Author Topic: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now  (Read 18565 times)

Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« on: February 18, 2018, 12:57:36 PM »
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/14/enlightenment-now-steven-pinker-review

Prof Pinkie's back with another data-filled meisterwork busting with juicily counter-intuitive findings. This takes the arguments of his previous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which marshalled vast quantities of research to show and try to explain why violence has dropped so dramatically over the course of human history, and applies them to all aspects of human wellbeing: health, wealth, human rights, etc, concluding that the Enlightenment's advocacy of reason, science, humanism and progress is the principal reason why life is better now for most people than it has ever been.

As with TBAOUN, he goes out of his way to say he's not suggesting everything's fine today, simply that things have improved so let's try to find out why and do more of it. His concern is progress, after all. However, that never stops some people claiming he's merely justifying the status quo or that he's an alt-right stooge. I haven't come across any serious criticism of his work that isn't nitpicking, misrepresentation or a good old fashioned ad-hom.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #1 on: February 18, 2018, 01:44:41 PM »
Haven't read the new one, but it's the same as Better Angels, isn't it? Has he corrected the errors in that (e.g. An Lushan rebellion)?

I read this article recently, which is unfortunately paywalled. It features this paragraph:

Quote
What happens to those who are taught that science is just another narrative like religion and myth, that it lurches from revolution to revolution without making progress, and that it is a rationalization of racism, sexism, and genocide? I’ve seen the answer: Some of them figure, "If that’s what science is, I might as well make money!" Four years later, their brainpower is applied to thinking up algorithms that allow hedge funds to act on financial information a few milliseconds faster, rather than to finding new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease or technologies for carbon capture and storage.

Which is bollocks.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #2 on: February 18, 2018, 02:12:08 PM »
Are you saying he's lying and he hasn't seen people do that? He only says some. Is it not true that really bright people who could do good work in science sometimes decide to use those talents to make money instead?

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #3 on: February 18, 2018, 02:20:48 PM »
Is it not true that really bright people who could do good work in science sometimes decide to use those talents to make money instead?

That's not what he's claiming. He says that because science is "just another narrative", people decide not to bother with it and try to get rich instead. Whether he's lying or not is irrelevant. It's an anecdote, and a rather rhetorical seeming one too.

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Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #4 on: February 18, 2018, 02:24:11 PM »
I can only say that my psychology of language professors call his language instinct ideas "a charming fairy-tale". From the little research I've done that seems to be pretty accurate.

I've read about half of The Language Instinct, and decided that I like him as a writer, and relatively speaking as a person behind the writer.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #5 on: February 18, 2018, 02:26:55 PM »
I can only say that my psychology of language professors call his language instinct ideas "a charming fairy-tale". From the little research I've done that seems to be pretty accurate.

This is fascinating. Humans don't have an instinct to acquire language? What does happen then?

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Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #6 on: February 18, 2018, 02:30:44 PM »
This is fascinating. Humans don't have an instinct to acquire language? What does happen then?

Broadly speaking, we have general cognitive modules which are also used in other non-linguistic functions ie problem solving, pattern-analysis, chunking and sorting etc. These, when exposed to language, are able to pick it up and apply it to language-based problems pretty fast. But there isn't a 'language module' which is hardwired into us. That's seemingly what the evidence points to now.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #7 on: February 18, 2018, 02:41:36 PM »
Here's a good outline of Pinker's position on language's innateness (which obviously derives from Chomsky's). He also gives a brief overview of the field(s).

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #8 on: February 18, 2018, 03:35:04 PM »
Broadly speaking, we have general cognitive modules which are also used in other non-linguistic functions ie problem solving, pattern-analysis, chunking and sorting etc. These, when exposed to language, are able to pick it up and apply it to language-based problems pretty fast. But there isn't a 'language module' which is hardwired into us. That's seemingly what the evidence points to now.

This is a smaller objection than I was anticipating. So we do indeed have an instinct to acquire language and that instinct arises from the co-operation of certain generalized mental modules, in effect creating a virtual language module.

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Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #9 on: February 18, 2018, 04:31:24 PM »
This is a smaller objection than I was anticipating. So we do indeed have an instinct to acquire language and that instinct arises from the co-operation of certain generalized mental modules, in effect creating a virtual language module.

Well, no, because that's the same as saying we have an "instinct" for acquiring everything we learn. We also then have an instinct for playing with lego bricks or iphones or for using Windows 10.

The idea behind the newer domain-general theory is that we don't have a specific language module, which is what sets it apart from Chomsky-Pinker (whatever Pinker says, really; he is constantly equivocating and whittling down the criteria, I think).

However, i'm not saying I agree with this. It seems plausible to me that after several thousand years of viral langaugae memes and 'civillization', there could plausibly be an epigenetic (as opposed to genetic, though who knows what will be found) mechanism that helps to pass on language facility. Again, though, no evidence of this yet either.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #10 on: February 18, 2018, 05:16:22 PM »
Back to Enlightenment Now, have you read it gloria? Does he correct any of his errors in Better Angels, or does he simply build on the previous book as if it had no problems?

