On being rational, with Steven Pinker and Melissa Chen
On November 19th FAIR hosted a live event with FAIR Advisors Steven Pinker and Melissa Chen. Pinker and Chen discussed Pinker’s new book—Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters—and explored progress, reason, and scientific understanding in the 21st century.
Below is the transcript of the first half of the event, which is the full conversation between Pinker and Chen. The second half of the event—a live Q&A with the audience—can be viewed on our YouTube channel here (starting at 49:05).
Melissa Chen: Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for coming. It's really heartening to see all the faces in the room. I remember when FAIR was just an idea around January, and the official launch was March, and now we're almost up to 70 chapters in the country. And just to see all the faces here, parents and concerned citizens just gathering and organizing, it's really nice to see. So thank you all for coming, and thank you to Dr. Pinker for coming back to Boston. He's on sabbatical in Berkeley this time of the year.
Steven Pinker: Thank you.
Melissa Chen: So I really want to get into your book. Of course, the first question is always how do you define rationality?
Steven Pinker: If you look up rationality in a dictionary, it’s not particularly helpful, because it’s usually defined as the use of reason. But reason and rationality actually come from the same Latin root, so the definition is somewhat circular. I find that a pretty serviceable definition is the use of knowledge to attain goals. Rationality is always in pursuit of a goal. Just spouting true statements is not anyone’s idea of rationality. If you take a logic course, you know that you could easily churn out an infinite number of true statements: if two plus two equals three then pigs can fly—that's true. You could do that forever, and no one would call that rational. So it can't just be truth. We usually think of rationality as the use of alternative means to attain a goal.
I work in William James Hall. I've cited William James in almost all of my books, and I love William James’ characterization of rationality. He noted a similarity that Romeo wants Juliet “as the filings want the magnet.” But he also noted that if a wall were built between Romeo and Juliet, they don't press their faces idiotically against opposite sides like the magnet and filings with a card. Romeo finds a circuitous way by scaling the wall, or going around the wall to touch Juliet's lips directly. The goal is fixed, but the means can be varied indefinitely. Whereas with a mechanical process that we don't consider rational, the path is fixed, and whether it reaches the end just depends on accidents or coincidences. So that's how I characterize it, and it has the important implication that there can be the rational pursuit of, let's say, debatable goals, or even irrational goals.
Why I wrote [the book] was in part because, like many social scientists, I've long thought that there are tools of rationality that are not particularly intuitive—like logic, like probability theory, like Bayes’ Rule, like game theory, like correlation and causation—and that we'd all just be smarter if we had them at our fingertips. And they're not a standard part of our educational curriculum. And so I first taught a course, then decided at long last to write a book with tutorial introductions to what I consider the five or six major tools of rationality.
But inevitably, when first I told people I was teaching a course in the Gen-Ed curriculum at Harvard, then a book, the first question is, “Oh, great. You're going to be talking about rationality. Maybe you can explain why humanity is losing its mind. Why the fake news and the conspiracy theories and the paranormal woo-woo and the quack cures and the post-truth rhetoric, and perhaps even critical race theory?”
Melissa Chen: So if you think of humankind as a whole, the analogy that if everything was condensed to the scale of 24 hours, the Big Bang theory to all the way to where we are now, humans only existed for that last second. But within that last second, when and how did rationality evolve? When was the first time where it was codified into the institutions, or entered the public consciousness and became a way of organizing modern life?
Steven Pinker: I think that's a deep and very pertinent question. And I think there are two kinds of rationality that I distinguish in the book, and this very much speaks to the question of: How can one species be so rational as to have discovered the Big Bang, and how the brain works, and DNA, and reach the moon, and smartphones, and vaccines, and all the rest, but at the same time believe that jet contrails are mind-altering drugs dispersed by a government program, or the American deep state houses a cabal of cannibalistic Satan-worshiping pedophiles? In one sense, rationality really is baked into our natures. We are Homo sapiens, the thinking hominid. We, right from the beginning, have lived by our wits, survived by entering what I semi-whimsically called a “cognitive niche” in nature, a term I actually borrowed, maybe stole, from Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, and Irv DeVore.
