Interview with Professor Steven Pinker – Johnstone Family Professor, Psychology, Harvard University

by | June 10, 2020

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

In a prior job at Conatus News in the United Kingdom, I conducted an interview with the prominent and respected author and philosopher of science, Dr. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, who agreed to the interview and made some thoughtful comments about the idea of the “conatus” or the idea of an “effort or willing of something in order to improve itself.” This came with a context. She understood the intellectual environs and inspiration of the “conatus” coming from deceased philosopher Baruch Spinoza and others. Goldstein has a sentiment towards Spinoza, akin to Bertrand Russell’s when he said, “Spinoza is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme.” As serendipity presents itself, sometimes, one can get the opportunity to interview an individual of similar intellectual calibre within many of the same philosophical traditions and ethical outlooks. Serendipity came through financial and social media assistance on the part of Professor Pinker towards an initiative to combat a particular form of superstition and supernatural belief in Africa. As it so happens, also, Pinker and Goldstein have been married since 2007. Professor Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. His most recent book is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. With great pleasure, I present the interview with Professor Pinker from yesterday here, where we discuss current events in the United States in a larger non-pollyannaish context, journalism, cognitive biases, supernatural beliefs, creationism, global democratic movements, the language faculty, sex and gender differences, and Humanism.

*Interview conducted on June 9, 2020.*

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let’s start from the top with some of the current events in the United States, and some of the things happening in the world as well, if we look at some of the more current events in the United States over the last two weeks, it can given the impression of things being quite negative, in terms of the apparent destruction of property and violence against some citizens and authorities. Your recent work has been based around cataloguing long-term trends happening around the world, including in the United States. One of the caveats that you tend to give is that it is not pollyannaish in its perspective as well. So, what would be a broader perspective, even in the midst of some of the sociopolitical upheaval happening in the United States now?

Professor Steven Pinker: The overall levels of violence, including police shootings of civilians, were worse in the past. It’s unfortunate that this has been a long-simmering problem, particularly in the United States, where police kill far too many civilians. We should be grateful. Finally, this problem is going to be addressed. It is unavoidable. However, our impression of the present moment compared to other times should not be compared to the news of the day because the news is a highly non-random sample of the worse things happening on the planet on any given day. They can give a highly misleading picture of the trajectory of the world. The things that go right tend to be non-newsworthy. The country is not at war. That’s not news.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pinker: Things that tend to get better creep up a few percentage points per year, which can then compound and transform the planet. However, if they don’t take place on a Thursday in February, then we will never read about them. While not denying terrible things can happen, indeed, an acknowledgement of human progress is not the same as the belief that nothing bad ever happens or things get better by themselves. We’re apt to underestimate progress when our source of information about the world comes through the news.

Jacobsen: Does this make a general statement about journalism and reportage, even in prestigious Western publications such as The New York Times, coming to the phrase, “If it bleeds, it leads”?

Pinker: Indeed, this is not to cast aspersions on the essential role of the mainstream media in our understanding of the world because it is the reporters who have the commitment to disinterested search of information. It is the institutions of fact-checking and editorial responsibility that are the only window to the world. It is not an accusation of any sinister, or even commercial, motive, but, rather, a kind of innumeracy. A kind of failure to appreciate the distortions coming about by sampling. In particular, the sample of the worst things taking place anywhere on the planet. The insensitivity to time scales. Something can go wrong very quickly. Something going right tends to be protracted over time. Also, a part of our psychology is unduly affected by the images, anecdotes, and narratives. Cognitive psychologists call this the Availability Bias/Heuristic. Events available in memory – because of vividness, recency, and concreteness – will tend to distort estimates of risk likelihood and probability.

Jacobsen: Even if we take the research of distinguished professors like Elizabeth Loftus at the University of California, Irvine, there is a robust phenomenon of False Memories and Rich False Memories. If we are taking social activism and political events over the scale of decades, does this further compound the cognitive biases with information recalled and observed and brought to the news?

