Tag Archives: steven-pinker

Why Pinker and Gladwell Disagree

If you didn’t already know, Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, What the Dog Saw, is a collection of his best essays as published in The New Yorker (all of which are available on his site for free, if you prefer to read them there).

Since its publication, journalists and scientists have been criticising Gladwell over what they perceive as his lack of scientific integrity (in preferring folk wisdom and over-simplifications than fully-researched science journalism).

The most high profile of these criticisms, and the one that seems to have struck a nerve with Gladwell, comes from cognitive scientist and author Steven Pinker.

If you want to read more about these criticisms, Seed summarises many of them in an article that looks evenly at the various disagreements and looks at how, in popular science writing, “where statistical rigor is actually applied, it takes the discussion to a level of abstraction that is not useful to the average reader”.

However I felt the most concise and unbiased conclusion comes from Mind Hacks:

While the two writers spar over the details, the subtext is that Pinker is a proponent of IQ being a reliable predictor of success with a significant genetic influence (see The Blank Slate) whereas Gladwell has argued that success is largely a combination of practice plus being in the right place at the right time (see Outliers).

Obviously these two approaches to explaining success don’t sit well with each other, hence, in part, the disagreement.

Ethical Impulses & The Moral Instinct

Evolution has endowed us with ethical impulses. Do we know what to do with them?

In Steven Pinker’s New York Times article, The Moral Instinct, this question is raised and discussed as he takes us on a guided tour of ‘moral psychology‘ – a recently invigorated field.

The starting point for appreciating that there is a distinctive part of our psychology for morality is seeing how moral judgments differ from other kinds of opinions we have on how people ought to behave. Moralization is a psychological state that can be turned on and off like a switch, and when it is on, a distinctive mind-set commandeers our thinking. This is the mind-set that makes us deem actions immoral (“killing is wrong”), rather than merely disagreeable (“I hate brussels sprouts”), unfashionable (“bell-bottoms are out”) or imprudent (“don’t scratch mosquito bites”).

via Mind Hacks (Pinker is the author of The Blank Slate and The Language Instinct, both books on my 2008 reading list.)