This is the idea that we are obviously products of evolution, but many species have weird, unusual, flamboyant adaptations: the elephant's trunk, the bat's sonar. Ours is developing mental models of how the world works, pooling our understanding with language, cooperating with non-relatives, all of which are zoologically unusual. We really are a weird species of mammal. But we develop these abilities so that we could outsmart other animals and plants faster than they could evolve defenses in evolutionary time. We can do it in our lifetimes. We do it in our heads. We don’t have to wait for evolution to breed variations, and selectively winnow them out. We can think ahead, develop traps and tools and poisons and track animals based on their footprints and other spoor. And that means that we could live in any ecosystem, from the Arctic to the rainforest to the savanna.
So that is part of human nature, and I begin the book with a discussion of the rationality of the San people of the Kalahari Desert, formerly called the Bushmen, and how they use considerable ingenuity, and indeed considerable rationality to scratch a living out of a pretty unforgiving desert. So the answer to [your question] would be however old our species is, say, 200,000 years. Then, way more recently, we have developed general purpose, abstract tools that are not mixed in with our subject matter knowledge—how do antelopes behave, how do gourds store water, which beetles have poison—but are across-the-board tools: P implies QP, therefore Q. Logic. With Bayes' Rule, you can plug in any values you want. These had to be developed. Maybe Aristotle with the laws of logic might have been an early attempt. Probability theory only really invented in the 18th century. We have an intuitive sense of probability, but it's mixed in with our experience. It's not a general-purpose formula.
So these formulas are much more recent. Some of them are more recent still, like game theory and expected utility theory in the late 1940s by von Neumann and Morgenstern. So taking your “day” analogy, this would be a fraction of a fraction of a second that we've developed those. And those are not part of our birthright. Those we have to consciously learn in school.
Melissa Chen: But it sounds to me that how you frame the goal is a very normative thing. And in the book you go through a laundry list of cognitive illusions, biases, and fallacies. And I'm wondering that, in this “woke” worldview, to use the common parlance—I'm not a fan of the word “woke,” but we don't really have another choice now—in which there is a constellation of ideas that seem to be in vogue, especially among cultural elites and in education, media, and other verticals in society. Things like the idea that systematic racism permeates every single institution and person. Critical race theory, the denial of biological sex, and Whiteness, are replacing advanced classes, which is happening in some schools now. And, as you said in your last book, the denial of progress, that progressives tend to deny.
These are a suite of ideas that we could classify as being under the “woke” doctrine that we recognize today. And I'm wondering, are these rational? Are these ideas using knowledge to advance a goal, or is it based solely on theory and not empiricism?
Steven Pinker: Yeah, I think that there's some of each. It's part of rationality that any proposition may be criticized and debated. So if I argue that there's been a decline in violence based on homicide statistics or estimates of war deaths, then one could rationally argue back and say, “Well, given that we have the possibility of nuclear war, which would dwarf all previous wars, even though one hasn't occurred, if it occurred it would cancel out all those beneficial statistics. So how is it fair to say that violence has declined given the potential has increased?” One could rationally contest any of the data sets. Are they truly unbiased? I don't want to say that anyone who disagrees with me is irrational, because that would be the height of irrationality. So yes, anything could be debated.
But I think a lot of us do have a sense that somehow the rules changed in a lot of these debates, or maybe not even debates, these clashes, the “culture wars” as it's sometimes called. And the metaphor is illuminating, not the culture debate, but the culture war. For one thing, there are a number of classic fallacies, errors, and blunders in critical thinking that now have become coin of the realm, like arguing ad hominem: “So and so is a racist, therefore you can't accept what they say”; Unfalsifiability: “If you oppose the idea that all differences are due to racism, then that shows that you are a racist.” A family of beliefs like “God works in mysterious ways,” or “ESP disappears whenever it's skeptically probed.” These are kinds of ideas that inherently make themselves resistant to falsification, and therefore there's a kind of irrationality baked into them.