Pinker: It is an additional source of distortion of our perception of the world. Above and beyond the fact, we are overly influenced by events and narratives. There is the problem: we don’t particularly remember them accurately, as Elizabeth Loftus’s work has shown. We tend to tidy up the details of our memories. So, they fit a coherent narrative. Our memories can be edited retrospectively by the way we think about them, the occasions of recollection. After we recall a memory, the filing back of the memory can be distorting once more. It is an additional source of cognitive impairment. All educated people should be aware of it, including journalists.

Jacobsen: Are there particular types of biases coming forward in more established mainstream institutional news organizations compared to more independent journalism?

Pinker: There can be. Overall, large journalistic institutions can afford editors and fact-checkers, and reporters to be sent out to remote and inhospitable locations. Plus, they have a reputation to defend. So, if they are caught on record with egregious distortions, then that will subtract from the reputation. There are some reasons for the big institutions needing to be more accurate. On the other hand, there are some reasons for reduced accuracy`. If there is a particular worldview, ideology, or mindset, often, it is hard to recognize them in yourself. There’s a quote, which I love, from the economist Joan Robinson, “Ideology is like breath. You never smell your own.”

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pinker: [Laughing] If an institution, including a journalistic institution, is captured by a political faction, whether on the left or the right, we know from a body of psychological research of a third type of distortion. Namely, the desire to filter evidence, so it reinforces beliefs held already by you. With Confirmation Bias, we tend to subscribe to themes and commentaries affirming beliefs rather than challenging them. We tend to be hardnosed methodological purists when it comes to research contradicting personal beliefs. Whereas, we tend to give an easy pass when it comes to research that confirms them. Indeed, political biases, almost a tribalism where the tribes are not ethnographic units or sports teams, are ideologies on the left or the right. They can be a major source of misunderstanding. Again, there is a biased bias. Where everyone is willing to admit this is true about the other side, their side is seen as completely objective and clear-eyed. There is reason to believe this is not true. In fact, we can find distortions in the factual understanding on both the left and the right.

Jacobsen: In the United States more so than Canada, and the United Kingdom much less so than Canada, there are a lot of supernatural beliefs across the board, whether devils, ghosts, all sorts of things. How do these then creep into some of the perceptions of a lot of the general public, even if they are reading decent, reliable, and validated reportage in the news?

Pinker: Yes, I am not aware of data comparing countries. What you say doesn’t surprise me, in a lot of measures of wellbeing and rationality, the United States punches well below its wealth.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pinker: It is among the world’s wealthiest countries. It ought to be the healthiest, happiest, and the smartest in the world. It does okay.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pinker: In many ways, it trails Canada and other affluent democracies. I wouldn’t be surprised if supernatural belief is one. Certainly, religious belief is one. Americans are more religious than any affluent democracy. The United States is an outlier. There are beliefs, which we don’t categorize as religion. They are supernatural or New Age. They are surprisingly prevalent in a lot of countries. Why would this be more the case in the United States assuming the science shows this? The scientific and pseudoscientific beliefs do not come from a first-hand knowledge of the relevant scientific literatures. Frankly, I am not enough of a population geneticist, climate scientist, or neuroscientist to defend all personal beliefs about the brain, the soul, the climate, and evolution. However, I know the way science works. They are the tribe for me. I know the intellectual ecosystem. It is peer review. It is open debate. If someone were to come up with a really good refutation of some dogma, then this would be a good career move because the upstart is often rewarded. I tend to believe: If something is in the scientific mainstream, then it is, typically, a better source of objective understanding than some random thing forwarded from Twitter or email.

On the other hand, there are people without this belief. They treat the scientific consensus, the consensus of institutions such as government and academia and hospitals and mainstream media, as another opinion. No more reliable than something retweeted. Tests of scientific knowledge when it comes to climate show people who accept the scientific consensus are not necessarily more informed than others who do not accept it. For those who accept manmade climate change, they think this has something to do with plastic straws and holes in the ozone. Climate change dealing with a sense of greenness. Their own not-so scientific beliefs happen to align with the scientific consensus because they tend to follow, more or less, the consensus. However, for people alienated from mainstream institutions, they have no reason to take this any more seriously than pronouncements of President Donald Trump. In the United States, assuming a greater degree of belief in the paranormal, pseudoscience, and so on, in addition to the well-documented level of religious belief, it may lead to greater alienation from mainstream institutions, which tend to be more trusted in other wealthy democracies, I assume.

