Podcast #169: Harvard Professor Steven Pinker on Rational Thinking, the Monty Hall Problem, and the Case for Objective Truth

Enlightenment Now author Steven Pinker speaks with Quillette podcast host Jonathan Kay about his newly published book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters PodcastEnlightenment Nowenlightenment Quillette Newsletter Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/10/18/podcast-169-harvard-professor-steven-pinker-on-how-to-think-rationally-the-monty-hall-problem-kurt-godel-and-the-case-for-objective-truth/
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It is always a pleasure listening to Steven Pinker. There is so much good and enlightening in this podcast. I do take issue with one observation, however. I’ve heard it repeated many times that one is more likely to be killed by a car crash, a heart attack, a swarm of murder hornets, a land shark, etc. than a terrorist attack. This putative conflict of probabilities is supposed to demonstrate an irrational fear that many Americans experienced after 9/11. Let’s set aside what we may feel about the war on terror for a moment. Statistically it is true that dying in a terrorist attack is very unlikely. But I don’t think our normal process of assessing danger, assigning an intuitive probability to it and then adjusting our behavior thusly applies to terrorist attacks. At least it didn’t in the months after 9/11. The fact that terrorist attacks are and were very rare is most of what is scary about them. We know that the ultimate ambition of al qaeda was to kill as many Americans in a single event as possible. Could they detonate a suitcase nuke in Manhattan that was stolen (or purchased) from the Russian arsenal, or fly a dirty-bomb into a football stadium (or ten football stadiums)? We didn’t know. We just knew they were bold, patient sociopaths. There is no way to assess probability for that because it’s not a probability issue. What is the probability al qaeda wants to kill every infidel in America? 100%. So how do we stop them? I don’t know.

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Great podcast! If I had the time and the chops to read all the best books by all the best thinkers, Steven Pinker would definitely be on the list. Sadly, I have neither of these preconditions in abundance, and podcasts and short essays are how I learn things.

Not perfect, but better than limiting myself to headlines, and 30 second news blurbs from biased media outlets.

So the attraction of the Pinkers, Petersons, And Murrays is their ability summarize complex ideas into a podcast format that is clear enough to understand, and nuanced enough to be worth the effort.

Good job on this one! Thanks.

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Well said. It never was about the statistical chance of dying. If I fall off the roof and break my neck, that’s just part of the risks of daily life, one is saddened when these things occur, but one is not outraged. But terrorism is an outrage. A victim of terrorism is a martyr of civilization.

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Exactly. It’s about the human culpability aspect. Someone dies in a car accident engenders a far different visceral response than someone who dies in a car accident caused by a drunk driver.

With the exception of Pinker I think these podcasts can be just as insidious if not more so than bias media outlets that also possess a kind of 'here’s the news & here’s what you should think about it ’ formula. While they often offer useful & interesting information they also tend to fuse this with political reductionist alarmism with the antidote always conveniently containing elements of their preferred political ideology & in the case of Peterson, Murray, Shapiro et el that’s a conservative one although they purport to be anti ideological thinking. As Pinker mentions a threat to sacred values can potentially effect rationality so these podcasts aren’t as helpful as they appear. I suspect that fear & enhancing solidarity is what the biggest attraction is to these guys that’s smuggled in under ‘facts’ & informative news content.
Lately i’ve been attempting to objectively listen to well supported criticisms to some of my ‘favourites’ the latest being Peterson & have been horrified to be confronted by my own biases. Interestingly I have found their particular area of expertise still remains solid it’s all the extras that one needs to be on guard for…

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Got it. What sources would you (or anyone else, of course) recommend for opposing points of view. Preferable essays or podcast-or online lecture type formats.

My current list of people is fairly long, E.Weinstein, Shapiro, McWhorter, Sowell, C.Hughes, and Wilfred Reilly to name a few, but some names of people supporting opposing ideas would be helpful.

I actually did this a while ago and Andrew had some cool recommendations.