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #11 on: February 18, 2018, 05:41:23 PM »
At uni I took a linguistics module. It was drilled into me that the part of the brain responsible for acquiring languages dies when you hit puberty, and therefore it is impossible to become truly 100% native-level fluent in a second language in adulthood. You'd always have an accent.

Since living in Japan I've met several Japanese people who lived in the west in their late teens or 20s and became indistinguishable - completely indistinguishable - from native speakers. I also know an American who moved here 30 years ago in his early 20s and now, according to everyone who knows him, speaks exactly like a native Japanese speaker.

Was my teacher just drunk or something?

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #12 on: February 18, 2018, 06:03:27 PM »
Was my teacher just drunk or something?

You're definitely right, people can become indistinguishable from natives if they study hard/long enough. Perhaps it's that some linguistics professors are monolingual and so underestimate adult learning ability? To be fair, it does take a huge amount of work in a way that it doesn't for children, so in the majority of cases native-level fluency will be very unlikely.

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Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #13 on: February 18, 2018, 10:27:54 PM »
Steven Pinker lost in cress.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #14 on: February 18, 2018, 10:41:37 PM »
Well, no, because that's the same as saying we have an "instinct" for acquiring everything we learn. We also then have an instinct for playing with lego bricks or iphones or for using Windows 10.



Dunno about that. A child learns language spontaneously without having to try. They 'know' to imitate the adult speech they hear and discern its rules, not the sound of passing cars or cutlery scraping on plates. But anyhoo...

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #15 on: February 18, 2018, 10:42:36 PM »
Back to Enlightenment Now, have you read it gloria? Does he correct any of his errors in Better Angels, or does he simply build on the previous book as if it had no problems?


I am 38% through it and will let you know.

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Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #16 on: February 19, 2018, 12:58:03 AM »
You're definitely right, people can become indistinguishable from natives if they study hard/long enough. Perhaps it's that some linguistics professors are monolingual and so underestimate adult learning ability? To be fair, it does take a huge amount of work in a way that it doesn't for children, so in the majority of cases native-level fluency will be very unlikely.
Is it not more to do with accents?

There's a bit in the film The Imposter where one of the FBI people or whatever says that if you grow up in a non-English-speaking country beyond a certain age it's impossible that you'll ever speak English without a foreign accent.

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Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #17 on: February 19, 2018, 01:10:09 AM »
I can only say that my psychology of language professors call his language instinct ideas "a charming fairy-tale". From the little research I've done that seems to be pretty accurate.

I've read about half of The Language Instinct, and decided that I like him as a writer, and relatively speaking as a person behind the writer.

The chapter where he pisses on grammar pedants is worth the price of admission for that alone.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #18 on: February 19, 2018, 02:11:55 AM »
Is it not more to do with accents?

There's a bit in the film The Imposter where one of the FBI people or whatever says that if you grow up in a non-English-speaking country beyond a certain age it's impossible that you'll ever speak English without a foreign accent.

I don't know what the proper linguistic research says on this, but anecdotally I can think of a number of people who didn't grow up in the country nor speak a heritage language who have obtained a native-sounding accent. Play this interview to a native Mandarin speaker and ask them how good Gaudfroy's accent is.

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Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #19 on: February 19, 2018, 02:33:22 AM »
The chapter where he pisses on grammar pedants is worth the price of admission for that alone.

The chapter in which...

I'm kidding. I'm an admirer of his championing of non-prescriptive grammar, and always have a copy of The Sense of Style buried under a pile of other books I haven't looked at in ages next to me.

Does he address the parlous condition of the US, and the almost inevitable Korean inferno and its consequences?


Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #20 on: February 19, 2018, 10:38:43 AM »
I haven’t read Pinker but would recommend John Gray’s Straw Dogs as a very readable broad-brush critique of faith in human progress. One of his main thrusts is that while science and technology progress our uses of them don’t, human history being more like cycles of advance and destruction than an arrow pointing from barbarity to enlightenment. I’m not well read enough to say whether I think he’s right but he’s certainly stimulating. Out of interest how does Better Angels of our Nature account for the horrors of the 20th century?

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #21 on: February 19, 2018, 11:45:31 AM »
I haven’t read Pinker but would recommend John Gray’s Straw Dogs as a very readable broad-brush critique of faith in human progress. One of his main thrusts is that while science and technology progress our uses of them don’t, human history being more like cycles of advance and destruction than an arrow pointing from barbarity to enlightenment. I’m not well read enough to say whether I think he’s right but he’s certainly stimulating. Out of interest how does Better Angels of our Nature account for the horrors of the 20th century?


The counter-intuitive finding of Better Angels is that the horrors of the 20th century, both World Wars included, pale to the horrors of previous centuries. One's chance of meeting a violent end has reduced drastically over time. Discerning the reasons behind this form the bulk of the book: the expanding circle of empathy (so we care not just for kin but for others outside our immediate sphere), the growth of the state, the growth of commerce (the realisation it's better to trade with neighbours rather than kill them) and many other reasons.