Other fallacies like guilt-by-association, and arguments from authority, like “Ibram Kendi says it, critical race theory says it, therefore it must be true.” So there are the fallacies that used to be considered kind of forehead-scratching blunders that high school debating coaches would say, “No, no, you can't make that argument. That's a fallacy,” or just dirty rotten tricks, like if someone were to try it, that would impugn themselves as an honest debater. And now, in this whole space, they have become the coin of the realm.
Melissa Chen: I do actually want to read you a quote. When Dr. Ibram Kendi was asked to define racism at a conference recently, he actually said, “I define it as a collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity that are substantiated by racist ideas.” That was his definition of racism.
Steven Pinker: Around the circle three times, yes. Well, actually, there is a part there that's... Well, it can be either circular or a testable hypothesis, which is that all racial inequities are due to racism. Now, of course if you define racism the way he does as racial inequities, then it is circular.
Melissa Chen: It's like rationality and reason.
Steven Pinker: Yeah, exactly, exactly. Right. If, on the other hand you give it some independent definition, such as classic white supremacy, the explicit belief that it is desirable that whites have undue influence, what my late colleague Jim Sidanius called social dominance orientation, the belief that it is desirable that some groups have power over others, some sort of animus against African Americans, then it is a testable hypothesis that all racial inequities are due to racism in the sense of animus. However, I think Kendi himself resists that framing and instead defines racism circularly as any difference between races.
Melissa Chen: I think many parents have expressed this, that rationality is actually demoted now in K-12 schools. In fact, the first time I ever heard it taught as a course was when you did it at Harvard just last spring semester. But instead, the approach to pedagogy now in K-12 has been more through using theory as a way of establishing truth, and frameworks derived from ideas that had trickled down from Harvard Law School that were once very obscure. And so I'm wondering what your reflections are on this issue. What do you think about what's happening in K-12 education?
Steven Pinker: So I think a lot of us would subscribe to the idea that you have noted that a lot of schools are moving away from, namely that we should first establish what the facts are, and then kind of shape our moral and political beliefs around them. I think that's a post-Enlightenment conviction. I mean, I think Bertrand Russell said it succinctly when he said, “It's undesirable to believe a proposition when there are no grounds whatsoever for supposing it is true.” Now, that might sound kind of banal and obvious and trite, and who could disagree with that? In fact, it is a deeply radical manifesto. Because for most of human history, people did not start off with their most objective assessment to the facts, and then tailor their theories to be consistent with it, but quite the other way around. They'd have moral convictions, and facts—at least outside of the realm of their physical interactions with the world, where you really do have to respect the facts because they won't go away if you don't believe in them. But when it comes to anything that is more cosmic, more abstract, more sociological, more remote, that don't impinge on your day-to-day decisions, people tend to start off with ideology and then promote facts that are consistent with it.
An extreme example being outlandish fake news and conspiracy theories, where we kind of slap our heads or scratch our heads and wonder, “Could anyone really believe that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring out of a pizzeria in DC?” But you've got to realize that people who hold that belief, I think for the most part, don't hold it as a belief like “There's gas in the car or food in the fridge,” where you really ought to find out. It's really another way of saying, “Boo, Hillary,” namely, she is so depraved that that's the kind of thing she could be capable of. And I think a lot of our psychology of belief, at least when it comes to the zone of ideas that don't impinge on our day-to-day wellbeing, our beliefs are expressive, even beliefs that are technically factual or propositional.
And likewise, going back to the non-circular definition of racism, is it really true that all racial differences are due to racism in the sense of animus or social dominance? It's not a fact that anyone has an interest in verifying. It's just something that you say is part of a moral conviction. And there's a family of beliefs like that, like religious belief. They're held as a matter of faith, almost by definition. And when Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens published their atheist manifestos, a lot of the reaction wasn't, “Oh, they're factually mistaken. Actually, there really are good reasons to believe that God exists,” but rather it's just uncouth or inappropriate, or it's not done to consider God's existence a matter of truth or falsity. You believe it because it's a good thing to believe, not because it's factually correct.
