Seriously? You’re going to blame the second law of thermodynamics for poverty?

Arguments from Natural Law are among my pet peeves — there’s nothing quite like reducing a complex sociological issue to a simplistic, naive causal relationship based on, of all things, physics. Steven Pinker commits this sin in discussing thermodynamics, which he seems to have a rather cartoonish perspective on, to the point where he decides that poverty is explained by entropy. Or rather, that poverty needs no explanation.

Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not just arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can not to become our food. What needs to be explained is wealth. Yet most discussions of poverty consist of arguments about whom to blame for it.

Yeah, rather than talking about exploiters and capitalism and historical inequities and all that messy stuff, let’s instead have a caricature of a physics explanation from a psychologist who apparently gets all of his understanding of thermodynamics from creationist web sites and pop psychology magazines.

I’m just going to wash my hands of this slime and let Blake Stacey explain it all.


  1. stripeycat says

    He’s completely forgotten this little thing called *work*. In real life and in physics. People who are poor despite a system that’s getting all the work done? Not explainable by cartoon entropy.

  2. Akira MacKenzie says

    Translation: “Dealing with poverty is pointless especially when welfare programs result in higher taxes. So just let the dirty little begged starve!”

  3. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    actually *looking over shoulder* doesn’t the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics say
    everyone should have precisely the same amount of wealth, that for it to be concentrated in very few hands is a very low entropy state and to maximize entropy means the wealth should be evenly distributed. You know, analogy time: imagine each penny a grain of sand, each person’s wealth is a pile of sand. with only a few people with mountains of sand, 2nd law says those mountains will decay into a flat see of sand that everyone can easily walk around on.
    So spread wealth around, we obey the 2nd law of thermodynamics around here.
    *twirling hands*

  4. says

    living things do everything they can not to become our food.

    Yeah, just the other night I got viciously attacked by a carrot and half a Hokaido squash. And have you ever watch those slow motion videos of rabbits vs grass?

    Pinker demonstrates that you can get Nobel’s Disease without actually having a Nobel’s Prize.

  5. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    I’m always amazed by twits like Pinker who fail to understand the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, and then try to apply it to situations that really aren’t covered by the equations of state, like sociology. They can’t grasp they aren’t even wrong…

  6. whywhywhy says

    Why does Pinker stop with poverty? We should just all accept death now. It is the natural state of things. Life is the abomination…

    “Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.”
    ― Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man

  7. cartomancer says

    I could sort of see this analogy as a starting point for proposing that we ought to discuss the causes of and solutions to poverty differently. In the sense that if wealth in societies really did behave like energy in an environment then we would expect equal distribution after a time and should focus on locating the external influences that are resisting the entropy and removing them. It might still be worthwhile to shift the thinking from “how can we eliminate poverty” to “how can we eliminate wealth”, if by doing so the importance of equality for all is more centrally enshrined as a focus of our efforts. It does seem that we’re much better at identifying those who have been short-changed by the system than leaning on those who have been long-changed (and note how incongruous that wording seems!) for the necessary resources to effect a remedy. I doubt this is what Pinker is getting at at all though.

    I am open to arguments that economic systems can behave “a bit like” thermodynamic systems. I’m really not sure they do, but if they did then it would be because the processes and procedures they have been constructed to operate by work with comparable results. But Pinker isn’t saying that, he’s suggesting that economic systems operate on the actual laws of thermodynamics, which are somehow so ubiquitous that they affect the macro scale of economics in the same way as the micro scale of particle physics. It’s like explaining history in terms of genetics or literature in terms of the chemical composition of ink.

  8. aziraphale says

    This is depressing. I have found much to admire in each of Pinker’s books (along with a degree of arrogance). I’m now wondering if I have to reassess what I thought I learned.

  9. monad says

    I think the 2nd law of thermodynamics predicts poverty pretty well. In an isolated system with no energy sources, as said law assumes, I expect people would all become rather poor and in fact dead in short order.

