Posts Tagged ‘Steven Pinker’

The Offensive Truth about Batkid

January 2, 2014 2 comments


A minor internet brouhaha erupted after philosopher Peter Singer and others critiqued the wisdom of the Make-A-Wish Foundation’s Batkid event.

You’d have to be a real spoilsport not to feel good about Batkid. If the sight of 20,000 people joining in last month to help the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the city of San Francisco fulfill the superhero fantasies of a 5-year-old — and not just any 5-year-old, but one who has been battling a life-threatening disease — doesn’t warm your heart, you must be numb to basic human emotions.

Yet we can still ask if these emotions are the best guide to what we ought to do.


It’s obvious, isn’t it, that saving a child’s life is better than fulfilling a child’s wish to be Batkid?

It seems distasteful to even question that utility of a charity that brought so much joy, but it’s partly this fear of giving offense that retards the moral growth of our society. It’s impolite, after all, to doubt the helpfulness of giving 32% of our charity to religion when only a third of all charitable donations goes to the needs of the poor. It’s rude to wonder if many of us favor immigration restrictions that trap people into a life of scandalous poverty because we’re uncomfortable with poor foreigners living near us. It’s positively vulgar to suggest that a charitable event that brought delight mostly to privileged Americans isn’t as beneficial as protecting children from parasitic worms.

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The Reduction of Science

August 9, 2013 Leave a comment

Steven Pinker has a new piece in the New Republic defending the encroachment of scientific reasoning into subjects that have been traditionally partitioned from it such as art, morality, and the humanities.

Scientism, in this good sense, is not the belief that members of the occupational guild called “science” are particularly wise or noble. On the contrary, the defining practices of science, including open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods, are explicitly designed to circumvent the errors and sins to which scientists, being human, are vulnerable. Scientism does not mean that all current scientific hypotheses are true; most new ones are not, since the cycle of conjecture and refutation is the lifeblood of science. It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them. And it is not the dogma that physical stuff is the only thing that exists. Scientists themselves are immersed in the ethereal medium of information, including the truths of mathematics, the logic of their theories, and the values that guide their enterprise. In this conception, science is of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism. It is distinguished by an explicit commitment to two ideals, and it is these that scientism seeks to export to the rest of intellectual life.

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of that magazine, views that intervention as a “spectacular philosophical mistake.”

We are becoming a massified, datafied, quantified society, who looks for wisdom in numbers… which looks for wisdom in numbers. And thinks that numbers can provide certainties of certain kinds. And owing to the explosion of so-called “big data” there has developed this excessive confidence in the ability of the quantifying disciplines to explain human life. So economists are now regarded on authorities on happiness. Happiness is not an economic subject.

Unsurprisingly, Wieseltier relies heavily on confusion and authority to attack science.  Instead of exhibiting undue certainty, science is the language of doubt and caveat. “Big Data” poster boy, Nate Silver, who dealt with statistical luddites at the Times, wrote a whole book on the problem with overconfidence: The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – But Some Don’t. After all, it’s not traditional moralists, novelists, or theologians explicitly announcing their “margins of error.”

If you’re going to attack the utility of science, I suppose it’s at least consistent to ignore its lessons when constructing an argument against it. Why is happiness not a subject amenable to econometric analysis? Wieseltier declares so by fiat. No reasons necessary apparently.

Contrary to Wieseltier, economists provide important insights into happiness. Instead of relying on conjecture or conventional wisdom scientists can provide evidence-based judgements on ways to organize society that are consistent with more happiness and well-being. Does the data demonstrate that average happiness is unconnected to economic growth across societies as Richard Easterlin argued? Or does newer research by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers “establish a clear positive link between average levels of subjective well-being and GDP per capita across countries?” This vital question has an answer. Rationality demands we don’t decide who is right by who argued it first or by who we intuit is correct. Whichever theory offers the more reliable data, the better scientific controls, and the more robust explanation points us to our provisional truth. If we’re not getting any happier striving for an ever increasing GDP we should hop off the hamster wheel and explore alternatives.  But if increasing our incomes does improve our satisfaction we should enact policies to help us accomplish that and continue to explore alternatives.

Another economist, Daniel Kahneman, has spent his career studying happiness and used the observations of neuroscience and the tools economics to vanish illusory forms of happiness and show how specific goals can affect an individual’s future contentment. Learning whether people tend to be happier if they spend their money on a fancier wardrobe or on taking a vacation can help provide useful knowledge when making our own decisions. Aggregating the experiences of others allows us to avoid common biases and mistakes – it allows us to boost the modest trajectory of limited experience. Is a bigger house worth the tradeoff of a worse commute? Economics supplies the means to evaluate these and other tradeoffs.

Wieseltier and other critics such as Ross Douthat want to constrain science’s influence on their own pet passions, the humanities and religion respectively. But by cordoning off scientific methodology and diminishing science to a file of facts and a tweaker of technology critics commit the same mistake they accuse of scientism – a crass reductionism.

Turns Out Single Moms Aren’t All Raising Murderers

November 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Sociology professor Philip Cohen shares some data from the Census Bureau to demolish the myth that single-parent households were responsible for rising crime rates starting in the ’60s.

Violent crime has fallen through the floor (or at least back to the rates of the 1970s) relative to the bad old days. And this is true not just for homicide but also for rape and other assaults. At the same time, the decline of marriage has continued apace.