Jacobsen: Skeptical Inquirer published a good article, recently. It had to do with Nobel Prize winners, some, who held not exactly the most robustly validated positions. In other words, it was a comparison between individuals who would very likely score very high on general intelligence while having certain forms of irrational beliefs. It is not directly related, but it is along the same line of thinking of some of the research into people who score very high on intelligence tests, general intelligence tests, having particular kinds of tendencies in irrational thinking. Is general intelligence a factor here when it comes to pseudoscientific beliefs, supernatural beliefs, and various forms of fundamentalist religious beliefs?

Pinker: It is a factor, but it is like anything in psychology or social science. There are correlations. They are significant, but well below 0.10.

Jacobsen: [Laughing] Right.

Pinker: [Laughing] People who score higher on IQ tests. They are more likely to be atheists. Also, they are more likely to get education, less likely to fall prey to fallacies of statistical reasoning. However, there are no shortage of exceptions to the correlations.

Jacobsen: In the United States, there has been a longstanding effort to try to combat the perceived encroachment of an atheist worldview or a secular frame of mind, especially in regard to evolution via natural selection. So, organizations like the Discovery Institute. Philip Johnson died last year in November. He is the legal mind of the orientation. The other two are Michael Behe and William Dembski for the molecular biology and information theoretic foundations of Intelligent Design creationism, respectively. They have been working for decades to try to impose creationist thought in the education system by skipping all manner of regular modern scientific procedure with peer review, debate, experiment, etc. Instead, they attempted to go straight to the high school system in the textbooks. So, when it comes to some, not simply errors in reasoning or correlations between general intelligence and certain forms of supernatural and pseudoscientific beliefs, what about these direct efforts to try to reduce the level of correct scientific and empirical theories, most substantiated theories, of the world seen today?

Pinker: Indeed, though, the Discovery Institute and the smarter creationists have been clever at insinuating what are disguised religious beliefs in the guise of scientific controversy. On two occasions, my hometown paper, the Boston Globe, one of the prestigious papers in the United States, published op-eds by people from the Discovery Institute trying to sew confusion about evolution. I complained in both instances to the editorial page. The editor was tricked by a fairly clever campaign to make this seem as if it was in the realm of ongoing scientific controversy. In that, it was a secular argument for Intelligent Design. Whereas, as the Kitzmiller case in Dover in 2005 established, there’s no question: This is disguised religious propaganda. Knowing the separation of church and state, at least in the United States, they realize the need to work around it. They were given a stunning defeat in 2005, but, certainly, they have not given up.

Jacobsen: Some of the earliest work was on an innate capacity of language. When it comes to a lot of the innate capacities, I, often, think of the cognitive biases, which appear, more or less, hardwired in how human beings evolved. When it comes to some of the attempts to educate along the lines of critical thinking, science, and empiricism, general rationality, even if there was pervasive critical thinking education, science education, logical reasoning education, and so on, from elementary school through to the end of high school, would there be an asymptote at some level in terms of the level of rationality to inculcate in the society, including among the wealthiest?

Pinker: Humans, certainly, are a rational species. In that, we have taken over the planet, even long before the Industrial Revolution and the age of colonization. From a homeland in Africa, humans outsmarted plants and animals in a variety of ecosystems because they could develop mental models about the ways the world worked. They were not so superstitious to not know when it could get cooler, how to track down an animal, and how to detoxify a plant. We have an innate capacity for reason. It seems rooted in the physical world, the concrete world, or the cause-and-effect arrows determining our survival. When it comes to history before we were born, when it comes to parts of the world where we don’t live, when it comes to things too small to see, or places too far away to live, we are susceptible to myths and fairytales. Probably, it’s because most of the history of the species existed before the era of science, statistics, and modern education. It didn’t matter much. On the creation of the cosmos, you could believe anything.  

