Behind The Tech with Kevin Scott - Dr. Steven Pinker: Psychologist, psycholinguist and author

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STEVEN PINKER: It isn’t as if this universe contains some force called progress. That’s kind of mystical. In fact, if anything, the universe tries to grind us down. It’s constantly throwing pandemics at us, and – and natural disasters and entropy, things wearing down, and falling apart and rotting. To the extent that life gets better, it’s only because people have applied their ingenuity to try to make it better. We’ve invented antibiotics and vaccines, and intergovernmental organizations, and liberal democracies. Brain children that fight back against a pitiless cosmos, and allow us to increments of well-being. So, ultimately, rationality matters for ascertaining the good things in life.


KEVIN SCOTT: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Behind the Tech. I’m your host, Kevin Scott, Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft.

In this podcast, we’re going to get behind the tech. We’ll talk with some of the people who have made our modern tech world possible and understand what motivated them to create what they did. So, join me to maybe learn a little bit about the history of computing and get a few behind-the-scenes insights into what’s happening today. Stick around.


CHRISTINA WARREN: Hello, and welcome to Behind the Tech. I’m Christina Warren, Senior Cloud Advocate at Microsoft.

KEVIN SCOTT: And I’m Kevin Scott.

CHRISTINA WARREN: Our guest on the show today is Steven Pinker. Steve is a cognitive psychologist. He’s a psycholinguist and popular science writer, and he’s authored 12 books, including his 2018 publication, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, and I’m sure that you’re super, super excited to talk about this, Kevin, his 2021 book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters.

So, given the world that we’re living in today, these are very relevant topics to explore.

KEVIN SCOTT: They are, indeed, extremely relevant topics, and so I’m super-excited to be chatting with Steven in general. I’ve been an enormous fan of his work for the longest time. I remember reading his first book, The Language Instinct, when I was in graduate school, and I – I think I’ve read every book that he’s ever written. They’ve had enormous influences on me because – you know, hopefully what we’ll see in this conversation is he writes books that explain really complicated things to very wide audiences of people, but also in a way that gives them a toolkit for dealing with thinking about navigating the complicated things themselves, so it isn’t just, say, like hey, let me explain this, you read it, done, walk away. Like, you walk away with tools that you can then use in your daily life, and let me tell you, we all need some tools for helping us deal with the balance between rationality and irrationality right now in 2021.

CHRISTINA WARREN: We definitely do. We definitely do. So, I’m super-excited to get into our conversation with Steven.


KEVIN SCOTT: Our guest today is Steven Pinker. Steven is a psychologist and the Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard. His research focuses on visual cognition, psycholinguistics and social relations. He’s an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist and a recipient of nine honorary doctorates. He’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times and The Guardian, and has authored 12 books, including his latest, published this September, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. Welcome to the show, Steven.


KEVIN SCOTT: So, we – we always start these conversations by digging a little bit into folks’ background and you have such a distinguished career. I’m – am interested in what your childhood was like and when it was that you knew that you were interested in science and a career in science?

STEVEN PINKER: I grew up in Montreal in – I’m a baby boomer born at the peak of the baby boom in 1954. I was part of the Jewish minority within the English minority, within the French minority of Canada, so three times a minority, I suppose. It was a – I was always curious, a voracious reader, always interested in science, but I developed a – a particular interest in human nature, partly because when the ‘60s happened, and I – I was too young to be a direct participant in the campus unrest, but it was very much in the air, and there were older brothers and sisters who were part of the – the campus protests, and there were all kinds of ideas in the air.

Every – everything was up for grabs. How should we organize society? Should we be communists, should we be anarchists, should we be Ayn Rand objectivists, and all these debates kind of hinged on conceptions of human nature, are people naturally cooperative? And will they just share in the best interests of everyone so you don’t need money or – and property and laws, or are people inherently violent, and so you need a police force within the country and armies to protect from – from outside threats.

So, human nature as the root of political philosophy was very much in the air. I had – my own family, we had – we had conversations around the – the dinner table – friends, and classmates were constantly in debate and argument. When I got into college, I wanted to study some aspect of human nature. I sampled the various disciplines, sociology, humanities, philosophy, biology. But psychology seemed to have – kind of was a sweet spot of raising profound questions about what makes us tick, but also offering some prospect of answering them with experimentation and data.

And I was particularly excited by the cognitive revolution. Again, I was a little bit out of synch with the times, and it happened before I got to college, but still – still a bit ongoing, and that is the replacement of the behaviorism that had dominated psychology in the middle decades of the 20th century that made mental contents almost taboo. It was considered – under the behaviorist regime, it was considered unscientific to talk about memories, plans, rules, images, beliefs, desires.