  10. says

    I am hardly surprised! Pinker has always been a xenophobic, power-serving, misogynist! He has written nonsensical pop science articles justifying hereditary IQ, the usefulness of standardized testing by profit-making bodies, tried to justify Larry Summer’s nonsensical comments on women in the Sciences, blatantly lied and misrepresented his opponent in his debate with Elizabeth Spelke, and spent a majority of his life getting famous by doing derivative research based on Noam Chomsky’s contributions to Linguistics! To be specific, his particular claim to fame is his so-called expertise on regular and irregular verbs, which he shows that a child could not have acquired without innate linguistic structures that are hardwired in the brain. This is something Noam Chomsky is famous for — identifying the syntactic dependencies in linguistic computations, and formalizing them mathematically using formal logic and abstract algebra. Pinker merely takes this idea, and counters the eliminative connectionist claim that all these structures can be learned without any need for evolutionary substrates, and he does so by taking Chomsky’s structures and showing that rules for regular and irregular morphemes engage different regions in Broca’s Area. The idea that different functional rules engage different cortical regions is also not his invention. To be sure, he did some nice experiments and he deserves credit for them. But not the fame he enjoys, mostly due to his book The Language Instinct, which again is a rip off, and a poor exercise in epistemology. Where he is right, he borrows from a better mind. Where he deviates from Noam, for instance his ideas on evolution of Language Faculty in the brain, he is a sloppy thinker at best. See for instance, the co-authored paper by Chomsky and Lewontin for more details. But overall, the theme is a common one — like Dawkins, Pinker is devoted to genetic determinism and ultra-adaptationism. If there are less women in the Sciences, women have evolved to be stupid. If some countries are under-developed, their races have genetic flaws! And if you disagree with him, you must have ideological biases!! It’s sickening!! I wonder if he has ever read Lewontin’s Biology as Ideology, and looked into the ideological basis of his own pseudo-scientific views! It’s almost nakedly blatant! He thinks tribal people and indigenous populations are always in a state of war (see, Pinker’s List: Exaggeration of Pre-Historic Mortality for falsification), claims that they need to be civilized by us (ignoring Canada’s history with forced boarding schools and the First Nations children), lauds corporate hegemony as a process of peace and stability, and even takes shots at the climate movement for linking pollution, fossil fuels and policy to corporate lobbies! Hell… in Better Angels of Our Nature, he even blames the Vietnamese people for resisting too much and thereby pushing up the death toll (how dare they refuse to just roll over and die??), putting a black spot in Pinker’s vision of a perfect corporate utopia!! Pinker even supported Sam Harris (*pukes*) and his non-sensical arguments in the exchange with Chomsky, and defined the feminist criticism of normalizing of sexism in video games as “war on gamers”! He hardly even tries to hide his vested interests! I hardly surprised by his views on poverty! I am just surprised he did not find a genetic explanation for it!!!

    Those of us who work on Language in the brain have long known to take Pinker with a pinch of salt! He is a smart guy, but he is not a nice guy. Nor he is a genius! He is a little frustrated, though, I think, because he knows he lives under a big shadow in his scientific works! In fact, in my opinion, his behavior should form an excellent study case for Robert Trivers’ works on self-deception! I hardly think Pinker believes the socio-political crap he says… he is more likely just pandering to the status quo! Gotta keep them promotions coming!

  11. chigau (ever-elliptical) says

    Samuel S. Mandal #11
    Using the <return> twice

    will make paragraph


  12. Greta Samsa says

    It’s a beautiful form of anti-reason.
    In physics, the only speed limit is the speed of light in the medium, so why do roads have speed limits?

  13. brucegee1962 says

    You left off the real beauty of the last paragraph:

    More generally, an underappreciation of the Second Law lures people into seeing every unsolved social problem as a sign that their country is being driven off a cliff. It’s in the very nature of the universe that life has problems. But it’s better to figure out how to solve them—to apply information and energy to expand our refuge of beneficial order—than to start a conflagration and hope for the best.

    I assume that it’s me that he’s talking about here. I’ve noticed a few social problems, see, like for instance, police shooting black people disproportionately. And I sincerely believe that there’s no possible way of figuring out how to solve this problem, so we need to tear up the social contract, abolish government, tear down all central authority, and hope that a more equitable society eventually arises from the ashes of the current one. Fortunately, we’ve got Pinker to persuade me and the doubtless millions upon millions of others who believe as I do, that there might be a better way.

  14. Snoof says

    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk- @ 5

    Yeah, just the other night I got viciously attacked by a carrot and half a Hokaido squash.

    I was in a pretty nasty fight with a chili pepper once. Capsaicin is potent stuff.

  15. qwints says

    This is Chopra level thinking. It’s not even a useful insight – it’s like responding to someone whose freezing to death by pointing out that cold is the absence of heat.

  16. A. Noyd says

    Poverty is not “the default state of humankind” because poverty isn’t simply “not having things.” Nor is wealth “having things.” They’re words for a certain differential in having/not having things, and they’re inverses of one another for a reason.

    Places like Malawi or Haiti, for example, are not impoverished because the people there have yet to get away from “the default state of humankind.” They’re impoverished because of centuries of exploitation by others for the sake of wealth—exploitation which continues to this day. And that’s true on a smaller scale, as well.