I think [that way of thinking] is bad for religion, and I think it's bad for political movements. I think it's especially bad for education—it really was a gift of the Enlightenment that there are facts. None of us knows when we know them for certain. None of us is infallible or omniscient. We're all too fallible. That's why ideas have to be broached and evaluated. But we really ought to find out what the facts are. And to abandon that in service of this ideology I think is a great mistake, because it leads to war. That is, neither side has common ground on which they can build some kind of constructive disagreement or agreement.
Melissa Chen: And I will say that the definition of racism has also changed. It used to be prejudice based on racial characteristics. Now, they have changed the definition to include power. There's a power part of the formula. And it has been adopted by a certain section of society that takes it as a given. And one of the most ridiculous consequences of this is now seeing in school admissions “People of color, minus Asians,” or something like that, because-
Steven Pinker: Not that color.
Melissa Chen: Right. But this is one of the consequences of that belief that power is baked into racism, to the point that a person of color now cannot be guilty of racism. And we see a whole suite of consequences to believing that idea that is very dangerous for society.
Steven Pinker: Well, indeed. I mean, for one thing, it is just incoherent, the idea that you can't have racial animus if you are a particular color. It's a perfect instance of one of the propositions that I think that FAIR has identified as something that it is opposed to, namely racial essentialism, the idea that based on your race, there's certain beliefs that you just have to hold. It’s kind of, you'd think on the face of it, pretty insulting, I dare say racist, when it comes to all of the hundreds of thousands, the millions of African Americans who don't happen to believe something that's attributed to them. And it's absurd to think that they would. If you're not a racist, it means that everyone has a mind, is sentient and capable of reason. And to hold that all members of a race have a particular belief is just so shockingly patronizing that-
Melissa Chen: Denies an agency.
Steven Pinker: It denies an agency. Surprised it isn't laughed out of the room. Aside from the fact that it is incoherent, it is essentializing. But of course, it also is guaranteed to make enemies out of people who don't like being called racist when they're not. And I hate to say that's what gave us Donald Trump but, in part, that's what gave us Donald Trump. There are a lot of people who are sick of being called racist, or even called privileged or powerful, given that they're not, and the people who are calling them that are. Like people in the media, like people in academia, like people who actually do have power, claiming that a lot of White people, working class people, rural people who don't have power, claiming that they are personally oppressors. Again, collective guilt being another one of the propositions that FAIR is dedicated to combating.
Melissa Chen: So in chapter two, you wrote about forbidden base rates and taboo trade-offs, and how that's perceived as being morally corrosive. It seems to me that academic culture in general has reached a point where we are unable to think about taboo trade-offs. People have been canceled for doing so, and students are afraid to speak out in class, and professors too. How do you think that academic culture can change?
Steven Pinker: Yeah, not easy. So this is an allusion to a theory by the psychologist Philip Tetlock on the presence of taboo in all of us. It's not a ritual of Polynesian South Sea Islanders, which is where the word came from. But there are certain thoughts that we deem immoral to think. You might say, “Well, that's impossible. It's only deeds that can be immoral,” but he notes that in our interpersonal relationships, we judge people not by only by what they do, but who they are, what they're capable of. If someone said, “For how much would you sell your child, or sexual favors, or your vote,” the answer would not be, “Well, what are you offering?” The answer would be, “I'm offended that you would ask. It would never occur to me. I'm offended by the very question,” because we deem some of our relationships to be sacred, our relationships with our family, our spouse, our country, and we don't trade them off. We don't even think about trading them off.