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pinker: A lot of beliefs were not in the realm of truth and falsity. Our modern attitude states, “We ought to apply this to all of our beliefs.” Rather, we look for narrative appeals of the story and the moral utility. That is, is this good for galvanizing people to do the right things? Whether it is true or false, it a secondary concern for a lot of our beliefs. I think this is true of a lot of religious beliefs. It is not even clear, whether religious beliefs for religious people are deep down believed to be true. In that, this is seen as an important belief to hold, or not, in spite of its truthfulness. I believe our cognitive systems have these two different kinds of belief. Modernity has seen the expansion and encroachment of the factual, scientific, logical, and historical, over the mythological, the narrative, the fable, and the morality tales. However, human nature makes the myth, the narrative, and the fable always pushback. We need, in the education system, political discourse, and journalistic discourse, an affirmation of the idea: some things are true; some things are false. We do not know, at any given time, what they are because we are not omniscient. We are not infallible. We have methods, which steer us on a path to greater truth, including the scientific method. We ought to valorize attempts at objectivity, even when they tug at our moral narratives or moral convictions.

Jacobsen: One of the approaches endorsed by you, which, I believe, comes from the late Hans Rosling: “factfulness.” What is factfulness? How does this reorient a lot of the discourses, whether floating in online spaces or some professional circles?

Pinker: Yes, I wish I came up with the word “factfulness.”

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pinker: It is an excellent addition to the English language suggested by a native speaker of Swedish, the late Hans Rosling, and his son, Ola Rosling, and daughter-in-law, Anna Rosling Rönnlund. Factfulness is the mindset of basing beliefs on the best vetted facts. In their case, and in mine, e.g., the book Enlightenment Now coming out shortly before Factfulness and partly based on Rosling’s data, it is the sense of the arc of history, of the state of the world now, should be driven by the best and most comprehensive data rather than by the headlines. Indeed, Rosling showed, in a number of surveys in The Ignorance Project, most people are out to lunch on knowledge of basic world developments such as people becoming richer or poorer on the whole, the percentage of kids who are vaccinated, the percentage of kids who are educated and literate. The majority of people believe things continue to get worse. People have not escaped poverty. Most people are illiterate. When in most cases, it is the great majorities.

Jacobsen: One of the big metrics, I believe the late Christopher Hitchens noted this in a debate with Tony Blair. The single best metric for the development of society is probably coming under the guise of the phrase: “The empowerment of women.” If women have equal rights on a variety of measures, whether reproductive health rights, economic access, educational access, and so on, the societies tend to be much healthier, and wealthier. What are some other metrics having an overall positive correlation with the health and wealth of a society?

Pinker: Yes, I think that is the essential question. To the frustration of social scientists, when you make comparisons across countries, across American states, across time periods, a lot of things get confounded. So, when you search for a cause and effect story, you need to be a really clever statistician or econometrician because countries with more empowered women are healthier, wealthier, more democratic. The questions: Which one is the cause? Which ones are the beneficial effects? The answer may be each of them reinforces each of the others. In countries with greater wealth, they will be less likely to imprison women in the kitchen and the nursery. Yet, when you have 50% of the population to apply their brainpower to the society’s problems, then this will likely make them richer moving forward. Likewise, richer countries tend to be able to afford schools and keep kids out of the fields and the factories. When you have a generation of kids who are better educated, they tend to be more receptive to the empowerment of women. It is an irrefutable idea [Laughing]. The idea of keeping half of the population in a state of oppression doesn’t make sense, when you observe the outcomes of societies empowering women. Other progressive belief systems such as the value of democracy over tyranny, the value of peace over conflict. These tend to correlate with better, more educated populaces.