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@Chris This started as a short response but turned into a long mind dump of some things I’ve been meaning to write down more methodically and clearly. Hopefully this off-the-cuff riff makes sense. Feel free to skip to the very last paragraph for the punchline.

One thing I’ve been examining recently is my own bias towards parties trying to cater (i.e., sell) their analyses to self-proclaimed free thinkers. I agree with @Ella-B in that these types can be dangerous, largely because they present themselves as an unbiased hyper-rational antidote to mainstream groupthink when that may just be a clever marketing tactic. I’ve found that these tactics have worked on me in the past—there is something about that warm and tingly feeling I get when I hear a smart explanation for something which runs counter to the prevailing wisdom. When it has worked on me in the past, the tactician has succeeded by doing something like this:

  1. Target someone who thinks of themselves as hyper rational and willing to challenge orthodoxy. Take a belief that person holds which is weakly held or naively held, i.e., they believe in X but don’t know exactly the reasoning for why they believe in X, they just do. (e.g., let’s say for instance you believe in a heliocentric solar system. How do you know the planets orbit the sun? How would you have known this pre-1900?)
  2. Re-capitulate the argument for the view you wish to challenge, taking care to misrepresent it just enough that the target doesn’t realize you are replacing the argument with a straw man you can more easily expose as incorrect with careful reasoning and evidence. (Present a seemingly strong argument for why we believe in the heliocentric theory, an argument which is flawed. Key here is that the target must not know a stronger argument and catch your slight of hand).
  3. Blast away the strawman representation of the argument with real world evidence and sound logic. Evidence is going to appeal to the target’s sense of reason and scientific thinking. (Exploit the weakness in the argument above to make the target seriously question its validity).
  4. Replace the original belief the target had with an alternate belief. This new belief likely has the added benefit of feeling better-justified than the belief that was replaced, plus it makes the target feel smarter than all the ‘sheep’ around them who believed the original narrative. (Provide an alternate argument which uses math to show that the helio and geocentric theories are just coordinate transformations of one another. No theory is ‘correct’, politics of the time forced the world into believing one paradigm. QED. Silly sheep.)
    This tactic is incredibly common all over the place. I’ve read books which spend 200 pages mischaracterizing an argument and then 50 arguing why that argument is dangerous and trying to rally against it, even though it was all clever bunk. Think of it like a magician performing some slight of hand with words. Only with a magician you don’t believe the outcome because they label themselves ‘magician’. You don’t know how the magician performed their trick, but they are a magician so you KNOW it was a trick. If instead the magician didn’t wear that label, and performed a feat that was incredible but believable, and made up some pseudoscientific argument for how it was possible, you just might believe it.
    Would you trust a man who came up to you and said:
    'If a machine can produce more energy than it consumes, that machine is a free energy machine. Scientists argue that it can’t be done. I’ve created such a machine and am looking for investors. [Insert David vs goliath/underdog story about elites/oil companies conspiring against me.] I have a device over here which produces two numbers—one shows the amount of energy I input, the other shows how much the machine is outputting. [Insert further explanation using complex scientific terms and an explanation of what is being measured and what those measurements represent]. [Run the machine and show the two numbers]. See, the second number is greater than the first. This proves not only that my machine is performing the impossible (and you should invest) but that there are powerful forces out there pushing orthodoxy.’
    If you don’t understand the scientific concepts that were glossed over and abused, you may not catch the error in the demonstration, lying deep in the details, where the speaker tricked you. It’s like a mathematical proof where a subtle division by zero lead to the conclusion that 1=2, but you can’t for the life of you find it.
    One strategy I’ve tried to deploy to inoculate myself against this is to read widely on rationality and decision-making science. Key here is to read those whose punchline isn’t to then apply the provided tools to a very specific political or ideological case study they are trying to convince the reader of. The risk in those cases is that the writer may have given you a biased tool or misrepresented some of the ‘givens’ in the problem to be solved. The careful (mis)framing can then lead you to the writer’s conclusion. Some recent books which cover the idea of clear thinking include: ‘The Scout Mindset’ (Galef’s podcast is a gem), ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, ‘Think Again’, and ‘Voodoo Science’.
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I can’t give you any ‘brand’ names but I can give you some ‘random’ youtubers in particular ‘Big Joel’ who gives probably one of the best criticisms i’ve heard of JP’s work. He discusses how it’s another version of TS Elliot’s The Wasteland & Fisher King myth which is really worth the listen if you can put up with his voice.