And there is a certain rationality to that when it comes to our everyday social interactions, who we befriend, who we entrust. Because even if someone has treated us well so far, you don't want to constantly worry that you're going to get stabbed in the back as soon as your back is turned, or sold down the river. You want the people you deal with to be steadfast, to be the kind of people that wouldn't even think about betraying you. So there's a kind of logic to it in our social interactions. The problem is that when we project our interpersonal relationships to the public sphere and we have to make policy, that's when we can sometimes be, Tetlok argues, handicapped, or indeed crippled by these taboos.
By the way, one of my current projects is a BBC Radio and podcast series, which they call Think with Pinker. And in one of the episodes not yet released, I have Phil Tetlock on the series, together with Sally Satel, some of you might be familiar with Sally, the psychiatrist and the public intellectual, talking about one taboo trade-off, which is compensating organ donors. Now, one could make a hyper-libertarian argument that people should be allowed to sell organs for donation at will. You should be able to sell your kidneys on eBay. And people who sold them would benefit financially. People who needed a kidney, their lives would be transformed, and no one would be worse off. Nonetheless, there is a real “ick” reaction to that idea, even to milder forms like compensating voluntary organ donors for the cost of surgery, which you cannot do, or putting some money aside for a college tuition fund, or toward retirement, or toward health insurance, should they ever need medical assistance. All of those, by the way, are felonies. And Phil identifies compensated organ donation as one of a set of taboo trade-offs, such as selling your vote, selling your obligation to military service, which used to be perfectly acceptable. During the Civil War, people would sell their obligations. Buying your way out of jury duty, things that are now considered beyond the pale.
A second kind of secular taboo, Melissa also mentioned, and this was the forbidden base rate. Again, this ties into another tool of reasoning, namely Bayes' Rule, or Bayes' theorem, according to which you start off with a prior. The term prior has even crossed over from statistics into everyday conversation. We talk about, “Oh, those aren't my priors,” namely, your expectation before you even look at evidence. And a forbidden base rate would be looking up the rate of school success, of terrorism, of crime, of white collar crime for, say, particular ethnic groups before considering the individual.
Now, again, this is morally abhorrent, and there are reasons why it ought to be. Although if you were a good statistician, you would say, “Well, of course you factor in the base rates. That's Bayesian reasoning.” But nonetheless, it makes the flesh crawl when you think about, say, judging a criminal defendant based on the overall statistics of their religion or sex or racial group, and I think for some good reason. The third being the heretical counterfactual. Even though counterfactual thinking, what would happen if the world were a little bit different, is part of rationality. That's what we mean by causation. Namely, if things were different, if the cause were absent, the effect would not have occurred. Nonetheless, there are certain counterfactuals where, as we say, you don't go there.
Salman Rushdie was the subject of a fatwa for playing out a purely fictitious scenario about the life of Muhammad. And I gave an example of a real-life case of a heretical counterfactual. Some people I know were playing an after-dinner party game. They'd go around the table and say, “Well, of course, none of us is a least bit prejudiced or biased or bigoted, but let's just say, hypothetically, you were. Which group would you be biased against?” I don't advise playing this game. Someone that I know dumped her boyfriend after he said “Jews.” But it just shows that there are certain thoughts that we deem immoral to think, probably because they are giveaways to what might be the awful truth. And this is played out in fiction because it is so mind-absorbing. Sophie's Choice, Indecent Proposal, there are other examples.
Melissa Chen: I just don't know why your head has to go to race immediately. If there was a group I had to subjugate, it would be, I don't know, people that put pineapple on pizzas, or something that's just... Why is race the first?
Steven Pinker: True. You'd be very good at this game, yes. And I agree with you. I am prejudiced against them as well.
Melissa Chen: But I'm glad you brought up Bayesian reasoning, because my view, and this is a personal view, of a lot of progressive thought where the West in particular is out as being the most patriarchal, the most oppressive place on the planet. And sometimes when there's evidence of the contrary, those priors are not updated. For example, recently, what happened to the tennis star Peng Shui, who disappeared after she had a MeToo complaint of a government official for sexual assault. And what happens there when you do that is she disappeared. Nobody has heard from her since she made those accusations. And comparing that to, for example in the United States, where MeToo blossomed as a movement and women were able to come out and talk about their past experiences, and Harvey Weinstein is facing the consequences of his actions, and no woman has to worry about the state clamping down on them.