I think Hitchens is right. In that, the empowerment of women is one driver. Although, it is hard to say, “It is the first driver.” In that, in any given society, if you simply educated girls, and if there were no other changes in health and infrastructure, then the society would improve. Certainly, it is a contributor. One way to think about this. Francis Fukuyama once said the key problem in human progress or human development, “How do we get to Denmark?” In this sense, Denmark is a lot like many countries. It has poverty. It has crime, but much less. In many ways, you could pick Norway. However, there are many, many better places to live than others. We can see how people vote with their feet. People, literally, want to get to Denmark via immigration there. It gives a benchmark for, at least at present, the highest places to aspire. Ideally, we would get the rest of the world to a state of happiness, health, and education, as Denmark. A lot of things differentiate Denmark from Togo or Bangladesh. Women’s empowerment would be one of them.

Jacobsen: What about the number of democracies in the world now? What about the strengths of the democracies? Is it fewer or more? Even if we take the total count, how robust are these democracies?

Pinker: In the past decade, the world has been more democratic than any other historical period and decade. There has been some backsliding in the past few years. Russia, Turkey, Hungary, and Brazil, for example, have slid back, including the United States and India. However, there is no comparison to the 1970s, when I was in the university system. There were experts predicting democracy would go the way of monarchy. A nice arrangement while it lasted.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pinker: It is good to remember. Even with the alarming regression in democracy, we are seeing it. It is slight compared to the previous times of the world. Half of Europe was behind the Iron Curtain until 1989, living under totalitarian communistic dictatorships. Most of Latin America was under rightwing or military dictatorships. In East Asia, you had South Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia under rightwing military dictatorships. All of them more or less democratic today. It is true. You cannot dichotomize the world into democratic and autocratic because a lot of crappy democracies exist. In that, people have the right to vote, but the government manipulates the vote. Either by outright fraud, by penalizing/outlawing opposition parties, by using the government organs as propaganda for the regime in power, by harassing journalists and opposition leaders on trumped up corruption charges, and so on, by dismantling civil society institutions like universities as Hungary did with the Central European University. That’s why a number of organizations give countries a grade. Sometimes, it is from minus 10 to plus 10 on an autocracy to a democracy scale.

Jacobsen: To the earliest work for you, as far as I know, it was language. You built off a lot of the work by Noam Chomsky or highly inspired by the work of Noam Chomsky. What is language, fundamentally, in terms of the modern research?

Pinker: My interests, in fact, were in all of human nature and human behaviour. I worked in visual imagery, auditory perception at McGill University before venturing into language. I did research into behaviour of rats and pigeons while a student as McGill. My first research was on excessive drinking in rats – of water, that is.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pinker: My interest in language comes from a more general interest in human nature. Language is the most distinctively human trait. Although, it would not have evolved if not for other more distinctively human traits. Zoologically unusual features of homo sapiens including technological knowhow, figuring out how to outsmart plants and animals, how to develop tools and technologies, and social cooperation. We are unusual in the degree of social cooperation with members of the species who we are biologically unrelated. Language, it would not have evolved if we were not on speaking terms. Why share information or knowhow, or say anything to the enemy? The fact of the development of recipes, algorithms, and technologies and tools mean an interest in saying something to one another. We do not talk to merely amuse ourselves. In turn, it makes us valuable to other people as sources of information. It makes us more curious about our relations with other individuals. Language helps negotiate partnerships, spread gossip about partnerships to avoid, and so on. The three abilities – language, knowhow, and sociality – co-evolved. My original interest in language came from an interest in baby’s acquisition of it. This was a question for Chomsky. He did not study children’s language. He set a central theoretical problem in understanding language: How do we develop language in the first place? People need to learn to read, but not to speak.

