Thursday, December 15, 2011

Pinker's Wishful Thinking

Steven Pinker’s particular brand of wishful thinking reeks of pandering at best, ivory tower blindness at worst. In citing a few convenient “statistics” (evoking the term liberally), sprinkled with a few self-serving platitudes, Pinker deftly paints a caricature of reality and history that converges to his thesis. To say that Pinker isn’t an entertaining artist would be disingenuous.

It simply makes sense: reasonable people would be much more interested in working together for the common good. Intelligent beings seek to further their intelligence, an effort that necessitates a peaceful landscape and rocking chair. A rise in educated citizenry should necessarily see a corresponding rise in peace metrics. However, the bits of evidence brought forth to support his argument, come severely under-armed. It’s almost difficult to directly address the points made in “Taming the devil within us” due to the nature of most of his arguments: appeals to narcissism.

His self-congratulatory reasoning comes in the form of highlighting our era’s relative lack of violence. Ignoring the severity of conflicts in Africa, North Korea and Asia, it’s easy to agree with his points. Unfortunately, the presence of such violence, and in many cases to a magnitude never seen before, highlights a major issue in Pinker’s argument. The idea that a globally intelligent community results in a universally improved society is optimistic and selective bias. While studies on the individual level demonstrate a lowered risk of psychopathological behavior with increasing intelligence, the ability to scale this up to a generalized concept comes with a plethora of tenuous assumptions.

What we see, instead, is an intelligent community off-setting the fruits of its labor (from destructive technologies, amongst others) onto regions it deems useless/remote/inconsequential. Far from empathy, this highlights the worst in the intelligent community: complacency. By displacing consequences onto distant communities, it renders responsibility a nebulous and remote concept. It simply isn’t our problem, and we congratulate ourselves on our enlightenment while people die from our economic money-crops.

Further, casting aside the historically supported idea of “ebbs and crests” further bolsters his convenient thesis. Pinker’s “two-points” approach to linear regression results in a one-dimensional mirage. In referencing homicide rates in Europe, he embodies the “cherry-picking” scientist paradigm. Violence in Africa has, in contrast to Europe, been exacerbated by the advance of western civilization. Violence exports have become so lucrative that entire economies rely on the killing market. Intelligence is harnessed to develop the latest and greatest technologies, while these technologies are employed in a manner divorced from ethics. How this is reconciled within Pinker’s rosy thesis is still murky.

Shifting gears:

In accepting his conclusion, what role would neuroscientists have within the ethical landscape of reducing violence? If we see a correlation (or, as Pinker posits, a causation) between intelligence and reduced violence, do we not have a duty to go beyond education and intercept intelligence at the physical substrate? Cognitive interventions that improve intelligence are no longer luxuries; they are necessities to prevent murders. Do we have an obligation to install empathy and upgrade the obviously under-developed compassion that evolution has burdened us with?

The inevitable hiccups/hurdles aside, intervening in such a complex system as human interaction comes with a hefty set of risks. How can improving intelligence (and subsequently affecting empathy) go awry? Perhaps complacency enters the picture. Intelligent people enter the market of money-making in a very advantageous position. Consumerism further provides an enticing existence, ensuring that intelligence is tied to status-quo. Ultimately, intelligence could merely correlate with lowered violence; the direct relationship is between economics and violence. There simply isn’t much money in fighting each other; there’s a lot more money in making other people fight each other. Pinker conflates this idea with a global “peace” trend. In improving intelligence, we may merely be improving the efficiency of coupling between intelligence and the maintenance of economic power structures. Ethically, is it our job as neuroscientists and neuroengineers to facilitate more compliant, less disruptive intelligence?

Violence, despite its gruesome face, comes with selection pressures and survival constraints that bring out the best in our ingenuity, our sense of community. By fragmenting society, we strengthen the intra-fragment bonds. This strengthened community then goes on to work wonders, developing, in the name of security, the technologies and scientific discoveries that drive inquiry for generations to come. Without the pressure provided with violence, would we still have the ability to advance intelligence? Instead of seeing intelligence as antithetical to violence, we should acknowledge the reality: they come synergistically. As neuroscientists, can we say it is our duty to improve the longevity of life (reduce violence) at the cost of the quality (scientific inquiry)?

The conclusions drawn by Pinker rely heavily on a wishful-thinking argument, a “wouldn’t the world be nice if this were true, let’s act like it is” attitude that, while commendable, does not belong in the realm of scientific inquiry. Rather, the faith that he so desires to elicit comes at a severe cost that should make any objective mind squirm.

--Vineet Tiruvadi
Neuroscience Graduate Program

Want to cite this post?
Tiruvadi, V. (2011). Pinker's Wishful Thinking. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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