But elsewhere around the world, that's not true. It's very difficult for the voiceless to have a voice. It's very difficult for the repressed to have any platform. We have such a different moral threshold, and these stories don't seem to get factored in in a way that makes people here, who think this is the worst place on Earth, revise their priors. They still think that we have not made any progress, and that we need to dismantle everything. How do you convince them to do that?
Steven Pinker: That's a profound point. Yes, in cross-national surveys, whether they are just based on these blatant crimes or on surveys do show that the United States, as far as societies go, is not particularly prejudiced. The one that was most was India, in terms of people actually advocating the denial of rights to ethnic or religious or racial minorities. Now, this is of course not to say that racism doesn't exist in the United States. Of course, it does. But it is by no means the most racist society on Earth. It's one of the less ones. Also, over time, there's many kinds of evidence that racism has declined. Again, the fact that it has declined does not mean that it is anywhere close to zero, and ideally it would be close to zero.
But in both overt statements like, “Do you think Black and White children should go to separate schools? Would you move out if a Black family moved in next door? Are you opposed to racial marriage? Do you think that African Americans are less capable or less motivated than Whites,” all of these, the curves plunge, and in some cases are kind of in the range of crank opinion. The same number of people agree to it as agree to something like, “I believe that Joe Biden is a wizard.” So in that realm of crank opinion.
And now, you might say, “Well, of course people don't confess to racism anymore, but that just means that there's awareness of the social norm that you really oughtn't to say these things in public. But the covert implicit bias is as strong as ever.” But that too is testable, and that too turns out not to be correct. My colleagues, Mahzarin Banaji and Tessa Charlesworth, Mahzarin being one of the co-originators of the implicit association test, the controversial but widely discussed assay for implicit bias show that in the 20 years that she and her colleagues have been administering the test to hundreds of thousands of people who've taken it online, the amount of implicit bias, that is the association of African American faces with negative words and concepts, has gone down.
I've shown with Seth Stephens-Davidowitz looking at Google search data that search for racist jokes has gone down over the last 20 years. And when it comes to attitudes towards interracial marriage, we don't have to look at attitudes. We can look at quite literally skin in the game. Quite literally, how many people do marry people of other races? And the answer is a lot, and that has been increasing steadily for 50 years. So by a lot of measures, racism really has declined no matter how you measure it, and the United States is not the worst. Again, it shouldn't be such a feat of mental gymnastics to both believe that and to believe that racism still exists in the United States, but I find that it's surprisingly difficult to get people to acknowledge those two ideas.
Melissa Chen: There's some fallacy going on where simply acknowledging that fact means that you've lessened the significance, or lessened something else. Which like you said, they should be independent.
Steven Pinker: Exactly.
Melissa Chen: George Orwell once said that “there are some ideas that are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them.” How can we explain the appeal of wokeness, despite its track record and apparent historical inaccuracies among elites and very highly educated people?
Steven Pinker: That’s another profound question, and I've given a lot of thought to it. And I don't have a definitive answer, but I've looked around for possible explanations. So one of them is that it is certainly deeply rooted intellectually in the Western intellectual tradition, going back to probably the Frankfurt School, the originators of what's called critical theory. Not to be confused with critical thinking, of which critical race theory is a variety. A lot of people object to the notion of cultural Marxism, and it is something of a simplification, but the Frankfurt School carried over the idea that history is a struggle between groups, a zero-sum struggle for power substituting for economic classes—the proletariat, the bourgeois, and so on—races, genders, and sexual orientations. But it's group against group power struggle as the basic driver of history and the basic explanation for social phenomena. And that's been around probably... Well, the Frankfurt School was literally the 1920s, and so it's almost a century.