Cohen doesn’t mention it, but the theory that single-parent families are definitively worse for kids’ outcomes is also undermined by comparing why families have one parent.

As you can see from this chart, children that were raised by single parents because of the death of one parent do almost as well as kids from two-parent families. This is almost certainly because, counterintuitively, genetics and peer-groups play a much larger role than parenting does.

So why has violence gone down recently? That requires a complex explanation, but the short answer is the state got more effective at controlling crime (e.g. locking more criminals up; hiring more cops). Additionally, although it’s harder to quantify, the 1990s saw the re-ignition of what Steven Pinker calls “The Civilizing Process” where more people began to feel like the criminal justice system was less capricious and more legitimate while the glorification of violence fell out of favor.

One positive legacy of the 1960s was the revolutions in civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, and gay rights, which began to consolidate power in the 1990s as the baby boomers became the establishment. Their targeting of rape, battering, hate crimes, gay-bashing, and child abuse reframed law-and-order from a reactionary cause to a progressive one, and their efforts to make the home, work-place, schools, and streets safer for vulnerable groups (as in the feminist “Take Back the Night” protests) made these environments safer for everyone.

We may be able to make further progress by continuing to make the justice system more fair. Although the ‘War on Drugs’ may be responsible for locking up many criminals in its wide cage, it also delegitimizes the state’s authority in many communities where local citizens feel like the police are discriminatory, inconsistent, and untrustworthy.

Stable families are better for children, but there is no reason to blame single-mothers when they already have enough responsibilities.

Categories: Justice Tags: ,

Down the Path of Humaneness

Many people view politicizing memorable and tragic experiences as somehow vulgar, but anyone that takes politics seriously shouldn’t partition society’s most significant events away from public policy. Of course, we need to guard against the mirror hazards of trivialization and demagoguery whenever highly emotional matters touch our politics.

In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Sohrab Ahmari uses the horrific tragedy in Colorado and the anniversary of the Norwegian mass murder to illuminate how America and Norway view justice. Writing mostly for an American audience, his opinion piece seeks to generate exasperation at how lenient Norway will treat its mass murderer.

Norwegian prisons are often described as the world’s nicest. And as the London Telegraph reported in May, prison officials may even hire outside “friends” to keep Breivik company. Norwegian law holds that no prisoner—not even Breivik—should ever find himself in total isolation. That would be too cruel.

All this sounds outrageous—and it is. Norwegian society has advanced so far down the path of “humaneness” that it cannot put someone like Breivik to death, let alone jail him for life.

Interestingly, Ahmari never actually makes an argument for why Norway’s system is bad. That it “sounds outrageous” is enough. He knows Americans are rightly shocked and appalled by the latest Colorado massacre and our innate impulse for vengeance is powerful. I wonder if it’s so potent that most readers don’t notice that Ahmari frames “humaneness” as a descending route.

What is the too-lenient and soft-on-crime critique supposed to criticize anyway? If Norwegian style leniency led to more violent crime it might be clear. But the correlation is closer to antithetical.

The US homicide rate is substantially higher than Norway’s rate.

Sohrab also apparently thinks that letting certain criminals back into civilization is self-evidently wrong. It’s hard to know why since he doesn’t attempt an argument. No one needs to feel overly compassionate for criminals to believe that serving a limited sentence and then becoming productive in society is better than merely draining taxpayers’ resources to suffer. After all, Norway’s “clinical” approach leads to a recidivism rater far lower than the US justice system’s.

If Sohrab doesn’t think reducing crime should be the objective of our justice system, what’s his alternative? He sneers at the reluctance of another reporter to celebrate judicial brutality. “Like many Europeans, [a German reporter] looked down at the U.S. justice system for its supposed violence, including the persistence of the death penalty here.” The “supposed violence” he’s referring to might be the frequency of prison rape – a subject that many Americans feel is a joke rather than a grotesque outrage. Historically, rape and other forms of torture were commonly used as judicial punishments – instruments such as the judas chair and the pear of anguish were specifically crafted to cause humiliation along with agony. That we allow barbarism to continue capriciously in our prisons rather than as a direct penalty is not a point of integrity.

On Ahmari’s Facebook wall post, he agrees with his friend that America has the best justice system in the world. Severe punishment for its own sake is the goal. It doesn’t seem to matter whether James Holmes or any other menace is psychologically sound or not – brain destroying isolation is encouraged.  My last blog post argued that free will is a myth and we shouldn’t get any ultimate personal credit for our successes – the corollary is that we shouldn’t subject humans to unnecessary misery for their offenses. Even if you’re not a determinist, punishment for “just deserts” isn’t moral. There is no cosmic scale to balance – you’re just causing suffering for no benefit. As Steven Pinker in his essential book on the history of violence writes, “institutionalized violence was once seen as indispensable to the functioning of a society, yet once it was abolished, the society managed to get along perfectly well without it.” Mass murderers should be severely sentenced because they are a danger to society. Contrary to what Sohrab might think, I’m happy to call Holmes’ and Breivik’s crimes “evil,” but causing them pain for its own sake is neither just nor “good.”

(photo by Alex Masi – Rehabilitation in a super max Norwegian prison)

Categories: Morality Tags: ,
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