If you were going to be a scientist, you could only study things that could be measured and that meant stimuli that impinged on an organism and the organism’s responses.

Well, that was kind overturned by – in part by the – the rise of computer science and the realization that here we have completely non-mystical, understandable devices, computers, you know, and they had plans and programs and memories and feedback loops and mechanisms that allowed them to be intelligent. Maybe that offered a set of conceptual tools where you could study the workings of the human mind, scientifically.

So, that was my intellectual odyssey. I majored in cognitive psychology, went on to graduate school in cognitive psychology and – and that has been the field I’ve identified with, ever since.

KEVIN SCOTT: So, one of the really extraordinary things I think about what you have chosen to do with your career is you’re a – a prolific writer, and I – I think the first of your books that I read was The Language Instinct, and I – I – I think, at least in my opinion, you’ve done this really incredible job combining ideas that hadn’t been combined before and/or presenting very complicated things in ways that give people toolkits for thinking about a particular aspect of our lives and the world.

And so, like the language instinct, I was just – yeah, I never thought about this idea that our psychology was an evolutionary process. I remember reading it as a computer science PhD student, and I was like, wow, this is a really interesting lens through which to think about psychological processes. And you’ve written a whole bunch of other books that have influenced me in that way, so I – you know, I really enjoyed, The Sense of Style, which is a completely different book that tries to give folks a set of tools for, you know, dealing with this complex process of explaining things to other people and writing and finding a voice.

And, and I think maybe with this new book that you’ve written, like it might be the most needed book I’ve seen in a very long while because not only does it go into this notion of, you know, what rationality and irrationality are, and like why we should want it, but it gives a very – what feels to me like a comprehensive set of tools that we can use for dealing with all these irrationality traps that we’re faced with, right now.

So, I mean, just as a meta thing, how did you decide that you wanted to spend so much of your time writing these books, and like how did you find your – I don’t know, your sort of voice and your approach to writing?

STEVEN PINKER: I always was receptive to feedback from the world, even before I started to write books for a wide audience, when I was confined within academia, and I had multiple lines of research going. I studied mental imagery and visual attention and shape recognition. At the same time, I studied how children acquired their first language, and – and psycholinguistics, and I just got a sense from the invitations that I got, the correspondence that I got, the reception of audiences, what did people find interesting, and where did I feel I was making a contribution? That is, doing something that other people were not, and that was one of the reasons why edged – gradually edged away from visual cognition, just because there were many brilliant people in the field who were doing it better than I was, but what – whatever I was saying in trying to make sense of how kids learn to speak, people seem to find that interesting, and kept getting invitations for that, and – and I realized that that’s where I had to devote my time.

And while I was writing about language, with a focus on how children learn their mother tongue, right, you can’t do that unless you have some idea of what a mother tongue is, so language development in children is intimately tied. Even though it was a branch of psychology, it was tied to linguistics because that’s – tells you what it is they’re acquiring. You know, you can’t explain how kids learn something unless you know what it is they’re trying to learn.

And I – I sensed from people’s curiosity about language – I mean, when I would be, you know, in a taxi or in a bar, and someone would say, oh, you know, what do you do for a living, I’d say I study language and how children acquire it. And they’d always say, oh, wow, that’s really interesting, and they’d have a question, why are there so many languages? Who gets to decide what’s correct and incorrect grammar, how did language evolve, but I realized there was a – a need or at least a market, let me say, for the best explanation for the state of the art in understanding language, from – from a scientific point of view.

And so, I wrote The Language Instinct, and it had chapters on language in the brain, the evolution of language, diversity of languages, correct grammar, kids’ real-time speech processing, and – and then it got – to my surprise, because most academics when they cross over to a wide audience, their book just goes into the stores for six weeks and then it vanishes forever.

This one seemed to have an audience, and one thing led to another, so after having written a book that tried to tie together all the different aspects of language as a – a biological adaptation, an idea that I – I admit stealing from Charles Darwin, the natural question was, well, what are the other human instincts, if language is one of them?

