Skepchick Quickies, 10.17


Jen is a writer and web designer/developer in Columbus, Ohio. She spends too much time on Twitter at @antiheroine.

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  1. The article on Pinker’s book is not very good. Pinker does say some things that I think are quite wrong, but he also raises some important points, far too many to dismiss the work outright..

    There were four things that I found particularly misleading about the article. Firstly, Pinker asserts that violence is retreating in developing countries as well as the first world (aside from bumps in conflicts related to decolonization and the proxy wars of the Cold War). Secondly, Pinker does label the increase in incarceration as being one cause of dropping crime rates, but he doesn’t endorse the trade-off and in fact notes that it is a worrying one. Third, Pinker does not include Marx, Engels, or the Jacobins in his list of humanist thinkers because he explicitly considers their ideas incompatible with the core Enlightenment principles he is interested in. He’s not trying to promote atheism as such, but rather crediting a specific brand of humanism that he holds to be incompatible with Marxism. Fourth, he credits this humanism with being useful rather than being right; when Pinker gets on his soap box, he’s not advocating for biological fatalism, nor for emotionless rational actors, but rather for a conception of an inherently flawed human nature such that the flaws can be dealt with, but only if properly understood.

    There needs to be a decent critique of this book written. That article wasn’t it.

    1. While I haven’t read Pinker’s book, or know how accurately this article portrays it, I actually found the article itself to be excellent. It does, IMO, a terrific jobof underlining the problems in the narrative of “progress” and “social evolution”, privileging western societies, and attempting to apply Enlightenment thinking and values to a post-modern world.

      A couple things I think the article failed to point, out, though…

      – Pinker claims that imperial/colonial war is a thing of the past. After I finished picking my jaw up off the floor, I realized Pinker probably totally failed to consider that imperialism/colonialism and their attendant violence haven’t simply disappeared, but simply changed the way they look. It now involves economic war, sanctions, war by proxy, infiltration and destabilization, training insurgents, etc.

      – He points to the massive rate of incarceration in the USA (while even acknowledging the racial imbalance!) as an actual sign of progress and a non-violent society?! I suppose, then, that we’re to buy there is absolutely no violence inherent to that system of incarceration. Never mind the guns, police beatings, pepper spray, prison violence and sexual assault, abusive guards, etc. Never mind the consequences of this system on what kind of individuals it creates, and the climate of fear and distrust it propogates. Ironic that he’s talking about how wonderful it is that advanced societies no longer engage in war while wholeheartedly endorsing the War on Drugs (with only the flimsy justification that we may, if lucky, trawl up some violent criminals along with all the non-violent ones!!! What about turning the non-violent ones into violent ones by pushing them through the prison system?)


      Rationalism is rarely the most rational way of looking at the world.

      1. I haven’t read Pinker’s book, but I have watched a talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence.html) and read an essay about it. (I found http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/pinker07/pinker07_index.html but I’m not sure it is the same as I found before.) I feel the first part of the criticism article misrepresented Pinker (e.g. “For Pinker [post WWII conflicts involving a major power] are minor, peripheral and hardly worth mentioning.” This isn’t Pinker’s argument at all – the argument is that that there is MUCH LESS violence than in the past – and this result holds for less highly developed nations as well.

        I can only comment on the early part of the article, as I haven’t read Pinker on the philosophical bits, so I don’t know if the article accurately represents him, but given how poorly it did on the bits I do know, I don’t trust it at all.

        You say: “He points to the massive rate of incarceration in the USA (while even acknowledging the racial imbalance!) as an actual sign of progress and a non-violent society?!”

        I suggest you find out what Pinker actually said, rather than take the word of this (in my view) demonstrably inaccurate article, before you get all angry with him. (I don’t know what he actually said.)

        Finally, my general opinion of Pinker: I felt he made a strong argument well supported by science in “The Language Instinct”, but his later books (that I’ve read) have been progressively less convincing. While he may be right, I didn’t feel that he had fully demonstrated his rightness. You need to be aware when reading his books that he is a partisan in an academic debate and the books are written to propagate his views. I do, however, agree with his principal point in the new book: that, contrary to popular opinion, the modern world has a very low level of violence compared to the rest of history.