https://youtu.be/wZoHGAK3k-I

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Wait dude, this is science at heart. There is no true science unless you can propose an experiment to someone else. And then they can go away and without your influence, reproduce your experimental results.

Or not. Theory rejected by empirical evidence.

How do you trust everyone else? You ultimately don’t need to - homo sapiens society self-selects for the scientific advantages.

It’s not ultimately about who can pursuade whom. It’s about useful outcome.

Be a preacher if you want to be. Learn all of the debating techniques.

Unless you appreciate science and the intrinsic value of “scientific method” - reproducible objectivism - you are but an empty vessel.

Really great comment Zak.

While I get the dangers I’m kind of in two minds about this. On one hand the hoodwink is a problem but on the other offering solutions is also beneficial. Just because one is an expert in a particular area should they keep their opinions on solutions to themselves even if they have a preferred political outcome? I like to think both are achievable perhaps the way to expose bad faith is how much misrepresentation is involved.

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Bella, I just watched that.

“White privilege?”. Yes Europe conquered the world. We still feel that. Why? Science. Objectivism.

I feel I am talking a different language to everyone else.

As far as I can see, Jordan Peterson is mostly preaching stoicism. A rich boy like the narrator in the vid just has no personal concept of that. Never had the need. Stoicism is a decent message for young men. Most of them won’t find anything better nowadays.

I think there is a psychopathy endemic in white people living in majority-white society. You think it’s all your fault. It is! The state of the world today is totally the fault of white-skinned Europeans.

You know why? Science. :smiley:

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Yes but the point of the video is why can’t you have both stoicism & compassion/concerns? To focus just on stoicism as JP does not only hand washes social responsibility but serves to dishonestly push a preferred political narrative.

You can have compassion, but the stoic view is that your compassion is selfish if you use that compassion just to feel better about yourself.

The typical male archetype is stoicism. The archetypal female role is compassionate collaboration.

What do you see as “social responsibility”? Does taking twice-weekly shifts in the early hours to patrol my neighbourhood? Because armed robbery is rife where I live, and the police is massively underfunded (and we all know that no females are volunteering to do so, even tho my neighbourhood is 50% female). Does that count as compassionate social responsibility, or is that just toxic masculinity?

But are SJW’s just using it to feel better about themselves always? This is what I call the stiff upper lip con. It’s a kind of shaming into silence lest the status quo be challenged.

And perhaps one of the most revered icons Jesus Christ had healthy doses of both…

Not sure what your point is here. Do you mind elaborating?

I really like that you’re attempting to expose your biases @Ella-B (I’ve been on that journey too). Once, again the video is one person’s critique of another, which is only half the story. To get a better understanding of both sides, a debate or discussion between the two is really the only show in town.

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Coincidentally, Rebel Wisdom had a discussion with Julia Galef about a week ago:

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Well I got 3/4 the way through. Interesting kid, his arguments were thought provoking. Though at the end I am still more in line with JP than him.

Nevertheless he was worth the listen, and I’ll check-in with him now and again. So thanks for the recommendation.

Polymaths can be misleading when they argue outside their specialties, I agree on that score. Yet experts can be troublesome by being too focused on a tree at the expense of the forrest. So what’s a poor old slobber to do?

My money is still on the polymaths but using variety of them to counteract the bias that each one will unavoidably have in one direction or another.

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