Sunday, May 12, 2013

The better angels of our nature: Steven Pinker vs Nassim Taleb

In my years of reading, there have been a handful of occasions when I have read a piece of non-fiction that has genuinely opened my eyes to a whole new way of looking at the world.  Something that can truly be called to have created a landmark in my own mental landscape.

And practically every time that happens, you can bet there will be some expert somewhere ready to rain on that parade.

The landmark in this instance (which has shaken me out of a long self-imposed silence on Brick and Rope) is Steven Pinker's masterly book The Better Angels of our Nature - one of the best books of non-fiction I have read in my lifetime.  And the 'expert' in question is Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

First, the book.  

We tend to think of our current times as being racked with violence - all the stories of war, terrorism, gun crimes, rape and other such that dominate the news make it easy to imagine that these are really hard times.  It is easy to hanker for the 'good old days' when people lived in low tech societies without the means for mass killings, lived closer to nature, in smaller groups, where the neighbour was your friend and the grocer gave you credit.  Oh to be able to get back, you idly ache when another gory headlines lights up your screen, to those simpler times when violence didn't dominate one's life so.

Enter The Better Angels of our Nature.  Thee central thesis of the book is that violence in most forms has not increased but actually steadily and dramatically declined over time, and by most measures we live in just about the most peaceful times that mankind has ever known.  Pinker tries to demonstrate that with chart after chart of historical data on different forms of violence, and how they have trended over time - and in almost every case, things seem to move down.

Pinker's definition of 'violence' is expansive.  He is not speaking solely about wars and war-related deaths.  The book takes into scope homicides, human sacrifice, cruel and unusual punishments, slavery, genocides, lynching, corporal punishment of children, homophobic violence, violence against women, and the like.  Basically any form of violence which a citizen of the world might face during their lifetime - either from enemy states (war); their own state / society (torture, anti-gay laws, sati etc); or from their fellow citizen (homicides).  Along all of these dimensions, he makes the assertion that life in the 21st century is about the best it has been for mankind.

Pinker splits human history of violence into six major trends, each progressively more recent.
  1. The movement from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agrarian one, with cities and governments.  He demonstrates how violence ridden the older lifestyle was, as shown for instance in the large proportion of human fossils found to have died violently (and young).  Human life in the hunter gather period was indeed "nasty, brutish and short".
  2. Between the late middle ages and the 20th century, the consolidation of minor feuding small kingdoms into larger states, with central authority and inter-state commerce.
  3. The abolishing of socially sanctioned forms of violence like slavery, torture, superstitious killings, sadistic punishments and the like.
  4. Post World War 2 - the historically relative lack of war and war related deaths.  The so called 'Long Peace' - more on this later.
  5. Post cold war - reduction (again in historically relative terms) in all kinds of armed combat like civil wars, genocides etc.
  6. The Human Rights movement since the second half of the 20th century -  Reduced violence against ethnic minorities, women, homosexuals, children, and most recently, animals.

Pinker fills up The Better Angels of our Nature with 104 charts and tables that attempt to demonstrate each of the trends above.  Homicide rates in England, 1200-2000; capital punishment trends in the United States; 100 worst wars and atrocities in human history; deaths in wars involving the great powers, 1500-2000; global rates of death from terrorism; child abuse trends in the United States; violence by intimate partners; opinion poll trends in attitudes towards women / gays / child rearing; vegetarianism.  The brushstroke is about as broad as you can imagine.

If you are the sort that is politically neutral, and have no particular fondness for one ideology over another, and you are genuinely interested in understanding the human condition, I can't imagine how you could come out of reading Better Angels without being enlightened, moved, changed.

So now, to the criticisms.

When it was published in 2011, The Better Angels of our Nature received broad acclaim, making the Best of the Year lists at some of the publications I have most often tended to trust at Brick and Rope - the New York Times, the Economist, Guardian, and others.  But, as is to be expected of any 800 page book on the social sciences, it also received its share of criticism.  In my mind the criticisms of the book fall into three categories.

First, the no-ax-to-grind, factual criticisms.  I agree with most of these.  For one, the book is too long!  800 pages of really heavy material can be quite taxing, even for the most ardent reader.  Also, while the chapters that describe and the demonstrate the reduction in violence are gripping and superbly written, I am a little less sure of the two chapters that deal with why violence reduced.  Some arguments are easier to swallow here than others.  And importantly, the evidence isn't strong for any of these.  (It is an important tell that the 'why' chapters have the fewest tables and charts).

