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Steven Pinker Interview: How Humans Can Be Simultaneously Rational and Irrational

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Image attributed to Rose Lincoln

Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist who conducts research in visual cognition, psycholinguistics and social relations. He is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He writes for publications such as the New York Times, Time and The Atlantic, and is the author of several books including The Language InstinctHow the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Stuff of Thought, The Better Angels of Our Nature, The Sense of Style and Enlightenment Now.

Pinker’s latest offering, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, was released on September 28, 2021. In the book, he rejects the cynical cliché that humans are an irrational species and instead explains that we think in ways that are sensible in the low-tech contexts in which we spend most of our lives but fail to take advantage of the powerful tools of reasoning our best thinkers have discovered over the millennia like logic, critical thinking, probability, correlation and causation.

"The people who embrace wacky conspiracy theories like QAnon are rational when it comes to holding a job, getting the kids to school on time, keeping food in the fridge, fixing their car. It’s not that they’re stark raving mad."

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Steve, are you staying healthy these days?

Steven Pinker: Pretty much. I was in a bike crash and broke my collarbone a couple of months ago. But I’m COVID free and healing from the crash.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: So glad to hear that. The last time we spoke was in 2018 when Enlightenment Now was released. In that book, you wrote about how the world is improving. Does the pandemic change your view?

Steven Pinker: Well, no, because progress doesn’t mean bad things can never happen. That would be a miracle, and progress isn’t a miracle. It’s the fact that when the inevitable bad things do happen, we become more effective at dealing with them. Pandemics are a fact of life. They’re devastated human populations since the beginning of recorded history. A number of experts were predicting that a pandemic would happen, and a pandemic did happen, and we were underprepared.

But a vaccine was developed in less than a year, and the death toll from the pandemic will certainly be less than that from HIV/AIDS, smallpox, Spanish flu, from many past pandemics. So it is a terrible tragedy. But the signs of progress can’t mean that bad things can’t happen. It just means we get better at dealing with them.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why did you decide your follow up book should be Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters?

Steven Pinker: I introduced a new Harvard course on rationality when I posted my lectures online, and there was a tremendous response. People wanted more, and I was convinced there was a need for a book. So that was one reason. The other reason is that so many people are asking the questions, “Why is humanity losing its mind?” “Why, in an era where our science is more sophisticated than ever, do so many people believe in wacky conspiracy theories, paranormal woo-woo, fake news, quack cures and other weird beliefs?” As a cognitive psychologist, I was challenged to explain how our species could be both so rational and so irrational.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is FDA approved. So why are some people not taking the vaccine to prevent the virus but are using drugs that are not FDA approved to treat COVID-19?

Steven Pinker: Yeah. There’s some primitive intuitions that are being tapped there. Traditional vaccines consist of weakened forms of the virus itself, so you’re injecting a diseased organism into yourself. People often have a very crude sense of what causes disease. We have this category called germs, which includes bacteria, viruses, single-celled organisms and fungi that it’s easy to think, “Well, if something works against parasites and kills germs, it’ll cure my disease.” Those are the intuitions. The question is, “Why doesn’t everyone surrender to these intuitions?” The reason is that some people trust the scientific and government establishment. Those who don’t will fall back on these primitive intuitions.

So the question is, “Who trusts the universities, the scientists and the government agencies to be accurate?” Sadly, trust has fallen so much that people will fall back on these intuitions. Moreover, on top of the sheer distrust, there is active tribalism at work in our society now falling on the dividing line of left-wing versus right-wing. One of the strongest cognitive biases is the “my side” bias, namely anything that is proposed by my side, my team, my tribe, my religion, my political party is good. Anything proposed by the other side is bad.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Leaders of these “sides” are influencers as well. Doesn’t that compound the problem?

Steven Pinker: It does indeed. Whether the subject is vaccines or treatments or climate change, spokespeople should be chosen that are trusted by different political constituencies. So the best way of getting people to appreciate climate change is not to parade a bunch of leftists or Democratic Party spokespeople out there to tell people why they should act on climate change but find people who are libertarians or from the right.

Likewise, the best thing that could’ve happened for vaccines would have been if the press said, “Yeah. Donald Trump helped get vaccines developed and circulated quickly. So let’s give him credit for that, and everyone can take the Trump vaccine.” A lot of them would’ve rather died than said that, but it may have been more effective in getting the political right to be on board with the vaccines since so much is driven by tribalism.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: You definitely may have a point there. But it’s sad.

Steven Pinker: It is sad. It is tremendously sad, yeah.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: People can be both rational in their family lives and irrational in other aspects of their lives at the same time.

