I’m going to call the relentless, performative celebration of something called “rationality” Pinkerism now. I’ve noticed it before: every YouTube channel that considers it a sufficient declaration of their worthiness to simply label themselves “The <insert adjective for “smart” here> Atheist”, all the lists of logical fallacies, the books about how everyone else is so stupid, the insistence that we get better by just being more logical (even when they’re contradicting themselves), the Mr Spock envy. It got old. It just seemed so joyless.
Well, you can trust good ol’ Steven Pinker to come along and dial it all up to 11. His new book is titled Rationality, and every smug wanker in the fading atheist movement will snatch it off the shelves. I won’t be one of them, so I’m going to have to rely on getting my impressions second hand, unfortunately. But oh boy, this review is stinging.
For someone who so frequently and serenely proclaims that he’s right, Steven Pinker can get curiously defensive. In “Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters,” Pinker writes as if he’s part of an embattled minority, valiantly making the case that “the ability to use knowledge to attain goals” is so underappreciated these days that the reading public needs a new book (by Pinker) “to lay out rational arguments for rationality itself.”
He’s very disappointed that we aren’t all down on our knees praising Saint Steven.
Still, Pinker is troubled by what he sees as rationality’s image problem. “Rationality is uncool,” he laments. It isn’t seen as “dope, phat, chill, fly, sick or da bomb.” As evidence for its diminished status, he quotes celebrations of nonsense by the Talking Heads and Zorba the Greek. (Pinker is also vexed by the line “Let’s go crazy,” which he says was “adjured” by “the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.”) It’s precisely this cultural derision of reason, he says, that prevents us from appreciating rationality’s spectacular accomplishments. “Human progress is an empirical fact,” he writes. “‘Progress’ is shorthand for a set of pushbacks and victories wrung out of an unforgiving universe, and is a phenomenon that needs to be explained. The explanation is rationality.“
You know the Talking Heads is a rather cerebral band, right? That dadaism was an intellectual movement? And that Prince was a joyful celebrant of art? I guess we’re not supposed to be happy. We’re supposed to be like Martians, with “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic”.
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.
We all know how the Martians ended up.
Some of Pinker’s observations on racial issues are similarly blinkered. Are mortgage lenders who turn down minority applicants really being racist, he muses, or are those lenders simply calculating default rates “from different neighborhoods that just happen to correlate with race?” (A long history of racist redlining may “happen” to have something to do with this too, but Pinker doesn’t get into it.) He goes on to ask why “race, sex, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation have become war zones in intellectual life, even as overt bigotry of all kinds has dwindled.”
Anyone paying attention to what’s been happening in the last few years might wonder where he got his information. In support of his vague claim, Pinker directs the reader to a footnote citing two sources: a study, whose data ended in 2016, that measured a person’s “explicit attitudes” based on self-reporting (i.e. the respondents had to admit their bigotry); and a few (unhelpful) pages from “Enlightenment Now.”
It looks like he’s well on the path to self-referential insertion of his head up his own rectum. Perhaps the walls of his colon prevent him from noticing the increases in hate crimes in the US.
Poverty is also negligible in Pinker’s brain, and he’s always ready to indulge in the small pleasure of wagging a finger at fat people enjoying lasagna. He’s very petty that way.
The trouble arrives when he tries to gussy up his psychologist’s hat with his more elaborate public intellectual’s attire. The person who “succumbs” to the “small pleasure” of a lasagna dinner instead of holding out for the “large pleasure of a slim body” is apparently engaged in a similar kind of myopic thinking as the “half of Americans nearing retirement age who have saved nothing for retirement.” His breezy example elides the fact that — according to the same data — the median income for those non-saving households is $26,000, which isn’t enough money to pay for living expenses, let alone save for retirement.
So what’s the source of these “problems”? If you’ve read any right-wing media in the last few decades, you know the answer: education. I’m a little surprised that a Harvard professor would so readily find common cause with Prager U.
He repeatedly says that by promoting rationality he’s promoting “epistemic humility,” but you’d be hard-pressed to find much humility here, as he pronounces that among the biggest barriers to rationality’s triumph is “the universities’ left-wing suffocating monoculture.”
Oh, I know. I’ve noticed that biology departments across the country suffer from a suffocating monoculture of evolutionists, and math departments still persist in suffocating students with calculus, and chemists, those old fuddy-duddies, still strangle students with stoichiometry and bonds and thermodynamics. I dare not look across campus to the humanities and social sciences, where everyone is in zombie-like lockstep, there is never any dissent, and no one has any ideas, other than ones that might make comfortable Harvard professors uncomfortable, and which may therefore be ignored and belittled.
Has he ever considered that maybe left-wing philosophies thrive on college campuses because a) we like diverse ideas, and b) we like to challenge those ideas, two principles that are anathema to conservatives? And, apparently, anathema to Pinker, who has The Answer to everything. Rationality. Don’t you dare go crazy or question the status quo. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. That’s “epistemic humility”.
But don’t worry. Pinker is a smart man who will make a good sum of money out of his schtick. And that’s what matters, although I have to recommend that he put on Remain in Light or Purple Rain and listen for a while. He’d be a better person for it.