And as Andrew Sullivan pointed out, “we all live on campus now.” Ideas that start off as influential in the academy spill over as graduates take over positions of power in institutions. So another piece of the puzzle is that there is a phenomenon called Conquest's Second Law, after the historian Robert Conquest, that any institution that is not constitutionally right-wing becomes left-wing. And we see this in newspapers and nonprofits and charities and foundations. And again, it's an interesting question why that should seem to be a kind of tectonic trend. A third possibility—and none of these are mutually exclusive—is with the legitimate value that we ought to oppose racism, that can have some perverse consequences. One of them is: How do you know how much you should oppose racism? Well, if you follow the heuristic “Always be a little bit less racist than the people around you,” well, if the people around you have abandoned white supremacy, and they have no problem with interracial marriage, and they really believe that that we're all equal, and you're trying to be even less racist than them, well, now you're going to start to object to Halloween costumes and-
Melissa Chen: Cultural appropriation.
Steven Pinker: Cultural appropriation, exactly. And so there could be a kind of escalator, a virtue signaling escalator if the rule is “Whatever the level is, always try to be less racist than that.” And it can spiral into absurdity. Scott Alexander offered this speculation.
Another one is that, this is from Richard Hanania, that there's a sense in which wokeness or critical race theory is kind of built into civil rights law. That going back to the 1960s, there has been the commitment that any racial disparity is a sign of discrimination. Or at least, the burden of proof is on employers to show that if there is a racial discrepancy, that they are not racist. And so for Coca-Cola and General Motors and all the rest to go woke, it's actually not that surprising, considering that gives them a pretty good defense against a discrimination lawsuit. They say, “Well, we've got anti-racist training. Don't look at our hiring statistics to sue us for racism. We're as anti-racist as it gets.”
Finally—and I'm sorry for having maybe too many explanations, but we don't really know which ones are right, or in what combination—there is so much agreement that racism is a bad thing, and racism is a bad thing, that it opens communities up to a dynamic in which there's an inherent human desire to not be on the losing side of a conflict between groups, between one coalition and another. You really do want to be in the majority. You don't want to be the target of the wrong side of group-against-group coalition. Groups are dynamic. They can form on many kinds of bases, another insight from social psychology. And one good way of forming a group in which a majority can coalesce is by identifying some salient sin or crime in a minority, even in an individual. You get together and you all hate on one victim, something that everyone can agree on pretty easily.
Once it begins, you really don't want to be on the bad side. You want to be on the side of the angels. And I think some of us might remember even in the playground, as a kind of bullying group starts to coalesce, or even a shaming group, or a mean girls group, there's an anxiety. Even if you think that it's unfair, you don't want to be on the target side. You want to be on the bully side. And that can especially take root, based on simulations and experiments by Michael Macy at Cornell, of when to ideally show your allegiance to a group, since once a group becomes powerful, everyone wants to join it. Everyone wants to be a fair-weather friend. How do you prove that you're a true believer, that you're really committed? Well, if you're not only willing to defend the group, but you're willing to condemn the heretics, the miscreants, the defectors, that's a kind of honest signal of your commitment to the group. And you can get people to coalesce sometimes around absurd beliefs simply by the dynamic of preemptively accusing, lest you be the one who's accused. And I think we're seeing some of that, the feeling that there is a kind of bullying dynamic going on and intimidation might be a part of that dynamic of coalition formation around some imputed sin of someone else.
Melissa Chen: I want to ask the last question before I open it up to whoever. We'll do like 15 minutes of Q&A, so if anyone wants to step forward, I'll hand you my mic. But you mentioned that persuasion only works if your ideological opponent abides by and respects the concept of rationality. And in part I think it's been very difficult for many parents here who want to speak up about issues. They're afraid that they're going to get canceled, that what they're going to get in return is not a rational argument. Do you have any words for them? How do you deal with another side that will treat them that way?