        1. I’m only “grr-ing” at the Pinker-as-presented. Like I said, I have absolutely no idea whether or not the actual book really presents the claims Gray says it does.

          But I certainly have seen people take those kinds of position…you know: our democratic socially-evolved completely-rational society is so wonderful now and we’re gradually progressing towards a great, utopian new era of peace and enlightenment, all we need to do is properly civilize all these backwards countries, bring them our way of life (or force it upon them), and do the same for all the uncivilised types within our own borders (or at least get them off the streets and into prisons). That kind of thinking bothers me a lot, and whether or not Pinker was engaging in a really overt or unsophisticated version of that, I don’t think Gray would have *completely* made the whole thing up, and when you buy into notions of a Long Peace or a general progress towards non-violence while ignoring the different ways and processes through which violence may take shape in the modern world (like, not necessarily being overt bloodshed, but perhaps more often things like enforced poverty, exile, relocation, discrimination, incarceration, intimidation, etc.), you’re missing much of the reality, painting a dangerously self-congratulatory picture, and treading very close to the arrogant, dark and imperialistic side of Enlightenment thinking.

          1. P.S. I should have my comma-privileges revoked for that horrible run-on sentence. But at least I kinda sound clever, right?

            *dies of shame…again*

  2. To paraphrase Adorno, it’s impossible to tell the narrative of universal humanitarian progress, but it’s simple to trace the history of the slingshot to the atomic bomb.

  3. Some questions about the vitamin thing, since this site seems to contain some people who claim to know about that stuff:

    1) My doctor has instructed me to take 2000 units of vitamin D a day, but doesn’t appear to be doing any followup testing. Am I in danger?

    2) Everyone says that multivitamin supplements are pointless if you are eating a healthy diet. But what if you aren’t? If you *aren’t* eating your zuchinni and brussel sprouts on a regular basis, does a multivitamin supplement do more good than harm?

    1. I am a scientist in a big state – run vitamin D lab, not a doctor, but can help with some of your questions.

      In my own case a low level (22 nmol/L) was found and after 3 months at 3000 IU/day supplementation the level had increased to normal (64 nmol/L). Supllementation was discontinued.

      1. VID deficiency is seasonal and related to sunlight exposure
      2. Supplementation takes months to be effective.
      3. Deficiency is surprisingly common at 30% of the population and even higher in dark skinned people.
      4. There was a flawed meta study from NZ that suggested increased risk of heart disease with VID and calcium supplements. The flaw was the failure to take sex into account as women need more VID but men have a higher rate of heart disease.
      5. There is great excitement in the research community as the mass measurement of VID is now possible and possible new metabolic roles are being discovered all the time.
      6. Vitamin D is a steroid related structurally to cortisol, aldosterone and to the sex hormones, so it is not surprising that some of the functions of the other steroid hormones are shared by VID. (Because of cross reactivity with some of the receptors involved).

      These functions include regulation of sodium/potassium uptake, glucose metabolism, etc.

      7. I fear what will happen when the alt med charlatans get hold of some of this information because it will be hard even for skeptics to distinguish fact from fiction

      In short, though, I suggest you discuss your concerns with your doctor!

      1. Corrections: point 3 refers to the tested, rather than the general population, though that is almost the same thing these days.

        point 6: Should perhaps have said “some actions of other steroid hormones are shared by VID, though to a leeser extent.”

        These are side effects that may be beneficial or not depending on clinical circumstances.

        The Wikipedia section on VID is quite good, and effects of hypervitaminosis D are given here (Mayo Clinic is a a gold standard source):

  4. Something is off about the article about Pinker’s book. Does anyone but creationists and their ilk use “Darwinism” like that today? I started wondering because of the alleged need for “faith” in the closing paragraph. Looking at the article author’s other writings, I find tired old attacks on “dogmatic atheists” and that, yes, he is a christian who longs for a world dominated by religion.

    A christian who doesn’t like the idea that secular humanism and not faith in his brand of the big sky daddy makes the world a better place? Not very surprising and not very convincing.

    Not that there’s not things to discuss in Pinker’s book. I just prefer to hear from someone more reality-based and less ideological.

