Featured Post

The Brian Ferguson Interview

I talked with Rutgers University professor of anthropology R. Brian Ferguson about Steven Pinker, Napoleon Chagnon, Marvin Harris, anthropo...

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Weak Pinkerism and Strong Pinkerism

The title of this blog post comes from the infamous Ezra Klein-Sam Harris debate about race science.

Klein said:
My working theory is that there’s a strong version and a weak version of Murrayism, both are represented in the conversation, but though the strong version is emphasized in the presentation, there’s been a retreat to the weak version upon challenge...
Harris's response was:
Actually, there is a real version and a fictional one. Here’s an article on that:
http://quillette.com/2017/03/27/a-tale-of-two-bell-curves/
Harris is citing the absolute garbage Quillette article by the Winegard brothers "A Tale of Two Bell Curves" in which they defend The Bell Curve by saying Charles Murray was onto something by claiming the reason for African American underachievement is black genetic intellectual inferiority. I explain some of the problems with that and their related Quillette article about race and racism here.

In other words, there is no "Two Bell Curves" which is to say a "real" version and a misrepresented version, in spite of the claims of the Winegard brothers, Sam Harris and Steven Pinker. Both Bell Curve critics and the Winegards agree, Charles Murray holds that genetics is the cause of African American failure to thrive. The actual difference is that critics don't agree with Murray and the Winegards that this is so.

To be precise the Winegards say, in defense of the hereditarian position:
Of course, there are other possible explanations of the Black-White gap, such as parenting styles, stereotype threat, and a legacy of slavery/discrimination among others. However, to date, none of these putative causal variables has been shown to have a significant effect on the IQ gap, and no researcher has yet made a compelling case that environmental variables can explain the gap.
So the claim that The Bell Curve is misrepresented by its critics is a straight-up lie

Pinker seems to be a fan of Barack Obama, in spite of the fact that Obama is also a harsh critic - for the same reason as every other critic - of The Bell Curve.

But back to weak and strong Murrayism. Klein is talking about a phenomenon that PZ Myers has described concerning disputes with evolutionary psychology proponents (see Myers indispensable  dissection of evolutionary psychology here) - such as Jerry Coyne:
There is also a tactic I really dislike; I call it the Dignified Retreat. When criticized, evolutionary psychologists love to run away from their discipline and hide in the safer confines of more solidly founded ideas. Here’s a perfect example (from Coyne):
…the notion that “the fundamental premises of evo psych are false” seems deeply misguided. After all, those premises boil down to this statement: some behaviors of modern humans reflect their evolutionary history. That is palpably uncontroversial, since many of our behaviors are clearly a product of evolution, including eating, avoiding dangers, and the pursuit of sex. And since our bodies reflect their evolutionary history, often in nonadaptive ways (e.g., wisdom teeth, bad backs, the coat of hair we produce as a transitory feature in fetuses), why not our brains, which are, after all, just bits of morphology whose structure affects our behaviors?
You know what? I agree entirely with that. The brain is a material product of evolution, and behavior is a product of the brain. There are natural causes for everything all the way down. And further, I have great respect for psychology, evolutionary biology, ethology, physiology, anthropology, anatomy, comparative biology — and I consider all of those disciplines to have strong integrative ties to evolutionary biology. Does Coyne really believe that I am critiquing the evolved nature of the human brain? Because otherwise, this is a completely irrelevant statement. 
Evolutionary psychology has its own special methodology and logic, and that’s what I criticize — not anthropology or evolutionary biology or whatever. Somehow these unique properties get conveniently jettisoned whenever a critic wanders by, only to be re-adopted without reservation within the exercise of the discipline. And that’s really annoying.
And we can see Pinker defending himself from the Guardian article by using the same technique as Coyne - reverting to the weak version of evolutionary psychology, by pretending that all he is saying is that men and women are not exactly the same, while leaving out his claims that women have evolved to be weaker at STEM subjects than men, that women do more housework because of "sex differences" or that a bile-spewing, professional misogynist crackpot like Camille Paglia is a reasonable feminist, as opposed to Gloria Steinem, whom Pinker contrasts unfavorably to Paglia in The Blank Slate.

Which brings us to Pinker's discussion with Krugman. Welcome to Weak Pinkerism which appears, I suspect, because even Pinker can't help but notice that Krugman is a strong opponent, and Pinker doesn't want to risk a rhetorical ass-kicking.

Krugman:
...it's a great time now to live in New York if you can afford a place, which is the problem.
But housing costs aside, there was a period when social order really did break down to a very important extent.
We did go from being from a city that was pretty safe, was never completely violence free, but it was a pretty safe place in the early 1960s.
 
It became an extremely-- well, maybe not by the standards of the Middle Ages or Stone Age societies, but by modern standards New York became a very dangerous place, and peaking in the 1980s. 
There was a real sense in which life in New York for lots of people became a lot worse.
There was a period when dystopian books and movies, Escape from New York, that sort of thing, was [INAUDIBLE]. That wasn't coming out of nowhere. That wasn't a fantasy. That was driven by what seemed to be the very real collapse of social order in America's greatest city.
Now, that has turned around. And these days, New York is, once again, a very safe place...
 
And so you ask, what did we do? Why did things go so wrong, and what did we do? What made them go right again? And indeed, there's been a great deal of research.
And I think the answer, with fairly high degree of confidence, is we have no idea, that there are interesting stories of all kinds. But fundamentally, we don't know why things got so much worse. And we certainly don't know why things got so much better.

I don't happen to agree with Krugman in this rare instance. I think we do know why things got bad, and the Rick Burns documentary New York gets it right when it points out that after the mid-1950s the jobs started to leave New York City.

And as anthropologist Marvin Harris will tell you, at the same time New York was losing jobs, poor blacks were moving in, escaping oppression in the Southern states, seeking low skill factory labor. But factories were leaving town, and meanwhile the jobs that were increasing - office work - were taken by white women, who were often better-educated than poor Southern blacks, and were entering the job market in unprecedented numbers.

It was a combination of these factors that lead to high black unemployment and black crime at a time when New York City was struggling to keep it together due to a shrinking tax base caused by middle class flight.

Here are some factors that caused NYC to recover: controlling debt in the 1970s; Southern "country" blacks began to acquire new modern workplace skills and integrate into city life with the aid of anti-discrimination law and affirmative action policies; the job market expanded in the 1990s thanks to computer technology; the lure of a car-based suburban lifestyle soured for many; birth rates dropped; women started spending the money they were earning as well as paying taxes; and new foreign investments by the 1980s which Krugman mentions elsewhere in the discussion.

That's the cultural materialist explanation.

Steven Pinker has his own eclectic explanation.

He spent pages of "Better Angels" making a case for his theories that dirty hippies and low marriage rates for blacks were critical causal factors in the breakdown of New York City social order.

That was strong Pinkerism. But in a room with Paul Krugman he retreats to weak Pinkerism - suddenly he is content to let Krugman claim we don't know the answers.

Now, could it be that Pinker has changed his mind about the magic of marriage and dirty hippies but doesn't want to admit he was wrong? I think that's a possibility. But as Phil Torres noted about Pinker and his IDW buddies:
They facilely dismiss good critiques as “hit jobs” and level ad hominem attacks to undercut criticism. And they refuse — they will always refuse, it’s what overconfident white men do — to admit making mistakes when they’re obviously wrong. 
Although there are women members of the IDW and they also refuse to admit when they've been obviously wrong, as the odious Christina Hoff Sommers demonstrated recently. I'll talk about that next.