Books

Steven Pinker, Rational Thinker

His new book is a stinker.

Close-up black-and-white photo of a middle age white man.
Steven Pinker in Cheltenham, England, in 2007. David Levenson/Getty Images

Man is born smart, and everywhere he lacks brains. So, minus The Social Contract’s gendered language, might Steven Pinker have opened Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. Pinker, a senior Harvard professor, cognitive psychologist, bestselling author, and alleged victim of cancel culture, spends a lot of time these days fighting culture wars. Picking up where 2018’s Enlightenment Now left off, his latest book takes as its problem the contrast Pinker sees between humankind’s innate rationality and our observable taste for the irrational.

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Where his last book argued for “Enlightenment” as a source of values, however, Rationality introduces a specific set of logical and statistical tools, “benchmarks” of reasoned argument, as weapons in the fight against “rumor, folk wisdom, and conspiratorial thinking” that, Pinker thinks, poison our politics and endanger our world. Take up these tools, Rationality exhorts us, and champion “the reality mindset” against the forces of “mythology”!

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In Rationality, Pinker sets out to perform an impossible trick. The contrast he draws between our rational capacities and our current situation will resonate. We have effective COVID-19 vaccines, yet many—in spite of reasoned arguments—refuse to take them. Climate change threatens all of us, yet despite mounting evidence, we fail to act. Again and again, reason fails to master our motivations or mobilize our power. But, given that people on both sides of these questions claim to have reason on their side, it is hard to see how merely advocating for rationality, as Pinker promises, can get us out of this quandary.

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Revealingly, Pinker himself shows signs of doubt. Beyond offering tools to think with, Rationality periodically hints at more pointed interventions, even a kind of what the author calls at one point “social contract,” as a further step. In a world that distorts, withholds, or floods us with data, he writes, making rational choices hard and bad choices rational, we reasoners must sometimes be cajoled, pressured, and constrained by friends, employers, and governments to make the right choices.

If this sounds pessimistic for the author of The Better Angels of Our Nature and pushy for the author of Enlightenment Now, Pinker does write that “we can no more impose values from the top down than we can dictate any cultural change.” Hell, we can’t even “implement a fallacy tax”—a joke, with a strong whiff of wishful thinking behind it. Yet the desire to give reason a social or political assist is inescapable, because it is rooted in a paradox Pinker notes from the start, then selectively ignores: Rationality, as Rationality defines it, is an instrumental quality. It serves ends but cannot choose them. Nor can it justify itself. If we are headed in the wrong direction, our mode of transportation may not be the only problem.

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Rather than argue for his own liberal, technocratic goals, however, Pinker lets their presumed superiority color his use of “rational” and “irrational” throughout. This creates a recurring dissonance, since what is irrational (or “cockamamie,” or “stupid”) from his perspective often turns out to be eminently rational by his initial definition: That is, it serves the purposes of those who hold to it effectively. Solving the problem of “irrationality,” then, takes more than spreading the gospel of zweckrational. It means choosing some values and imposing some goals. (Pinker admits as much when he advocates for those of the “Rationality Community,” for whose membership he refers readers, in a footnote, to a 2017 blog post on lesswrong.com.)

A casual reader might be forgiven for missing this paradox. Having introduced rationality as a universal trait in his opening vignette on how San hunters assess the probability that partial prints belong to one animal rather than another, Pinker defines it as “a kit of cognitive tools that can attain particular goals in particular worlds.” Everyone has rationality; everyone uses it. So what’s the problem? Enter the doubters and the haters: “fashionable academic movements like postmodernism and critical theory” who see reason as a mere social construction. For his part, the brave Pinker is not afraid to be unfashionable: “Though I cannot argue that reason is dope, phat, chill, fly, sick, or da bomb”—that already-legendary line is apparently an attempt to speak the language of critical theory—still “we ought to follow reason.” Take that, cultural anthropologists!