All human societies have language without the benefit of some central committee with everything planned. The development and acquisition of language is part and parcel of the essence of human nature. For Chomsky, he implied a rich innate structure to language. Obviously, we can’t come into the world knowing anything about English, Japanese, Yiddish, or Swahili, but Chomsky proposed an innate universal grammar. That is, computational machinery optimized for language. Now, it is very hard to pin down what would go into this universal grammar. There is an enormous controversy around it. There is by no means a consensus in the researchers studying language. The challenge of explaining how kids learn language. It led me to being sympathetic to the idea of innate constraints or pre-programming of the possibilities of a language. Kids did not approach language as pure cryptographers trying to decode the probabilistic sequences of one sound after another. They come into the world expecting other people will communicate with them using arbitrary signs arranged by rules. They look for units of sounds. They listen for words. They are sensitive to the ways of combining them. Unless, you have a circuitry programmed to do it. Then kids would flounder around producing sounds approximating language without ever getting the point that a language is a bunch of signals.

Jacobsen: When we look at the various facets of human nature, one of the philosophical assumptions for humanists, like you and I, is human nature is fundamentally good. There are outliers among us. However, in general, human nature is fundamentally a good set up. As a philosophical assertion, how supported is this, empirically?

Pinker: Yes, I wouldn’t put it that way, myself. I stole a phrase from Abraham Lincoln for the title of a book I published, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, in 2011. Of course, putting aside the angels, it is a lovely metaphor. As it captures, human nature is complex. It has parts. I would not say, “Humans are fundamentally good.” I’d say, “There are subsystems in the human brain, which allows us to be good, e.g., empathy, a moral sense, a capacity for self-control, the power of reason.” However, it is not everything in the skull. We can be callous toward others. We can exploit them, whether exploitative labour, in sex, or through property. Some genders more than others have a stronger sense of dominance.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pinker: We have a thirst for revenge. Sometimes, it is called justice. We can cultivate a sense of sadism. Depending on the social milieu, different parts of human nature can come to the fore. The challenge is setting up the norms, the institutions, the beliefs, and the laws calling out the better angels and suppressing the inner demons.

Jacobsen: What setups, empirically speaking, tend to bring the subsystems producing behaviours and thoughts, moral sentiments, bringing out the “better angels of our nature”?

Pinker: Democracy is one of them. The idea, no one has the right to dominate anyone else. There is a provisional, circumscribed, and temporary power granted to some individuals subject to recall and oversight to protect us against each other or to maximize public goods. That’s one of them. Cosmopolitan mixing of people and ideas. It becomes harder to demonize others if you know the state of the world in their shoes or from their point of view. Ideas such as human flourishing as the ultimate good rather than national glory or the propagation of dogma or adherence to scripture. The cultivation of a sense of fallibility, corrigibility, knowledge of human limits and human nature. So, we set up our institutions, not because any one of us can claim to be angelic or moral, or infallible or omniscient. Precisely the opposite, we set up rules of the game, so we can approach the truth or the morally best way of arranging our affairs. Even though, no one of us is good or wise enough to attain it. We have mechanisms with democratic checks and balances. We do not empower a benevolent despot because the despots are a guy or a gal complete with human infirmities. We do not allow scientific authorities to legislate a dogma. We have peer review. Even a Nobel Prize winner can’t get his or her stuff published without other people anonymously vetting it, it is part of the norm of science. Anyone can raise their hand and point out a flawed argument of anyone else. We don’t always implement them in as effective a form as desirable. However, those are aspirations. The fact of setting up rules allowing better states of knowledge, better forms of cooperation despite our limitations is a way in which we can outdo ourselves.

Jacobsen: You’ve done a debate or several debates on sex and gender differences. What are the differences between men and women, which are significant? What are some caveats to some of those significant differences?