  17. unclefrogy says

    if poverty is the default state of mankind and it is wealth that needs to be explained then I think I have heard of an explanation for wealth some where. It is that wealth has been stolen from the poor and working classes by the wealthy I think there are even a lot of books written about it even whole schools built to study it. Just think we had only to ask the psychologist to explain that is all due to physics.
    Some one should probably tell the The Wall Street Journal or something.
    uncle frogy

  18. rietpluim says

    So wealth is the absence of poverty.
    Perhaps we should help the wealthy to reach a more natural state.

  19. says


    I was in a pretty nasty fight with a chili pepper once. Capsaicin is potent stuff.

    Actually a nice example of evolution in action. Birds can’t taste it, but birds also don’t have teeth to chew the seeds, so the chili wants to be eaten by birds, not by stupid mammals. Humans, who for some reason take some sick delight in hurting themselves with capsaicin, are an exception. But on the other hand I assume that our delight in pain has led to more chilis being planted than birds usually manage…

  20. consciousness razor says

    I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t like it, if all of the air in your room collected itself into one corner, or for that matter, into any other wacky configuration other than (almost) evenly distributed. And if you car’s engine no longer worked, your refrigerator stopped running, the wind stopped blowing, the Earth stopped releasing heat into space, etc., you’d probably have a bad day (or a bad remainder of your short life) then too. I mean, we have a very stupidly long time before the heat death of the universe (although of course “we” won’t have that much time for ourselves anyway, so its moral relevance is questionable at best), so at least for the time being, it’s a very stupid mistake to think that entropy increases should be considered a bad thing. The pop-sci notion that it means things get shittier over time is just wrong. Stuff breaks and decays and dies and so forth, yes, but there’s also literally every other thing that happens….

    It just becomes extra-weird, creationist-level dumbfuckery, that Pinker treats property as something about which physics has anything very interesting to say. Economic and political systems are of course physical systems, but it hardly needs to be said that our laws/customs about who owns what (or who doesn’t, neither of which in any case is a closed system) do not depend in any straightforward way on the dissipation of matter/energy or on how many microstates are compatible with a macrostate. He could be a prime example of someone who doesn’t understand or appreciate the second law (perhaps he was being ironic?), but it would probably take a lot of work to get him to stop writing inane essays and think about real physics instead of his cartoon version of it.

  21. says

    Damn that was some embarrassing essay! “Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail.” So next time you burn down a house, if you get caught, just tell the judge that is was thermodinamics in action, no fault of your own. It was the universe thwarting things up!

  22. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    When Claude Shannon was developing his information theory of signals, he consulted John von Neumann about possible names for his uncertainty function:
    “You should call it entropy, for two reasons. In the first place your uncertainty function has been used in statistical mechanics under that name, so it already has a name. In the second place, and more important, no one really knows what entropy really is, so in a debate you will always have the advantage.”

    So, if you are going to use physical quantities in your Just-So story, entropy if a good choice for appearing smart while shutting down any embarrassing questions. The risk is that one of your audience might have a better understanding of entropy than you do. In fact, just based on the fact that you are constructing Just-So stories in the first place, it’s probably a pretty good bet.

  23. blf says

    I assume that our delight in pain has led to more chilis being planted than birds usually manage…

    It definitely has. Chilis are now grown on every continent (except perhaps Antarctica?) yet are endemic to Central Americas. They’ve been deliberately transported worldwide by people (excepting the Americas, all of which happened post-1492). And cross-bred and new varieties developed, and have altered cuisines (Hungarian is now famous for its use of paprika, as an example, but that only dates back something like 300 years).

  24. blf says

    a_ray_in_dilbert_space@23, Thanks for that story about Claude Shannon and John von Neumann! I’ve never heard it before, but just so totally want to believe it (and currently know of no reason not to…).

    The trick — Invent-a-Name™ — seems to be one which is often used for one of the reasons cited, to try and avoid a preconceived notion of what it means. (That can, of course, be done for unethical (bad) as well as innocent (good) reasons.) I’ve certainly done it myself. You can easily find an example variant of the idea in the use of nonce words in manuals and papers as placeholders, such as the famous foo.

  25. says

    Chilis are now grown on every continent (except perhaps Antarctica?) yet are endemic to Central Americas.

    Which reminds me that I need to plant mine soon as they take an awfully long time to germinate.

    See, with a bit of creativity you can get some use out of a Pinker essay.

  26. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Actually, I love von Neumann stories. He was so brilliant and such a character. There’s another story about the time von Neumann was in an advanced seminar with Polya (author of the semi-popularized book, “How to Solve It”). Polya wrote down a theorem and noted that it had never been proven. About 10 minutes later, von Neumann raises his hand, and when Polya calls on him, he walks to the board and proceeds to write down the proof on the board. Polya said, “After that, I was afraid of von Neumann.

    Shannon was also a character–most famous for riding a unicycle down the hallways at Bell Labs.

