How and why irrationality takes hold, and what do to about it.
Deep, nuanced piece. Thank you Prof. Pinker.
One part of the article that troubles me is that you say you trust those in lab coats saying that the COVID vaccines "work."
But saying that they "work" doesn't capture all the nuance, does it? What does it mean for a vaccine to "work" ? Does it mean they stop infection? Well, no, despite what Tony Fauci said before Delta infected Provincetown, you can still get COVID even if you are vaccinated. And does it stop transmission? Well, no, it has been admitted that that was never tested for.
So all we know is that the COVID vaccines lower the risk of dying from catching COVID. We've basically changed the definition of what it means for a vaccine to "work" to match what we are observing during the large experiment on the global population.
And now we have the Washington Post publishing a front page article inquiring as to whether the vaccines are fueling the increase in COVID variants. Yet, when a youtuber talked about this a year prior, he was censored for "misinformation."
Then there's the issue of safety. Vaccines usually take a decade to develop, yet these were developed in months. EUAs were given by the FDA. That means some of the usual scientific procedures and processes were skipped. Is it any wonder the population doesn't trust the vaccines to be safe?
You go on to talk about censorship in academia and I applaud your position. But what about the censorship that occurred during the pandemic? What about the reports of suppression of dissenting voices within the CDC? What about the attack on Jay Bhattacharya?
You know full well that we cannot have true science without the ability to dissent. The "anti-vax" population knows this. So that is part of the reason why many do not trust scientific authorities anymore. If the mainstream is going to resort to ad hominem attacks towards those with dissenting opinions then that just further fuels any cognitive bias the "anti-vaxxers" and "climate-deniers" may have. The ad hominem attacks are non-scientific ways of suppressing dissent.
In other words, due to the suppression of dissenting views, our scientific institutions are no longer "explicitly designed to sift truths from falsehoods." Such an explicit design would safe guard the ability to dissent, no?
Pinker mentions this. I will elaborate. For better or worse (certainly worse), Harvard is a bastion of intolerant, religious, anti-truth thinking these days. Consider two propositions, “sex is a spectrum” and “race has no biological basis”. Neither statement is evenly remotely true. However, 99% of Harvard students and faculty would affirm the “truth” of these statements, at least publicly. Like it or not, universities have become deeply irrational. It is somewhat unclear if the race nonsense or the sex nonsense is more deeply held. This academic insanity is somewhat new (perhaps not, see below). From “Sex is a Spectrum” (https://westhunt.wordpress.com/2021/08/07/sex-is-a-spectrum/) a comment by Spencer
“Lol. I introduce students every semester to various non-overlapping or barley overlapping graphs by sex. Every year their jaws drop further. Twenty years ago barely an eyebrow was raised.”
The converse point is that Harvard and other universities were deeply religious and intolerant even years ago. The famous book “The Blank Slate” was written in 2003. The Summers affair (at Harvard) is from 2006. The Pinker/Spleke debate is from 2005. It was clear then (and still is) that Spelke was/is a liar. Was she ever punished for lying? Of course, not.
Of course, these problems are by no means limited to Harvard. Over at Yale, a talk was given on 'The Psychopathic Problem of the White Mind'. The speaker (Dr. Aruna Khilanani) explicitly fantasized about killing innocent white people and then was offended because Yale would not give her the recording. The following is from her speech.
“I had fantasies of unloading a revolver into the head of any white person that got in my way, burying their body, and wiping my bloody hands as I walked away relatively guiltless with a bounce in my step. Like I did the world a fucking favor. (Time stamp: 7:17)”
These issues are by no means limited to elite universities. At University of Southern Maine, an instructor (Christy Hammer) dared to say that there are two sexes All but one student (21 of 22) walked out in protest. The one student later caved to the fanatics. Of course, Hammer was entirely correct.
"Perhaps most important, the gratuitous politicization of our truth-seeking institutions should be halted, since it stokes the cognitively crippling myside bias."
We're witnessing the onset of Lysenkoism, the politicized antiscience that devastated Soviet agriculture and biological research for decades. In the case of the US, it's happening across a broad range of sciences and humanities. Stalin at least had the sense to leave physics alone.
Trofim Lysenko didn't stop at proposing a fraudulent substitute for genuine science; he brassily derided his conscientious peers while appealing to the conceits of ideologues. Eventually, his critics were being fired, imprisoned, or even put to death (probably not on the cards for American academics).
The Stalin-era phrase "politically correct" is definitely operative today. There's no need for the emotive "woke" when we have this precise, accurate term for what is going on.
Is a certain level of "irrationality" in a society a preferable evolutionary adaptation? Imagine a society with a life or death decision to make. Option A carries an 80% chance of survival and Option B only a 20% chance of survival. The rational choice would be Option A, but if everyone chooses Option A, then after just a few iterations of the game, everyone is wiped out when Option A happens to lead to elimination.
