Friday, March 02, 2018

Two bad reviews of Pinker

Steven Pinker's new book has gotten a lot of praise, but criticism from Nature:
But the book’s premise lies in the past: the Enlightenment, that period in the eighteenth century when, Pinker argues, reason, science, humanism and progress became the centre of intellectual endeavour in Europe and North America. That legacy, he asserts, is ripe for resurrection at a time of political upheaval, the rise of demagoguery, climate scepticism and ‘fake news’. ...

Although it is framed as a historically informed template for a new age of reason, Enlightenment Now ultimately becomes something else: an extended dismissal of the arguments of despair that Pinker fears are defining politics and crowding out an alternative approach rooted in rationality and global cooperation. He does not frame the thesis in economic terms. Yet he essentially defends globalization and the growth of market economies by claiming that it has brought more progress than any force in history.
And here:
Pinker never seems to see the force of the question: How do we know that all this did not take place in spite of, rather than because of, the Enlightenment? In fact, he doesn't even pretend to go to the trouble of establishing a causal connection between his contentious version of the Enlightenment and the various improvements that he imagines follow in its wake. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc seems to be the operative principle.

For the sceptical reader the whole strategy of the book looks like this. Take a highly selective, historically contentious and anachronistic view of the Enlightenment. Don't be too scrupulous in surveying the range of positions held by Enlightenment thinkers - just attribute your own views to them all. Find a great many things that happened after the Enlightenment that you really like. Illustrate these with graphs. Repeat. Attribute all these good things your version of the Enlightenment. Conclude that we should emulate this Enlightenment if we want the trend lines to keep heading in the right direction. If challenged at any point, do not mount a counter-argument that appeals to actual history, but choose one of the following labels for your critic: religious reactionary, delusional romantic, relativist, postmodernist, paid up member of the Foucault fan club.
I don't think that these reviews get to the heart of what is wrong with Pinker's approach, but interesting anyway.

Update: A new London Guardian article also attacks Pinker:
One of the strangest ironies of our time is that a body of thoroughly debunked “science” is being revived by people who claim to be defending truth against a rising tide of ignorance. The idea that certain races are inherently more intelligent than others is being trumpeted by a small group of anthropologists, IQ researchers, psychologists and pundits who portray themselves as noble dissidents, standing up for inconvenient facts. Through a surprising mix of fringe and mainstream media sources, these ideas are reaching a new audience, which regards them as proof of the superiority of certain races.

The claim that there is a link between race and intelligence is the main tenet of what is known as “race science” or, in many cases, “scientific racism”. Race scientists claim there are evolutionary bases for disparities in social outcomes – such as life expectancy, educational attainment, wealth, and incarceration rates – between racial groups. In particular, many of them argue that black people fare worse than white people because they tend to be less naturally intelligent. ...

The recent revival of ideas about race and IQ began with a seemingly benign scientific observation. In 2005, Steven Pinker, one of the world’s most prominent evolutionary psychologists, began promoting the view that Ashkenazi Jews are innately particularly intelligent – first in a lecture to a Jewish studies institute, then in a lengthy article in the liberal American magazine The New Republic the following year. This claim has long been the smiling face of race science; if it is true that Jews are naturally more intelligent, then it’s only logical to say that others are naturally less so.
The leftists probably hate Pinker more for his book on The Blank Slate.

The article goes on to conclude that IQ research has "potentially horrible human consequences", and that it is not just bad science, it is not science at all.

No comments: