they were to come and visit our university campuses?

SP: I can’t get into their heads to answer the question, but it’s not really the right question. Some Second Culture critics and religious apologists have misunderstood the point of the book as arguing that the Enlightenment philosophes were a bunch of great guys and we should venerate them and credit them for everything that went right in the past 250 years while absolving them for what went wrong. They think that I’ve set up a contest between my saints, heroes, messiahs, and great men and theirs. In fact, it’s the ideals of reason, science, and humanism that I’m endorsing, and I use “the Enlightenment” as a handy rubric for that set of ideals (since their most vehement and enduring expression can be found in that era). For all I know, if Voltaire or Leibniz or Kant stepped out of a time machine and commented on today’s political controversies, we’d think they were out to lunch.

On Enlightenment Now

Q: What is the best counter-argument you have encountered to your general thesis?

SP: I can’t answer this: Enlightenment Now makes a number of arguments, rather than having a general thesis, and there are counter-arguments to many of its points that can’t be ranked in terms of “the best.”

Q: In your book, you anticipate your critics by outlining some of the causes of what you call ‘progressophobia.’ Nevertheless, the vehemence of your opponents has taken us aback. People seem to feel personally affronted by your arguments, moderate and backed by copious data though they are. What accounts for the antipathy – some of it personal – that your good news elicits?

SP: Some if it is turf-protective: some highbrow pundits, cultural critics, literary intellectuals, humanities professors, and other members of C. P. Snow’s “Second Culture” resent the incursion of science, data, and quantification into territories traditionally fenced off and claimed by them. And a surprising number are cultural pessimists who despise the Enlightenment ideals of reason, science, humanism, and progress. They prefer hermeneutic to analytic reasoning (one of the reasons they are sympathetic to religion even if they are atheists), valorize the consumption of elite art (as opposed to the well-being of the mass of humanity) as the highest moral good, and believe that Western civilization is on the verge of collapse and is so decadent and degenerate that anything that rises out of the rubble is bound to be an improvement. These convictions go back to the 19th-century counter-enlightenment and are surprisingly resilient.


Steven Pinker is a cognitive scientist and the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He is the author of The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, Better Angels of Our Nature and his latest book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress is available now on Amazon. 

Listen to this article
Voiced by Amazon Polly