  5. Re: Pinker
    There’s little doubt we have acted less violently than the during the time when any contact with a strange family, tribe or clan meant diminished resources for your own.

    But the important question is: Has our capacity for violence decreased?

    Just interrupt the food distribution network for a few weeks to find out.

  6. Having read a bit over half of the book, I can say that the main idea behind the Long Peace is that Europe has gone the longest period in centuries without a major war, and that interstate wars have decreased both in number and deadliness worldwide after WWII. Pinker credits the rise of liberal democracies and of lines of trade that make warfare between developed nations unprofitable or even disastrous.

    However, the chapter after “The Long Peace” is called “The New Peace”, and talks about the last twenty years, when worldwide civil wars have decreased in deadliness (not so much in number), while death rates from genocide have gone down dramatically for over 50 years (Rwanda and even Pakistan not remotely approaching the death toll of the Nazi and communist genocides). This chapter focuses more on the developing world. Pinker’s proposal is that, once the fallout from decolonization and the proxy wars between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. died down, warfare decreased in the developing world even in countries with scarce resources. Ironically, the countries with the most natural resources have the most wealth to fight over, and thus have seen the worst violence(think diamonds, oil…). Again, Pinker credits democracy for some of this effect.

    He makes the reasonable point that violence may seem to get worse, or hold steady, not because the number of deaths is greater, but because we now actually hear about violence in other countries on a regular basis, whereas few people in the West have ever known or cared about how many people died in the 1850s Taiping Rebellion (20 million) or the 13th century Mongol conquests (40 million, or at least about that order of magnitude). And since the deadliness of these incidents has held steady or gone down, while population has gone up, the average person on the planet is less likely to be a victim of violence than in previous centuries.

    The whole book goes this way, with statistics presented in a way such that the interpretation seems possibly too simple or convenient, but the numbers being interpreted seeming quite solid. Overall I think it’s an important work, if nothing else because we seem to forget that war, genocide, and so on were not invented in the twentieth century, but were practiced on a regular basis worldwide for thousands of years. Pinker goes out of his way, in fact, to point out that these things don’t just happen in “backward” countries. They were nauseatingly common in Europe before the Enlightenment, then merely depressingly common, still celebrated even, up until the last couple of generations or so. It’s the sudden, unprecedented-in-history lull in the bloodbath, the one that’s suddenly allowed people to believe that warfare only occurs in poor, “backwards” countries, that he’s interested in discussing.

    Pinker is opinionated and sometimes very annoying, but I still think that this book is extremely important. Even if he’s sometimes wrong about WHY violence is decreased, he’s probably not wrong THAT it has, a conclusion that he isn’t the first to arrive at, but may be the first to present so publicly. Several independent datasets for homocide, interstate and civil warfare, genocide, race riots, and so on all seem to all point the same way.

  7. As for incarceration, I can just copypasta from page 122-3:

    “But the case that the incarceration boom led to the crime decline is far from watertight. For one thing, the prison bulge began in the 1980s, but violence did not decline until a decade later. For another, Canada did not go on an imprisonment binge, but its violence rate went down too. These facts don’t disprove the theory that imprisonment mattered, but they force it to make additional assumptions, such as that the effect of imprisonment builds up over time, reaches a critical mass, and spills over national borders.

    “Mass incarceration, even if it does lower violence, introduces problems of its own. Once the most violent individuals have been locked up, imprisoning more of them rapidly reaches a point of diminishing returns, because each additional prisoner become less and less dangerous, and pulling them off the streets makes a smaller and smaller dent in the violence rate. Also, since people tend to get less violent as they get older, keeping men in prison beyond a certain point does little to reduce crime. For all these reasons, there is an optimum rate of incarceration. It’s unlikely that the American criminal justice system will find it, because electoral politics keep ratcheting the incarceration rate upward, particularly in jurisdictions in which judges are elected rather than appointed. Any candidate who suggests that too many people are going to jail for too long will be targeted in an opponent’s television ads as “soft on crime” and booted out of office. The result is that the United States imprisons far more people than it should, with disproportionate harm falling on African American communities who have been stripped of large numbers of men.”

    This is one of several points where Gray seems to be responding to what he’s afraid that other people might take from Pinker’s book, rather than what Pinker is actually saying.

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