Second, there are the criticisms by the political left - well meaning people who have been campaigning against gun violence, large military spending, war mongering, gay bashing and the like.  These activists are doing admirable work, but their continued effectiveness depends on the notion of a world that is getting increasingly violent ("be afraid, be very afraid!").  Efforts of groups like these are almost certainly to thank for the remarkable reduction in violence we have seen over the decades - particularly in the areas of person-to-person violence (women's rights, gay rights, children's rights, animal rights etc), but also likely in the increased pacifism of democratically elected governments everywhere.  But they are in the unenviable position of not being able to accept openly that they have indeed succeeded in their last few decades - because it runs the risk of current campaigns being derailed.  In the midst of a heated debate on the most recent gun control legislation for example, the left is hardly likely to come out and endorse a work that says violence is already down by a whole lot.  

There is one particular methodological criticism that this group most often levels on Pinker.  This is that Pinker's choice of metric in many of his charts is incorrect.  Over the course of history, the population of the world has steadily increased.  So wars or murders or other forms of violence today claim more absolute number of victims than those in the past.  But how can one know whether violence has trended up or down? To check this, Pinker often shows violence victims as a ratio of the relevant population at that point in time (number of deaths per 100,000 population, say).  A lot of people have questioned the legitimacy of this metric.  I, for one, am comfortable with it.  I recognize the weaknesses of the metric, but I can't see ready alternatives that can be trended over vast stretches of time.  I am willing to grant Pinker this one.

The third form of criticism leveled against The Better Angels of our Nature are of the 'statistical expert' variety.

On to Nassim Taleb, and his problems.  
A few months after the book came out, Mr.Taleb came out with a scathing criticism that he put up on his blog.  Pinker responded to the criticism with this own post here.

Here is my plain English translation of Taleb's major complaints with the book - 
  1. Yes, the world looks very peaceful since 1945.  But that doesn't mean we don't live in a violent world.  You might see a catastrophic, nuclear driven war break out that can kill millions of people.  You can't just extrapolate from the last 75 years.
  2. We have mass-extermination weapons now that ancient man did not have.  So our potential for causing harm is infinitely more.
  3. There is 'survivor bias'in the argument - if there had indeed been a massive nuclear war, Pinker (or anyone else) might not have been around to write this book.
My views on all these complaints is - "yes, but so what?"  These criticisms miss the point on two major counts - 
  • In my view, The Better Angels of our Nature is a descriptive book, not a prescriptive one.  Its point is not "we have cracked this thingy called violence, you are free to open your champagne bottles now".  It is more of "hey, did you take a moment and feel grateful for all the progress that you have made in these last few centuries?  Your life is indeed so much less violent than that of your forefathers."  In separate passages in the book, Pinker writes - "
"Man's inhumanity to man has long been a subject for moralization.  With the knowledge that something has driven it down, we can also treat it as a matter of cause and effect.  Instead of asking, 'Why is there war?'we might ask, 'Why is there peace?' We can obsess not just over what we have been doing wrong, but also over what we have been doing right."
"In this final chapter, I will not try to make predictions; nor will I offer advice to politicians, police chiefs, or peacemakers, which given my qualifications would be a form of malpractice."
  • 'Violence' as described by Pinker is not just warfare, which seems to be Taleb's major obsession.  It covers all forms of violence that a citizen of the world might face in his life.  Do I today face state instituted torture?  Breaking on the wheel?  Witch burning? Lynching?  Murders?  KKK?  Slavery?  Do children today get beaten black and blue by their fathers, or in their schools?  Do women face rape as a 'just spoils of war'?  Do women in India burn as often as sati, or as dowry deaths?  The arrow of history, in all these cases seems to move in the benign direction.  I appreciate Taleb's point that if war deaths are extrapolated as part of the same statistical distribution, given our current killing machine capabilities, we can imagine a tail event in 200 years that could cause (say) a billion deaths. And clearly, this type of event was not possible in the ancient world.  But that extreme severity of the tail event doesn't answer the question - Given a choice of living in any violence minimizing world of his choice, would Mr.Taleb prefer to be born in the 21st century, or in the middle ages?
Before I end, allow me to indulge in a bit of ad hominem, something Taleb decries but generously serves himself from.