Steven Pinker: Well, that’s exactly right. In fact, I talk about that in the book. The people who embrace wacky conspiracy theories like QAnon are rational when it comes to holding a job, getting the kids to school on time, keeping food in the fridge, fixing their car. It’s not that they’re stark raving mad. There are zones of reality where our opinions depend more on what we want to be true, what we think is a good narrative, what we think will embolden and empower our tribe and make the other tribe look stupid and evil. When it comes to things that don’t hinge on our lives, truism is the major consideration. The major consideration is, is it uplifting and empowering? Is it emboldening? The idea that we should only hold beliefs that are true is actually not universal.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Perhaps there’s a point where rationality is just not an option. For example, if you want to be popular with your tribe or you’re afraid of the backlash from your tribe if you don’t conform to their opinions and views.

Steven Pinker: That’s exactly right. I think you put your finger on it precisely. And it is a risk kind of rationality aimed at the goal of being popular. It’s really a question of what goal do you seek? In that case, the goal was not accuracy, truth, best policy. The goal is to be welcomed within your social circle. The problem is that sometimes those two goals can pull people in different directions. So what we ought to do is have our social communities, our political parties favor truth and accuracy as the way to be accepted, and that’s what we aren’t having

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Is logic the same as rationality?

Steven Pinker: Logic is not exactly the same thing as rationality. It’s pretty close, in fact, they come from the same Latin root. Logic is not exactly the same, though logic is one of the tools of rationality. The only thing is that logic isn’t very good in dealing with degree of belief, degree of truth and degree of confidence. How can we judge something where we can’t be sure one way or another?

Logic deals with true and false. Also logic is a system where you have to forget everything you know about the world and focus only on the premise you write down on a page and what logically follows from it. Whether it’s true or false may depend on 100 things that you know that are not actually listed in that syllogism. Just to take an example, if I gave you the following syllogism premise:  “Plants are healthy. Tobacco is a plant, therefore, tobacco is healthy.” The correct answer is, yes, it does logically follow. But it doesn’t mean it’s true.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: In the book, you said, “We should care about people’s virtues when considering them as friends but not when considering the ideas they voice.” So we should try and separate the idiotic ideas from our friend who has high moral standards? I’m wondering how to do that (laughs).

Steven Pinker: (laughs) With friends, we’ve got to sometimes tell white lies and polite hypocrisies. But when it comes to evaluating public figures, what’s the best way to run a democracy, what’s scientifically true or false, then, yeah, we’ve got to forget who’s a nice guy and who’s a scoundrel and evaluate if what they’re saying is true or false, beneficial or harmful.

Here’s an obvious example. Thomas Jefferson was, in many ways, a despicable human being. On the other hand, he had some great ideas such as democracy. Conversely, an even more extreme example is that scientists who discovered smoking was harmful and could cause cancer were the Nazi scientists. For years, the tobacco companies said, “Oh, you can’t believe that smoking causes cancer. That’s Nazi science. Are you going to believe what the Nazis say?” Now, that was convenient for the tobacco companies, but it’s irrelevant to the question of whether smoking really does cause cancer. We did make a big mistake by discounting scientific facts because of where they came from. There is something called genetic fallacy that has nothing to do with genes or DNA. It’s an old term referring to the genesis or origin of an idea, how it was generated.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Speaking of virtue, some people believe you have to be a Christian in order to have morals. Where’s the rationality in that?

Steven Pinker: One could evaluate it rationally. Is that true or not? We can do it two ways. One of them is to say, “Let’s look at the historical records. Have all Christians been moral? Have immoral people been Jews, Muslims and Hindus?” The historical records are pretty clear on that. There have been crusades, inquisitions, witch hunts and slavery, and for that matter, a lot of fascist regimes were heavily associated with Catholicism like in Italy and Croatia. The Nazis were devout Christians. So factually, it’s not true. Many Christians, of course, are moral, and there’s much to admire in Christianity, but the historical records say that just does not ring true.

Let’s also analyze it more logically in terms of the idea itself. You can say, “Well, if morality consists of treating each other with decency, enhancing health, life, happiness and knowledge, do you really have to believe that someone was crucified 2,000 years ago, came back to life and that you must accept him to make up for the original sin in order to feed the hungry or feed the sick?” That doesn’t really follow. So you should be skeptical of the idea from the get-go. But in any case, the historical records suggest that it’s not exactly true.