Pinker: Yes, I consider myself a feminist. I celebrate the incomplete advancement of women’s rights and interests in all walks of life. However, I don’t think feminism demands sameness or interchangeability. In fact, I think it’s rather insulting to women.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pinker: To say, it makes them worthy of rights, so they’re exactly like men. Because men and women have plenty of bugs, shortcomings, and flaws. Among the differences, the differences in sexuality. Men have a greater taste for sex for its own sake without consideration for emotional commitments. Perhaps, the most recent sign of this comes from the growing industry in sex robots.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pinker: It is exclusively male. There are others. Men are the more violent gender. The homicide rates tend to be more than 10 times greater for male on male compared to female on female. Men tend to be more interested in things. Women are more interested in people. On average, in cognitive abilities, the differences are smaller and measurable. Men tend to be better at 3-dimensional spatial rotation. Women tend to be better at verbal fluency and arithmetic calculation. Men tend to be greater risk-takers, including stupid risks. There are others. Those are some of the major ones. Two major caveats, we are talking about two overlapping bell curves. For any difference in the averages, there are going to be plenty of women who are better than the average male and plenty of males who are better than the average female in spatial ability, in sexuality, in risk-taking, in interest in gadgets, etc. You name it. Also, we shouldn’t confuse the existence of observed differences amongst the averages or the central tendencies with political or moral rights/obligations. Namely, every individual should be treated as an individual and should have the opportunity to do whatever he or she finds is best for them. Florynce Kennedy once said, “There are very few jobs that actually require a penis or vagina. All other jobs should be open to everybody.”

Jacobsen: [Laughing] That’s a good quote. There’s another facet of this as well. It has to do with the factor of variance. If we look at the extreme levels of either end of the curve, the Gaussian normal distribution, the bell curve, let’s say 4 standard deviations on either side of the average, so, the profoundly gifted or the profoundly not, what shows up in the population of the profoundly gifted or not? For instance, the ratio of men to women at those levels. Also, if we look at the various standardized tests measuring at those levels, insofar as they do, what about the subtest scores in terms of the amount of sameness on all the subtests and the variability on all of the subtests too?

Pinker: There are a number of robust sex differences. There is more variability in men than in women. So, when you go out to the tails in either direction, the sex ratio is different. With the caveat, the farther and farther out one looks at the tails of the distribution, then the smaller and smaller are the sample sizes. So, the data get fuzzier. The other caveat is variance never reaches zero. So, no matter how far out one goes or not, you will see specimens of both sexes. However, in general, there are more men proportionately at the high and low end of most continua for which we have data.

Jacobsen: What are some of the socially predicted outcomes of this kind of variability? How does this manifest itself in society?

Pinker: One of them, if in a completely fair system, let’s say one utterly gender blind, you would not expect a 50/50 ratio in any profession. This has been long obvious to me based on the early career in childhood language acquisition. There was a statistical imbalance in favour of women. Both in sheer numbers and most of the intellectual superstars. In other fields, it may go another way, e.g., mechanical engineering, theoretical physics. Again, people tend to confuse the observation of the numbers as “not 50/50” with the claim of “no women.” It is preposterous. Only a madman would think women aren’t in physics or mechanical engineering. It doesn’t mean the numbers will be 50/50. In turn, it means departure from 50/50 is not, itself, a proof of sexism. Although, there may be sexism. Certainly, there is sexism. We can have any target, any aspiration. We can decide: It is an important social goal for 50/50 outcomes in mechanical engineering. I think this is a dubious goal. It means that we would not achieve the goal merely by a completely fair system. We would have to tilt this in the other direction with affirmative action policies in favour of women. Maybe, this is a social goal. Certainly, it must be a social goal. There should be no discrimination or harassment. Even in a utopian world in which discrimination and harassment fell to zero, we would not automatically end up with 50/50 ratios.

Jacobsen: If we look at a humanist philosophy, by the very nature of it, it is not merely atheism or agnosticism. In that, atheism is, as we know, simply a rejection of the supernatural in the form of gods. Agnosticism is a form of “I don’t know” about it. Humanism takes an ethical approach. At the same time, it incorporates science into its philosophical meanderings. So, it is open to revision. I think this is probably the reason for a moderately amusing thing among humanists, which is to make a lot of declarations (or manifestos) since 1933 forward.

Pinker: [Laughing].

Jacobsen: [Laughing] I wrote an article for a column for the Humanist Association of Toronto. I counted probably about 12.

Pinker: [Laughing].