Enlightenment Now blows Gray out of the water. In every quantifiable metric of human wellbeing - wealth, education, civil rights, longevity, even happiness - Pinker demonstrates that great progress has been steadily made in all parts of the world, including developing countries, which are fast catching up with the West. The data is vast and impressive.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #22 on: February 19, 2018, 12:02:54 PM »
The counter-intuitive finding of Better Angels is that the horrors of the 20th century, both World Wars included, pale to the horrors of previous centuries.

In what way?

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #23 on: February 19, 2018, 12:31:58 PM »
In the past, wars were far more frequent and killed a greater proportion of participants; interpersonal violence was more frequent; gruesomely violent punishments for comparatively minor crimes was the norm; household violence against children and women was the norm, and so on. While all these activities continue to a (far) lesser degree today, they are generally taboo and people are outraged when they happen.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #24 on: February 19, 2018, 12:53:17 PM »

The counter-intuitive finding of Better Angels is that the horrors of the 20th century, both World Wars included, pale to the horrors of previous centuries. One's chance of meeting a violent end has reduced drastically over time. Discerning the reasons behind this form the bulk of the book: the expanding circle of empathy (so we care not just for kin but for others outside our immediate sphere), the growth of the state, the growth of commerce (the realisation it's better to trade with neighbours rather than kill them) and many other reasons.

You say in the OP that you haven't read a decent critique of Better angels. Do you really think the stats he puts together back up his claims, especially regarding the bolded bit?

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #25 on: February 19, 2018, 01:03:30 PM »
You say in the OP that you haven't read a decent critique of Better angels. Do you really think the stats he puts together back up his claims, especially regarding the bolded bit?


I do, principally because the sheer volume of stats he marshals from different sources help to lessen the impact of any single dodgy finding.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #26 on: February 19, 2018, 01:16:45 PM »
Is it not more to do with accents?

There's a bit in the film The Imposter where one of the FBI people or whatever says that if you grow up in a non-English-speaking country beyond a certain age it's impossible that you'll ever speak English without a foreign accent.

Yeah, I remember that bit. And yet, as I said in my previous post, I know several Japanese people who have learned English as a second language as adults - or at least from their mid to late-teens - and sound, to me, completely British or North American.

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Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #27 on: February 19, 2018, 01:32:57 PM »
At uni I took a linguistics module. It was drilled into me that the part of the brain responsible for acquiring languages dies when you hit puberty, and therefore it is impossible to become truly 100% native-level fluent in a second language in adulthood. You'd always have an accent.

Since living in Japan I've met several Japanese people who lived in the west in their late teens or 20s and became indistinguishable - completely indistinguishable - from native speakers. I also know an American who moved here 30 years ago in his early 20s and now, according to everyone who knows him, speaks exactly like a native Japanese speaker.

Was my teacher just drunk or something?

This is true, my ex-wifey is Japanese, moved here in her 20s and has no accent. She just sounds Londony. Oh and the same is true of another asian ex (I'm 49 and have only had two asian gfs, so don't  be thinking I've got a fetish...)

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #28 on: February 20, 2018, 01:31:18 AM »
I do, principally because the sheer volume of stats he marshals from different sources help to lessen the impact of any single dodgy finding.

But those single dodgy findings do tend to add up. The An Lushan figure I've mentioned: Pinker's relying on someone else's figures (Matthew White) but even then he goes for the highest possible (and completely ridiculous) figure, despite what his source tells him. But all of these pre-modern estimates are dodgy, because they take ancient chroniclers at face value. Because Pinker isn't a historian he doesn't know how to use or analyse these data, so he just picks them up and plonks them into graphs along with stuff from the 20th century.

Not only that he's highly selective about what data to use. R. Brian Ferguson is scathing about Pinker's use of archaeological evidence:

Quote from: R. Brian Ferguson
Is this sample representative of war deaths among prehistoric populations? Hardly. It is a selective compilation of highly unusual cases, grossly distorting war's antiquity and lethality. The elaborate castle of evolutionary and other theorizing that rises on this sample is built upon sand.

The other major slight of hand is that he scales deaths to population estimates. Seeing as there are more people alive now than in the past, deaths in the past are always likely to be higher using this relative measure.

And why, when looking at conflicts, does he include the Atlantic slave trade? The answer's obvious: because it happened before the 20th century, so will help with his thesis that the 20th century isn't as violent as people think. It's the same reason why he tries to underplay WWII. If you're going to include the Atlantic slave trade, why not include the War on Drugs? Because it happened in the 20th century.

Re: Steven Pinker: Enlightenment Now
« Reply #29 on: February 20, 2018, 08:52:02 AM »
But do they add up to fatally undermine his case? In the light of all the other evidence he amasses, almost certainly not.


Scaling deaths to populations isn't sleight of hand. One's relative chance of meeting with violence now compared to in the past is the whole point of Better Angels. More people = more violence in quantitative terms, but that's just banal. What's interesting is how more or less likely one is to encounter it now and what factors have contributed to any change in the likelihood.


Are you saying he includes the Atlantic slave trade in a graph about armed conflicts? That does sound weird. He does talk about the decline of the slave trade in terms of the expanding circle of empathy and the growth of human rights. But I don't think he refers to it as an actual war. And I don't get your point about the War on Drugs. How would that impact on historical rates of violence?

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