I loved Fooled by Randomness, but was very irritated and annoyed by The Black Swan.  (See Brick and Rope's review: The Black Swan: The improbably avoidable book of 2008).  Over the years, my view of the tough talking Mr.Taleb has not improved much.

Here is a recent Taleb interview, peddling his new book Anti-Fragility.  I reproduce below the specific part of the interview about the Pinker episode:
The Lebanese-born academic is not afraid to tear down the ivory towers, in which he himself resides. But he also displays an incredible sense of loyalty. After the 2002 New Yorker profile, of which Taleb complained that Gladwell “made me seem gloomy and I’m not gloomy,” the two writers became friends. In 2009, Gladwell told a C-SPAN interviewer that he feels an intellectual kinship with Taleb.
So, when the renowned Canadian-born Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker penned a critical review in The New York Times of fellow Canadian Malcolm Gladwell’s novel, What the Dog Saw, Taleb rushed to Gladwell’s defense. “I got furious. I feel loyalty for someone who does something nice for you, when you are nobody.” Taleb wrote a scathing critique of Pinker’s research in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has DeclinedIn his critique, titled “The Pinker problem,” Taleb claims Pinker’s book is riddled with errors in sampling and doesn’t “recognize the difference between rigorous empiricism and anecdotal statements.” Pinker responded with his own paper in which he writes, “Taleb shows no signs of having read Better Angels.”
So let me get this straight Mr.Taleb -

You like Mr.A because he is "nice to you when you are a nobody".  Then you "get furious" at Mr.B because he writes a critical review of Mr.A's book.  So you go ahead and write a scathing critique of Mr.B's book.

Real mature.


  1. Good to see you back in action. Enjoyed reading this post, was unaware of the rancor between Taleb and Pinker (mostly thanks to Taleb).

  2. Just as a reference Nial Ferguson had made the same point about declining war causalities in his - "The Cash Nexus"

  3. Stumbled on to your blog through google. Amazing! I might have spent around 2 hours just reading.

  4. Nassim Nicholas Talib I wrote on my page:'' It is daft to suppose that ripping somebody builds your repertoire up?

    I like Professor Nassim Talib a lot, I believe in his anti-fragile and black swan, his last night status was just pure bliss to my mind 'you cannot get involved without having skin in the game.'

    He is one of the immense top imaginative and innovative thinkers of the contemporary world, but I just don't comprehend or identify the streak as to 'why embodiment of such a great intelligence drops down to level of a street boy.' Great minds should be aloof from street battles, when someone splatters dirt on you, please don't roll down with pigs in the ring. You don't have to punch anyone to win your point. When you tear others down essentially instead of building your case you present a pig-headed image of your enormous mental power! ''

    His dogged scholarly anti-focus on Prof. Pinkers* is incredibly mean for such a resourceful intellect, he may rubbish me or even ban me with his typical rage, but I still courageously will post this to the Professor ( who I think is 'da mind' of today) that for me it only reflect his own deep seated insecurities, when he locks his horns needlessly to score points, which I think he has made and won eruditely big time.

    Professors following status was not very polite, and is kind of anti-climax of his huge scholarly stature, his point number 5 is so out of place and contradicts his great intrinsic wits. ? I may articulate it has lot to do with insecurities of his geography. This is a very medieval kind of tactless, insensate below the belt attack.

    ''To have a great day: 1) Smile at a stranger, 2) Surprise someone by saying something unexpectedly nice, 3) Give some genuine attention to an elderly, 4) Invite someone who doesn't have many friends for coffee, 5) Humiliate an economist, publicly, or create deep anxiety inside a Harvard professor.

    Richness of mind is luckily so rooted in him, his ancestral city traces its roots to Phoenician, Byzantine Greek and Ghassanid descent. He is an "invincible fort "from Amioun, his city name Amia the ethnological experts assert is derived from the Semitic word emun, originally so rich is the culture of his place of birth that the word Amia was cited in the letters of Tell el Amarna, which were sent in the 14th century B.C. by his city local governors to their overlords, the pharaohs of Egypt.

    These tribal world-lordish instinctive insecurities sometime remain engrained in genetics, sometime they have to be scrapped. He comes from an origin that has the richest pedigree of human culture and civilisation, nothing can beat this kind of originality of pure-bred bloodline of culture. Yet, his few lines and arrogance sometime fall short of what his inexhaustible, unbounded genius and capacities he offers to all of us.

    Why to betray the positives and highlight negative streaks of the warlords!