Therefore, at the group-level, a society is better off if it has a certain critical mass of people who would act "irrationally" in this case and choose Option B, guaranteeing the survival of at least a portion of the society. Because of the inherent impossibility of knowing the future, sometimes an irrational course of action can be the course of action that actually leads to survival, due simply to blind luck. "Irrationality", then, is a survival mechanism whereby a population's eggs aren't all put into the same survival basket. In order to maximize our chance of survival, the ideal society would have a wide range of risk tolerances and survival heuristics in order to cover all survival possibilities, even if some of those possibilities seem extremely unlikely or "irrational".
Even though many of us may laugh at the "irrationality" of anti-vaxxers or doomsday preppers or bitcoin enthusiasts, it is the human genome at the end of the day who is smiling and resting assured that it has all of its bases covered. Of course, too much irrationality can lead to dysfunction in a society, but maybe we should learn to relax and tolerate a bit of irrationality here and there if it makes our genome feel safer.
"Why do people believe in outlandish conspiracy theories, such as that Covid-19 was a plot by Bill Gates to implant trackable microchips in our bodies? Or in blatant fake news, such as that Joe Biden called Trump supporters “dregs of society”? Or in paranormal woo-woo, like astrology, extra-sensory perception (ESP), and spiritual energy in pyramids and crystals?"
These are quite varied examples you have given here.
It seems that mankind has some proclivity to want to believe in something to give life meaning, or help explain the seemingly unexplainable. Thus, some type of religion or spiritual belief has been around pretty much since humans have been on the planet. Whether one believes in a God, nature, or some abstract spirit, these beliefs seem to bring some type of hope or comfort to these people. Some people take those longings for belief and apply them to issues such as social justice, to give themselves a purpose and to make them at least "appear" to be virtuous.
The belief in conspiracy theories is not really all that unreasonable, as conspiracies in fact, do occur and are probably quite common in our society. It's the nature of how unrealistic the theory is that makes it more unpalatable to more reasonable people. Drug companies conspiring with government to make tons of money makes more sense than Bill Gates injecting microchips into unsuspecting vaccine recipients.
Fake news is very easy to digest, especially if it's about a polarizing figure such as Biden or Trump. Both have said some pretty outrageous things, so if it's reported that Trump told people to "inject bleach" then it's easy to believe that's exactly what he said and meant. Biden certainly has no love for Trump supporters, so it's easy to believe he said they were degenerates. We keep hearing about Capitol Police officers who gave their lives on January 6, yet none of them died at the scene and the narrative that Officer Sicknick was bludgeoned with a fire extinguisher was blatantly false. My reasoning tells me there's an extreme amount of information and occurrences on that day that the public just doesn't know and may never know.
Much of belief in conspiracies can be traced to the fact that Americans simply do not trust many of our institutions any more. While it is true that the Covid vaccine can lessen symptoms or the possibility of death, the vaccine does not fully prevent transmission or illness. Therefore, making pariahs out of those who chose not to take the vaccine makes our governmental and medical overseers look particularly malevolent.
With regard to the current trend with sex and gender, the scientific fact is that someone can change their body or their appearance, but the genetic makeup and brain of the gender they were born with does not change one iota. One can choose to call themselves male, female, both or neither, but the fact remains that they are how they were born. No different than I will never be a six-footer, much as I would like. Additionally, the individuals that claim to be transgender potentially have a multitude of emotional, psychological and traumatic issues that remain unaddressed even after they "change" their gender.
"This essay is adapted from a presentation given to the Stanford Academic Freedom Conference in November 2022."
Wow, I'm surprised Stanford allowed this conference at all given that it violated probably every word in their "harmful" speech code. O.o
Is there ever a more beautiful writer and thinker than Steven Pinker? Reading this is like beholding a pristine sunset. Maybe there is hope for us.
It is telling that this paper was delivered at the institution that has just been in the news for its wokeness. I hope the Stanford folks read this.
It is appropriate that this paper was given at an institution that immediately thereafter became embroiled in a self-inflicted wokeness controversy.
A wonderful summary and synthesis. Thank you.
I was very interested in this essay and looked forward to opportunity to read it. However, I gave up reading before I finished. I was turning to google every couple of lines (not sentences) trying to determine the meaning of dozens of words in the context they were used by the author. Unfortunately, the content became meaningless.
In my work we ran operations comprised of men and women with doctorates and many who didn't finish high-school, but we all had a role in the enterprise. I often encouraged my colleagues to communicate using words that could be understood by everyone, while not being offensive to those with a higher education, if they hoped their words would lead to a better understanding and be relevant.