Quote of the day

I think that a failure of statistical thinking is the major intellectual shortcoming of our universities, journalism and intellectual culture. Cognitive psychology tells us that the unaided human mind is vulnerable to many fallacies and illusions because of its reliance on its memory for vivid anecdotes rather than systematic statistics. Yet pundits continue to hallucinate trends in freak events, like the Norwegian sniper (who shot all those young people on an island) and make wildly innumerate comparisons, such as between Afghanistan and Vietnam, or between today\’s human trafficking and the African slave trade. It\’s a holdover of the literary sensibilities of our science-flunking intellectual elite, who would be aghast if someone didn\’t know who Milton was, but cheerfully flaunt their ignorance of basic science and mathematics. I lobbied – unsuccessfully – for a course requirement at Harvard in statistical and logical reasoning.

Stephen Pinker

18 comments on “Quote of the day

  1. All of Pinker’s books that I have read have been surpassingly brilliant. I had a regrettable tendency, now curbed, to lend them to people and never het them back. This one looks like a pre-order from the bookshop.

  2. I’ve read his previous books — the Language Instinct really is a classic — but I won’t be reading this one. Not because I disagree with his thesis, but rather because of it: I don’t want to read the multitudinous descriptions of man’s horribleness to man that he includes. Too horrible. Which does make his point.

  3. The idea of getting people who have no grasp even of arithmetic to think statistically is a bit ambitious. It seems wiser to me simply to ignore anything said by the kind of person who can’t even do arithmetic. Having worked for many years in good universities, I can say that that’s largely the attitude of the sciencey towards the artsy. There are exceptions – they might, for instance, listen to what an artsy person has to say about, for instance, music. But about most other things: no – you could almost hear the shutters come down.

  4. The French education system traditionally made everyone do a little of everything. So the artsy had to do some maths and science while the dorks had to do some philosophy.

    As far as I can see all it has done has ruined French science and mathematics. Whatever happened to French mathematics by the way? In the 19th and even early 20th centuries France was a serious contender.

    As for French philosophy, it is, of course, utterly unspeakable. Let’s ignore the fact that Communists tend to be French educated and just point to the serial sycophancy of French intellectuals towards any passing mass murderer.

    So perhaps the divide is a thoroughly good thing for everyone concerned.

  5. It seems wiser to me simply to ignore anything said by the kind of person who can’t even do arithmetic. Having worked for many years in good universities, I can say that that’s largely the attitude of the sciencey towards the artsy.

    As someone who makes a fair amount of money by understanding both camps and explaining them to each other, THIS IS THE PROBLEM.

    The sciencey lot bounce off into an autistic bubble, which is all well and good when dealing with hard-science and engineering problems, but absolutely useless for anything that involves finding out information and communicating information to people who aren’t sciencey.

    Generally, sciency people blame the non-sciencey people for being thickos, rather than recognising that this is only half the story, and the other half is lack of communication skills. Obviously, non-sciencey people miss out the other half, and assume the scientists are charlatans or ivory-tower nutters or similar (hence, creationism, vaccine panics, AGW denialism, and so on).

    But you *can* communicate fairly complex statistical concepts to people with a limited understanding of formal mathematics, as long as you do so in the right way. It’s difficult, and you need to understand both mindsets, which is why most people don’t.

    (half-related rant: anyone who views 20th century French philosophy as a homogenous body of work really doesn’t have any right to talk about it, whether positively or negatively. Derrida is a bullshit merchant of the first order who should be consigned to the flames; Foucault is one of the best analysts of the last century from any subject area, and has an approach that follows in the tradition of English empiricism as much as anything else. Their entire worldview is as different as you can possibly get.)

  6. “(half-related rant: anyone who views 20th century French philosophy as a homogenous body of work really doesn’t have any right to talk about it, whether positively or negatively. Derrida is a bullshit merchant of the first order who should be consigned to the flames; Foucault is one of the best analysts of the last century from any subject area, and has an approach that follows in the tradition of English empiricism as much as anything else. Their entire worldview is as different as you can possibly get.)”

    I don’t recall anyone even suggesting that they were the same. Different as you can get? Come on. You have got half a point. Don’t over do it. As with the claim that Foucault follows in the tradition of English empiricism. But he does illustrate my point – being enough of an orthodox Stalinist to teach at the University of Warsaw, praising the Ayatollah’s Revolution in Iran. Typical of French intellectuals and their love of mass murderers.

    Which is kind of the point isn’t it? It doesn’t matter one bit if Foucault was the same as Derrida, or if he was influenced by English traditions or not (as opposed to the reality which was that he was firmly in the European traditions of Marxism, structuralism and Nietzsche at various times of his life). The point is that wherever French intellectuals come from, whatever their views or their influences, they do have a worrying habit to always suck up to mass murderers. As Foucault, of course, did.

    Actually this may be an area where Derrida comes off better. He was, imo, a fraud, but I don’t recall him being nice about Khomeini or Pol Pot or Stalin. Of course if he had, who would know?

    So well done. You manage to destroy a strawman of your own making.

  7. Foucault was an arrogant arsehole, ignorant to the point of insanity, yet he felt he was able to analyse absolutely everything.

    He is the perfect example of the Dunning-Krueger effect, being so incompetent he was able to recognise neither his own ignorance nor genuine competence in others.

    @SMFS, nice one.

  8. Why on earth does it matter what a philosopher thinks of a specific mass murderer? The point is the analytical usefulness of their theories, not whether they were right about arseholes.

    In any case, there’s no disgrace in supporting the Iranian revolution in 1979 – the previous regime was as murderous, corrupt and undemocratic as the regime we continue to prop up in Saudi. It was never a given that it would turn into the regime it is now, any more than it was a given the US revolution would produce a constitutional democracy…

  9. (incidentally, can’t help but think anyone who’d dismiss Mr F in terms quite as lackwit as Ben’s is probably a better candidate for the Dunning-Krueger award himself).

  10. Well, John, it may be that I have got him wrong and it was all a purposeful and cynical exploitation of his followers’ credulity.

    But that’s hardly any better, is it?

  11. SMFS –

    Typical of French intellectuals and their love of mass murderers.

    Except for Gide, Aron, Guérin, Pivert, Camus, Debord, Vidal-Naquet — I could go on, if you like?

    You have got half a point. Don’t over do it.

    /irony

  12. sorry John b but my reading of the literature subsequent to M F’s demise has been that he told a lot of porkies, insofar as anyone has been able to determine any meaning in his writings…which leads us to Derrida, whose works seem to to0 describe someone as verbose and inscrutable as Monsieur F

  13. my reading of the literature subsequent to M F’s demise has been that he told a lot of porkies, insofar as anyone has been able to determine any meaning in his writings

    Cites? Interested to hear.

  14. It seems that commentators here would rather discuss the relative demerits of French philosophers than address the rather more important problem that many people make bad decisions because they don’t understand statistics. Which may be a good illustration of Pinker’s point.

  15. I suspect that the intellectual elites which constructed the Euro probably can’t do sums. After all anyone with a basic understanding of maths and markets could see it would all end in tears.

    Examples of how bad policy is made by people who don’t understand statistics are littered throughout the Freakonomics.

    What I wouldn’t give for a real cost benefit analysis for every government policy so we can look at whether the cost to society exceeds the benefits.

    On the other matter I gave up reading philosophy after Nicollo Machiavelli’s “the Prince”. After all it contains everything you need to know to succeed.

    All the rest is intellectual masturbation … apart from Adam Smith and John Locke of course.

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