    * Steven Pinker is Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University

  5. Great blog entry! I think Taleb and Pinker are both incredible. It is so sad to see them debating online, as opposed to what might have been accomplished had they sat down over coffee for a couple of hours with microphones on and just discussed things pleasantly in real time. I would love to hear that conversation and I have little doubt it would have resulted in a richer understanding of both of their works. Like I say, I truly love Taleb's thinking, but he sometimes goes overboard on the attacks - so I am very glad that I live in the less violent world that Pinker describes. These thinkers should discuss and debate, but they should not be fighting. No one gets more intelligent when angry.

  6. I agree with what most people see as Pinker's primary contentions in the book: that violence has declined, and that relative violence is the proper measure. I also consider several of the reasons he cites as near-truisms. However, it is nevertheless clear that Herman and Peterson's characterization of the work as primarily "an ideological" tract is absolutely correct.

    One of the areas in which this is most glaring is Pinker's utterly mendacious treatment of "left-liberalism" vs. "classical liberalism" (Pinker's euphemism for neoliberalism), of "socialist" ideas vs. "free-market" ideas, etc. As Princeton Professor Timothy Snyder points out in his critical review in Foreign Affairs, Pinker hails the Western European democracies as the gold standard for peacefulness and civilization in the history of the world. Although he investigates and discusses the correlation of "level of democracy" with "peacefulness" among states, he refrains from attempting any discussion of "level of social democracy" with "peacefulness" among democratic states. Pinker is certainly aware that the Western European states, which Pinker concedes (when pressed in interviews) are more peaceful and civilized than the United States (although even then he minimizes the extent to which this is true), are much more socialist/social-democratic in their policies and ideas than the more neoliberal, barbaric, war-like, and domestically violent US.
    Instead he argues that intelligence causes the embrace of neoliberalism (on the basis of answers to a few crudely-phrased questions to people in the two most neoliberal countries---the US and the UK), and since intelligence is positively correlated with peacefulness, neoliberalism is also.
    Further evidence of Pinker's mendacity on this issue: Pinker approvingly quotes or mentions many champions of peace while carefully refraining from mentioning their very strong opposition to his pro-capitalist, pro-neoliberal, libertarian views. Examples include George Orwell (an outspoken democratic socialist), Bertrand Russell (who wrote an article The Case for Socialism), Albert Einstein (who wrote an article Why Socialism?), John Dewey and John Stuart Mill (both of whom advocated industrial democracy and worker ownership of factories), and Martin Luther King (another outspoken advocate of democratic socialism). With regard to King, Pinker claims that King "read Marx but rejected him" while failing to note that King advocated a radical redistribution of wealth in America as necessary for a peaceful and just society. So Pinker thinks it's important for readers to know what views King didn’t hold (e.g., Marxist views), but not what views he actually did hold. This is about as informative regarding King's views (which is why Pinker even mentions him) as it would be to say of Pinker, "Pinker read Hitler, but he never worshiped Hitler as the greatest moral visionary in history or expressed any obsessive sexual fantasies about fellating Hitler"----true, but intentionally misleading.

  7. An outstanding post. I too found Pinker's latest to be one of the most important books I've ever read. I also happen to be a fan of Taleb's work (as written in his books, but not so much how he gets worked up on Twitter and Facebook) and am acutely aware of the dangers of extrapolation and how nuclear war is the ultimate Black Swan. But, I agreed with your assessment of Taleb's criticism and in fact your assessments of the different types of criticism Pinker's book has received.

    I was planning on writing a blog post on this topic, but will now merely point people here instead, as it summarised my exact views — an Internet first!

  8. I think Taleb's point is that Pinker is like a lottery winner who celebrates the fact that she has won the lottery. While it's nice that we haven't had a nuclear war, each passing day without one does not make it less likely that we have a nuclear war. And the last 50 years of avoiding nuclear war was probably more down to luck than the intelligence and foresight of our leaders.

    Secondly, being a nice person does not make you an good person, so I have no problem with Taleb's (entertaining) attacks on fellow academics. After all, that's what academia is supposed to be about.

    1. I would agree with you if Pinker's book was solely about our avoidance of nuclear war. But the book is about the decline of all forms of violence. The decline of war deaths is just one part of a much larger trend. And I would not characterize the avoidance of nuclear war as being mostly due to luck. A lot of brainpower has gone into avoiding it, because everyone agrees that it would be a bad thing.