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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Is Steven Pinker rational? Part 1

That time Razib Khan interviewed Pinker

I haven't read Steven Pinker's latest book, "Rationality: Why It Seems Scarce and Why It Matters" but saw an excerpt in the Harvard Gazette, and it is not promising.

Pinker uses the San Bushmen of Kalahari as his exemplars of rationality:

The San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa are one of the world’s oldest peoples, and their foraging lifestyle, maintained until recently, offers a glimpse of the ways in which humans spent most of their existence. Hunter-gatherers don’t just chuck spears at passing animals or help themselves to fruit and nuts growing around them. The tracking scientist Louis Liebenberg, who has worked with the San for decades, has described how they owe their survival to a scientific mindset. They reason their way from fragmentary data to remote conclusions with an intuitive grasp of logic, critical thinking, statistical reasoning, correlation and causation, and game theory...

Pinker then goes on to compare Americans unfavorably to the San, for their irrational beliefs: 

The sapience of the San makes the puzzle of human rationality acute. Despite our ancient capacity for reason, today we are flooded with reminders of the fallacies and follies of our fellows. Three quarters of Americans believe in at least one phenomenon that defies the laws of science, including psychic healing (55 percent), extrasensory perception (41 percent), haunted houses (37 percent), and ghosts (32 percent) — which also means that people believe in houses haunted by ghosts without believing in ghosts. 

Even if you have only a vague knowledge of human cultures, you would surely immediately see the problem with this comparison: all human cultures have irrational beliefs - which must surely include the San.

I am certainly not an expert on the San Bushmen of Kalahari, but a quick Google confirmed my suspicion: of course the San also believe in phenomena that defy the laws of science:

The Journal of Ethnopharmacology from March 1986 discusses the San trance dance:

...the teacher puts num into the pupil. When the num energy is in the dancer’s body, he cannot be burned by the fire. Singing during dances activates the num energy. Dancing is the way that the num energy boils, so that the person may enter into kia. One healer, interviewed by Katz, described a shamanic battle with spirits that he experienced under the kia trance. The healer said that he puts the soul back in the sick person's body...

The trance dance ritual continues into the present, and American mystics have found much in it they like

I think it's safe to say that Pinker and his buddy Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptic Magazine, would find the San claim that num energy protects a dancer from fire no more plausible than the claim of a Christian snake handler that they are safe from snakebite.

Pinker not only omits the San's irrational beliefs, he attempts to ameliorate evidence that they have them at all:

Another critical faculty exercised by the San is distinguishing causation from correlation. Liebenberg recalls: “One tracker, Boroh// xao, told me that when the [lark] sings, it dries out the soil, making the roots good to eat. Afterwards, !Nate and /Uase told me that Boroh// xao was wrong — it is not the bird that dries out the soil, it is the sun that dries out the soil. The bird is only telling them that the soil will dry out in the coming months and that it is the time of the year when the roots are good to eat.”

He sets up a narrative that implies human rationality is devolving, but he, Steven Pinker is here to help, as an expert on rationality. The fact that the San, like Americans, can be capable of both rationality and irrationality would ruin that simple Pinker-audience-friendly premise, so he omits San irrationality.

Since there is indisputable evidence that the San have, as a group, at least as much tendency to believe in fallacies and follies as Americans, it is irrational to portray Americans as somehow betraying San sapience in particular or pan-human sapience in general.

But you could make the argument that it is rational from Pinker's point of view, if you suspect, as I do that Pinker is mainly interested in promoting his career in order to achieve ever-greater remuneration and fame as a "celebrity intellectual."

Certainly Pinker is not used to being questioned by media gatekeepers which is why he is never questioned about his long career promoting race-mongers and racists.

But why the San Bushmen of Kalahari? I understand they are meant to represent our human patrimony:

The San of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa are one of the world’s oldest peoples, and their foraging lifestyle, maintained until recently, offers a glimpse of the ways in which humans spent most of their existence. 

But there are other remaining hunter gatherers he might have chosen. One possible reason for choosing the San Bushmen could be to distance himself from the theories of his fellow promoters of race pseudoscience.

An important hypothesis of race pseudoscience is that, although all humans are out of Africa, people who are native to Africa now have stupid genes because cold weather made non-Africans evolve to be smarter. 

Richard Lynn published an article "The Evolution of Racial Differences in Intelligence" in the notoriously racist Mankind Quarterly that used the Bushmen as an illustration:

The life style of present day !Kung bushmen in the Kalahari desert provides a useful insight into the relative ease of securing food supplies for hunter-gatherer peoples in tropical latitudes. As described by Lee (1968), women go gathering plant foods about one day in three, and men go on hunting expeditions for about one week in three. This is sufficient to provide food for the whole group, including infants, children and the old. The rest of the time can be spent relaxing about the camp. For these peoples the problems of obtaining food supplies are neither time consuming nor cognitively demanding.

Since this is, as far as I know, the only attempt by race pseudoscience to provide an evolution-based explanation for how non-Africans allegedly became smarter than Africans, it's likely that all race pseudoscience promoters believe the Northern Superiority Hypothesis (as I like to call it) is true.

Pinker is certainly aware of Richard Lynn and his beliefs - WARNING -  this link goes to the American Renaissance website. I tried to link to a version of the page on archive.org instead of linking directly, but American Renaissance is excluded from the Wayback Machine.

So Pinker making a big deal about the sapience of the San Bushmen, I believe, is a calculated prophylactic should any media gatekeepers finally ask him about his promotion of race-mongers (like Razib Khan and Quillette) and racists like Steve Sailer: "but I said the Bushmen were rational and sapient and capable of cognitively demanding tasks!"

But he couldn't very well mention that the San Bushman have irrational beliefs too, it would ruin the whole phony setup for him.

Pinker left out another very important fact when discussing the San Bushmen, which I will talk about in Part 2.