That’s a really challenging question. And I don't want to say that I have kind of empirically-tested tactics, and I don't want to recommend something that could lead someone to be canceled, but here I'll throw out some ideas. One of them is that in this kind of regime of intimidation into silence, there is the role for the boy who says the emperor is naked, often telling people something that they knew all along, but they didn't know that everyone else knew that everyone else knew it, the phenomenon of common knowledge. Common knowledge being the technical term for not just knowing something, but knowing that everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows it.
Melissa Chen: It's recursive.
Steven Pinker: It's recursive, exactly. It's recursive mentalizing. And that the kind of spiral of silence where no one speaks out because of the intimidation can be broken when people hear some view that all along, they've wondered, “Gee, am I crazy, or is the whole world crazy? Maybe I'm crazy.” And then when it is voiced, they say, “No, I guess I'm not crazy.” So there's just the sheer courage of being the little boy. There are kind of the built-in advantages that FAIR has, such as avoiding the racism in saying “All Black people think alike.” It's the opposition to the critical race theory that gets to say that “No, all Black people don't think alike.” Or collective guilt. Slavery and Jim Crow and redlining and so on and lynching were horrible things, but none of the people in this room did it, and it is wicked to punish someone for something that they themselves didn't do, just because people with the same skin color as them did it.
That's a built-in advantage, and it's hard to refute, again, unless people have been intimidated into a spiral of silence that you're not allowed to doubt that truism. And I think there could be, there ought to be, and they aren't even really concessions, as who could possibly oppose the idea of teaching many of the ugly incidents of racism in American history? There's no one who's saying slavery should not be taught, or lynching, or the Ku Klux Klan, or Jim Crow, or the various anti-Black pogroms like the Tulsa riot. One should advocate, “Yeah, that's part of American history. It really should be taught, and I'd be surprised if anyone thinks that they shouldn't.”
So certainly not to concede the high ground, because one of the bogus arguments for critical race theory is, “Oh, so you're saying we shouldn't teach kids about the history of racism?” Well, of course we should. So to be upfront to own that issue and to say, “Yeah, we're the first to say that that should be part of American history, as should the various crimes and atrocities against Native Americans. Those did happen. We really ought to teach them, but of course in a suitably balanced context.”
Melissa Chen: I guess to conclude, I would say thank you so much for writing the book. I learned a lot from it, and I hope that this is something that will be taught in K-12 schools. I know you taught it at Harvard the last semester, but there's a whole bunch of things that I think are very fundamental to allow kids to grow up to be meaningful citizens, to participate in the democratic process, to think about policies. And I'd love for our kids to be able to learn about all of this in a very systematic way, and I think that's what Steven's book is about. So it's available at all bookstores anywhere.
Steven Pinker: And I just want to thank you, Melissa, for those very deep and profound questions. Thanks. It's been a privilege to be up here on stage with you.
The second half of the event—a live Q&A with the audience—can be viewed on FAIR’s YouTube channel here (starting at 49:05).
Join the FAIR Community
Click here to become a FAIR Volunteer or to join a fair chapter in your state.
Join a Welcome to FAIR Zoom information session to learn more about our mission by clicking here. Or, watch a previously recorded session click here to visit the Members section of www.fairforall.org.
Sign the FAIR Pledge for a common culture of fairness, understanding and humanity.
Join the FAIR Community to connect and share information with other members.
Share your reviews and incident reports on our FAIR Transparency website.
Read Substack newsletters by members of FAIR’s Board of Advisors
Common Sense – Bari Weiss
The Truth Fairy – Abigail Shrier
Skeptic – Michael Shermer
Journal of Free Black Thought – Erec Smith et al.
INQUIRE – Zaid Jilani
Beyond Woke – Peter Boghossian
The Glenn Show – Glenn Loury
It Bears Mentioning – John McWhorter
The Weekly Dish – Andrew Sullivan
Notes of an Omni-American – Thomas Chatterton-Williams