  27. Hj Hornbeck says

    Oh Myers, you missed the best part:

    Tooby, John, Leda Cosmides, and H. Clark Barrett. “The second law of thermodynamics is the first law of psychology: evolutionary developmental psychology and the theory of tandem, coordinated inheritances: comment on Lickliter and Honeycutt (2003).” (2003): 858.

    That’s not a Sokal hoax; two well-respected Evolutionary Psychologists legitimately think thermodynamics sheds light on psychology.

    it is very revealing — almost a revolutionary change in sensibility — to reexamine key issues in psychology and biology through the lens of physics, chemistry, and probability theory. In particular, the second law of thermodynamics (in both its classical and informational versions) is a fundamental law of biology and psychology as well as of physics because organisms and their brains are physical systems.

    Pinker may have a worse grasp of physics than Tooby and Cosmides, but from the looks of it his basic misunderstandings of science aren’t rare among Evolutionary Psychologists.

  28. blf says

    a_ray_in_dilbert_space@27, Yes I’ve heard both the von Neumann / Polya, and Shannon / unicycle, stories before. I’ve no von Neumann or Shannon stories to add (although the work of both has frequently intersected with both my education and work). There are a number of web pages full of such stories…

  29. richardemmanuel says

    The Earth looks like it will be taking in energy for a while. The mysterious source of this wealth I can’t remember. But I hope it doesn’t come to collect anytime soon.

  30. mnb0 says

    “What needs to be explained is wealth,”
    Even on his own terms this is manure. The 2nd Law provides that explanation: put enough an effort (ie work).
    And yes, I’m willfully neglecting things like the distribution of wealth.

  31. richardemmanuel says

    What can he mean? He can’t be wondering how clothes are made. He can’t be wondering if efficiencies make more. He can’t be wondering why the distribution is unequal. He can’t have not noticed that this is arranged by ideograms on slices of trees. He can’t be thinking poverty and wealth are not two sides ofthe same coin. Is it all in the word ‘just’? Because matter ‘just’ did arrange itself into Mr Pinker, and his attire. He sounds like a creationist. A wealth creationist.

  32. =8)-DX says

    @Hj Hornbeck #28
    And you left out the funny at the start of that paragraph (jumping from scientists and physicists):

    And the evolutionary psychologists [..]

    Actually reading that crappy article, the entire meat is really that paragraph PZ quoted, with the following conclusion a completely banaal exhortation for people to look for solutions instead of just burning the world down. WOW, stupid POOR, not applying “information and energy” to expand their “refuge of beneficial order”. How silly of them, not knowing the basic scientific fact of how the Second Law™ is directly connected to their bootstraps!

    But no, it’s just stupid. The Earth is not a closed system, it’s having energy practically endlessly pumped into it from the sun with huge reserves of further energy stored in chemical bonds and atomic nuclei. The problem of poverty is to do with the distribution of resources and the efficiency of organising labour. So in a physical system of entropy it’s like cooking food in a microwave set to full blast with a malfunctioning turnstile: some bits will remain frozen, others will overcook. Now if with a metal pot quickly distributing heat to a liquid mass often stirred: everyone’s soup will end up cooked and piping hot and we can even use a ladle to ensure equal portions!

    The only conclusion can be that the Second Law of Thermodynamics requires a fully egalitarian communist model! Equal pay for everyone!

  33. botulf says

    This is just physicsbabble to mask the fact that he treats poverty and wealth as absolutes, which is absolute bollocks, in order to justify his own ideology. Also, without the red herring of entropy his essay would be really short.

    This reminds me of reading Pinkers book, the blank slate. A book that gave me the tools to understand why women are the weaker sex (sarcasm follows):
    If you try to outrun a predator, like a tiger, on a sandy beach a man could run as fast as he needed and be able to escape the tiger with only his own athletic abilities setting limits. If a woman needed to do the same thing she would be in danger of getting sand in her vagina which would grind and slow her down and she would be eaten. Therefore there has been an evolutionary pressure on women not to leave the group and the home while men has not had that constraint and therefore evolved to be able to go out and achieve with only their own abilities as limits.

    If a woman went out and achieved anyway, she must have had a more masculine brain than other women. With reference to Simon Baron-Cohens work on autism, this means the above hypothesis, that women are a weaker sex, could be proven by showing that achieving women are either more likely to be autistic or more systematizing than ordinary women.

    Yes, in the light of Pinkers writing that does not sound too far fetched.

  34. says

    @4, slithey tove

    doesn’t the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics say
    everyone should have precisely the same amount of wealth, that for it to be concentrated in very few hands is a very low entropy state and to maximize entropy means the wealth should be evenly distributed.

    I think Sean Carrol here (a theoretical physicist) might sort-of explain this, starting at about the 30:45 mark.