Now, there are some parts of Christianity that are conducive to mercy and well-being, particularly the idea of forgiveness, which is a radical idea in human history. The vast majority of human society has lived by the code of revenge. If they do something to you, you’ve got to do it back to them twice as hard. The idea of turning the other cheek, of loving your enemies, is a deeply weird idea in human history, but it’s a highly moral idea. So Christianity would certainly deserve credit for that idea. But most religions are mixtures of good ideas and not so good ideas, and ultimately, morality consists of doing what would make human beings better off, what makes them healthy, happy and safe.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: We all know that when you put yourself out there, you’re going to face the wrath of haters on social media. But it appears you’ve had more than your share over the past couple of years. How do you deal with the critics?

Steven Pinker: I don’t engage in Twitter wars because it’s not a forum where you get clarity and depth and reason and rationality. If I have responded to criticisms, they are stated in articles and essays where you can sit down and carefully look at their claims and counterclaims. I think I am not as effected as a lot of targets of social criticism because I have a tenured professorship at a fancy schmancy name brand university, so when it happens, I’m not so much concerned with myself as with younger and more vulnerable scholars, journalists, professors and grad students who are being sent the message, “Don’t think for yourself. Don’t challenge any dogma or orthodoxy, or your career is over.” So I’m really worried about them not about myself.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: I was looking at some of the incredible photos on your website. You have quite the talent. Did the interest in photography start at a young age?

Steven Pinker: Oh, that’s very kind of you. Yes, it did. Since I was a child, I’ve been drawn into photography, enhanced by the fact that as a psychologist, I’m interested in everything having to do with human nature including how vision works and how visual aesthetics work. Also, what do we find beautiful and what do we find ugly? But even before I was a psychologist, I always loved taking pictures.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: My favorites are the animals. I find birds and lizards beautiful.

Steven Pinker: Oh, yes (laughs). I love birds and lizards. I’m also fortunate that one of my colleagues at Harvard, Richard Wrangham, was a student of Jane Goodall, and he himself is a world-leading primatologist. But he studies these chimpanzees in the wild. So he took me and Rebecca with him on a couple of trips to Africa where he took us to sites where there were chimpanzees. So that was a rare privilege.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Oh, yes, that must’ve been amazing! You’ve been called a liberal optimist. How would you describe yourself?

Steven Pinker: (laughs) I probably am an optimist by temperament, by character. But that shouldn’t speak to the things I say are right or wrong. That’s just my personality. But I like the term invented by Hans Rosling, which is a “possibilist.” That is not so much that good things will happen by themselves but that if we apply our rationality to humanistic goals, meaning improving human well-being, then every now and again, more often than not, we can succeed or at least succeed often enough to make a difference. That’s the way I would put it.

I’m liberal not in the sense of being left-wing but in the sense of believing in individual rights, in freedom of people to choose their rights as long as they don’t harm others and a belief that science and enhancement of human welfare can improve the human condition.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Steve, can I send emails to people asking them to please read this book so they can be rational?

Steven Pinker: (laughs) Please do. I hope you will. I’ll be delighted.

Smashing Interviews Magazine: Seriously, what needs to change to bring more people over to the rational side?

Steven Pinker: We should try to detach issues from the partisan political divide. That is, factual questions like whether vaccines work should not be Democratic ideas or Republican ideas. That goes for both sides. We should all examine our beliefs and go with the evidence. But just tactfully in terms of just sheer public relations or propaganda, if you will, there should be attention to these questions: Who’s the messenger? What’s the nature of the message? What does it sound like in order to move along the goal of people excising factual and scientific issues?

Ten years ago, it was a disaster that Al Gore was the face of the climate change movement. Not that Al Gore was wrong but only in terms of messaging. You have a Democratic vice president and presidential candidate as the face of climate change, and that’s an instant turnoff to Republicans who’d say, “If Al Gore’s for it, I’m going to be against it.” Now that’s irrational to have that attitude, but it is a feature of human nature that we have to work with. So that’s number one.

Number two, I think the overall goal of rationality, objectivity, truth seeking should be promoted as a virtue, as something that is good. That is, we should give people credit if they say, “Gee, I may be wrong,” or “I used to believe X when I looked at the evidence, but now I believe not-X.” That should not be seen as a sign of flip-flopping or weakness but as a sign of rationality and ultimately, virtue. We should look at debate not as a sport with people who win, people who lose, people who destroy their opponents, people who have the ultimate smack down arguments.

We all collectively should be looking for the truth – realizing that none of us has it, it’s very hard to get it and that it should be a cultural value. That’s called active open-mindedness: meaning you seek out opinions who disagree with yours and you disagree with evidence that might show you’re wrong. We should value, promote and cultivate that. A third is to teach some of the tools of rationality in schools, also trigonometry, but much more useful is statistical reasoning, for example, and logic. I think those should be a part of our curriculum early on.

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