Jacobsen: [Laughing] There’s, at least, that many. Some saying the same things. Others saying not the same things. You see variations between “ethical humanism” or “humanism.” You see an alternate religious philosophy and then non-dogmatic philosophy without incorporating religious terminology. When I frame this to myself, I look at Humanism as an empirical moral philosophy. By that nature, it will continually evolve as our best scientific understandings of the world evolve through the standard procedures of science mentioned before. If we take into account an ethical philosophy that evolves and will be ever, hopefully, improving based on improvements in our scientific understandings of the world, what do you think will be some of the next steps based on the richer understanding of science and very deep scientific sensibilities for Humanism as an ethical philosophy? What will be a reasonable next step?

Pinker: Yes, I think you’re right in differentiating and linking atheism per se. That is, atheism as the rejection of supernatural beliefs and Humanism has human flourishing as the ultimate moral good, and the scientific worldview states that we ought to base our beliefs on empirical verification and explanatory depth. They reinforce one another. Even though, they are not identical. Next steps, good question, I think some are a deeper understanding of human nature, of the sources of belief, sources of morality, and the conditions in which we are, more or less, rational. Why smart people can believe stupid things or, at least, irrational things? What are the social conditions allowing both humanistic and rational beliefs to bubble up, to become second nature? We have seen some this, particularly since WWII, where institutions are more secular and humanistic on average. However, we have seen the rise of authoritarian nationalism and populism. There are forces pushing against the Enlightenment cosmopolitan humanist worldview. What are the components of human nature allowing us to eke out a more humanistic worldview? What are the parts dragging this nature back down? What are the circumstances allowing human beings to flourish, as another line of inquiry? How come with all the improvements in objective human wellbeing, many countries do not have a commensurate rise in happiness? The United States is, by all measures, better off than 70 years ago. It is not much happier, if at all. Many countries are happier than the United States. Why is there so much grievance and anger despite the measurable improvements in people’s objective wellbeing? These are all fascinating empirical questions, which would reflect back on our moral worldview as well.

Jacobsen: Last question tied to a comment, so, Dr. Leo Igwe and I have been working through Advocacy for Alleged Witches (AfAW) to combat a big issue in the African continent around allegations of witchcraft and disbelief in witchcraft. You’ve made a donation and helped with social media on some coverage of this. So, thank you. There’s still a wide range of rationality and irrationality throughout the regions of the world. There will be wide disparities in the regions of the world based on the education systems, the wealth of the society, the rights implemented and not just stipulated. What do you believe or think needs the most pressure now, in the next few years, to move the dial towards Enlightenment Humanism and scientific rationality more than not?

Pinker: One is a rise in education. We know societies with more education are less vulnerable, though not immune, to supernatural beliefs, not least with witchcraft. An extraordinarily dangerous belief and prevalent across societies being more of a rule than an exception.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Pinker: It has to be singled out as a source of evil. Reminding people of the history, the accusers used to be the accused. Also, there is a need to promote a humanistic enlightened view as an alternative source of values and morality. You alluded to this before in tallying up the number of humanistic declarations. There is a need for them. Not, maybe, the declarations, but, certainly, the moral energy, it is not enough to debunk toxic beliefs. There has to be the promotion of moral values, which we can defend and strive towards. Humanism, for lack of a better word, is that belief system. It is one needing promotion in different guises. That is, it is not a question of appealing to superstitions and supernatural beliefs to be moral. In that, there is a coherent value system; namely, making people wealthier, happier, and healthier, more stimulated and safer, these are good things, moral things, and noble things. We haven’t found the right marketing, the right packaging, in order to promote them as a positive alternative to the toxic beliefs that we’re vulnerable to.

Jacobsen: Professor Pinker, thank you for your time, it was lovely.

Pinker: Thanks so much, Scott, it was good to talk to you.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott:

*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican AtheistsAmerican Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e AgnósticoséééBrazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Image Credit: Rose Lincoln (Harvard Staff Photographer), Harvard University, Steven Pinker.

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