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But the bulk of the book is less an open culture war campaign than a May Day parade of rationality’s arsenal. We learn the workings of propositional logic, formal and informal fallacies, probability, Bayesian reasoning, rational choice theory, decision theory, game theory, regression analysis, and more. Pinker explains the key concepts with real-life and fictional examples of their uses and misuses, while bewailing their absence from, or misapplication in, public discourse and political life. This can be entertaining, even if some of it feels familiar (the Monty Hall problem, the “tragedy of the commons”) or dated (no fewer than three Dilbert cartoons feature as illustrations of his points).

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Adjusting your sample of Rationality as you go—this is called “p-hacking,” by the way—you can find an informative and briskly written book about types of reasoning and their applications. The trouble begins when you read all the words. Pinker can neither embrace polemic outright (because this is about rationality, not values) nor let it go (his values are, of course, the rational ones). So instead of confronting his targets head on, the middle chapters engage in a kind of indirect culture warfare, dragging foes in as apparently incidental examples of irrationality or motivated reasoning. Where the shoe fits, fair enough. The fact that neither Democratic nor Republican voters, as he points out, grasp the science of climate change is embarrassing but important. It would be nice to think we can do better.

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But Pinker lets his own solidarities and enmities shape his concern for facts and argumentation. This results in large, unsupported claims, as when a Politico op-ed he co-wrote in defence of Bret Stephens is his sole footnoted source for the claim that logical fallacies are “coin of the realm” across academia and journalism. It also produces some mystifying assertions, such as that the 2020 murder of George Floyd led to “the sudden adoption of a radical academic doctrine, Critical Race Theory”—and that both CRT and Black Lives Matter are driven by an exaggerated sense of Black people’s statistical risk of being killed by police. While Pinker soon walks back what he suggests may be a “psychologically obtuse” account of BLM’s origins, the chronological nonsense of the claim and the characterization of CRT as a “doctrine” stand without evidence or argument. After all, he might say, they’re just examples.

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Perhaps. But, as Pinker writes in another context, “the content of a logical problem matters.” And as the examples pile up, one wonders what is being defended: the formal and rhetorical trappings of logical argument, or the substance of thoughtful engagement? Pinker treats Mariame Kaba’s 2020 New York Times op-ed in favor of police abolition as an example of confusing “less-than-perfect causation” with “no causation,” because it is based on the fact that, under the current system, few rapists are prosecuted. “The editorialist did not consider,” he writes, that fewer still might be prosecuted without the police. In fact, Kaba’s argument is not primarily based on rape at all; she begins by talking about how much time police spend on traffic violations and noise complaints, and proceeds through a century-plus history of failed attempts at police “reform” (the point of her piece). What good does such misrepresentation serve?

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This is a treatise about rationality that both decries and exploits cynicism and credulity, sometimes on the same page. Blaming universities’ “suffocating leftwing monoculture” for popular mistrust of expertise, Pinker mentions two examples in the text: University of Southern California professor Greg Patton’s removal from a course after using the Chinese ne ga, which can sound like the N-word, and testimony from unnamed personal “correspondents.” (In a footnote, he invites readers to look to Heterodox Academy, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Quillette—all of it—for further examples.) The very next paragraph warns of “illusions instilled by sensationalist anecdote chasing.” Doctor, heal thyself!

This paradox of defining reason as a universal means while invoking it as a specific norm, which is what Pinker specializes in, has wider political implications now, much as it did in the Enlightenment. Remember the San hunters? It was one thing to appreciate their fine calculations when the point to be made was the universality of reason as a human tool. But by the time the theme of reality vs. mythology returns, late in the book, rationality has new heroes: the people Pinker identifies as W.E.I.R.D. (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) “children of Enlightenment.” Unlike the San—indeed, unlike everyone else—these champions not only possess the tools of rationality but “embrace the radical creed of universal realism” (my emphasis). To them belongs an “imperial mandate … to conquer the universe of belief and push mythology to the margins,” so that a “technocratic state” can act on their rational beliefs. Welcome to Steven Pinker’s Kingdom of Ends.

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