And that led to How the Mind Works, which is an exploration of everything else in the human mind, vision, memory, reasoning, concepts and categories, emotions, social relationships, humor, music and each one – I mean, it – having started out as a psychology major and being a cognitive psychologist, a lot of the topics were natural things to explain, particularly the chapter on vision, but an interest in evolution brought up all the topics that any biologist would ask about the organism that they study, but they aren’t necessarily a major part of the social psychology curriculum, like – like mating and sex and violence, and so an interest – an evolutionary focus led to just those aspects of psychology that the whole world finds fascinating, even though they’re not a major part of academic social psychology, and parts of How the Mind Works were on all of these kind of lurid aspects of human motivation and behavior.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, it’s – it’s super interesting – I’m a little bit curious. This may be a diversion from, you know, maybe the more important conversation that we should have today, but when you wrote The Language Instinct, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that it was going to be this success that it was. And having spent a little bit of time in academia myself, I’ve – at least, in my part of academia, the academy doesn’t necessarily value you writing popular science books. So, did you get a bunch of pressure from your peers that this was not a good use of your time?

STEVEN PINKER: I didn’t. I wrote the book while I was at MIT, and they were perfectly happy with it. They – in fact, they would trot me out at alumni dinners and fundraising occasions as kind of the evening entertainment. It brought a lot of attention to the field, to the university, so they were just fine with it.

Now there is – I was warned about the Sagan syndrome, referring to Carl Sagan, the charismatic astronomer who hosted the TV series, Cosmos, and appeared often on The Late Show with Johnny Carson – The Tonight Show, sorry, with Johnny Carson. He would appear in Parade magazine, the color supplement. It was tucked into Sunday newspapers when everyone read Sunday newspapers. So, he was a popularizer and he was denied election to the National Academy of Sciences, so the story goes, because his small-minded colleagues were jealous of his celebrity.

Now, whether or not that was the reason, and I suspect it was, but I was warned, you know, if you ever want to get elected to the National Academy, this might be suicide. Anyway, I was elected to the National Academy years later, so it did not hurt me and neither MIT, where I spent the years when I wrote many of these books for a wide audience, nor Harvard, which I then moved to 18 years ago have – have had any problem with it.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, which is a really great thing because I – I think one of the – one of the things that I’m often disappointed with is you have such a capable community of scientists and technologists who are working on the frontier of human knowledge and capability. And I don’t think we spend enough time trying to explain the very complicated things that we do - to a wide audience. And I think that’s one of the things that you’ve just done incredibly well. And we should all be grateful that you have spent as much time as you have writing these things, because you could have had a perfectly reasonable and extremely distinguished career, never having written any of these books.

STEVEN PINKER: Yeah, I do feel that someone in our research communities should bear the responsibility of explaining what we do to the people who pay for it, the taxpayers, the intellectually curious people. And it is fascinating who isn’t interested in how the mind works or in how language works.

And so, traditionally, it’s been journalists who will dip into a subject and explain it to a wide audience. And, you know, many journalists are brilliant people, deep thinkers, gifted apprentices, and they can master a field, but I think there is a role for people who are actually immersed in the field, who actually do the – some of the research, who attend the conferences, know the gossip, know the questions that are asked to – to try to put it together for a wide audience.

Now, that does mean unlearning a lot of academic habits, not just writing defensively, like writing, hedging and fuzzing everything up so that, God forbid, no one can ever show you’re wrong about anything. And that’s what one of the big sins of academic writing, is that it is so defensive. The people – the main – I even, in my book on writing, The Sense of Style –


STEVEN PINKER: I know that the – the first thing you’ve got to do in writing anything is to have a model of the writing process. What are your goals? How do you imagine your audience? What is the fake conversational scenario that you are trying to simulate when people are – scanning a printed page?

And for academics, the – and I got this from a wonderful book by Mark Turner and Francis-Noël Thomas called Clear and Simple is the Truth. They know that the model that academics write is to – it is a defense against any possible accusation or insinuation that they’re naive about the methods and mores of their field. And that’s how academics write. It’s don’t think that I’m – I’m naive, don’t think that I’m unaware of the possible criticisms and flaws, loopholes and exceptions. And that’s one of the things that makes academic writing so turgid, and so – so wooly and bloated, is that no one ever says anything clear because they don’t want to be convicted of naivete.

Whereas the model that they explain and which I endorse, which they call classic style, is you’ve seen something in the world, you, the writer, your reader has not yet noticed it. Your goal as a writer is to position the reader so that they can see it with their own eyes and the style is conversation. Now, that’s very different from a self-defense against methodological naivete.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, and – and The Sense of Style is, it’s one of my favorite books on writing, and I wish that I had had it when I was a young Ph.D. student, because I think one of the weird things – and maybe this isn’t true anywhere other than computer science – is that a computer science graduate education focuses a lot on the technical aspects of computer science. So, like, there’s this canon of knowledge that I think most good programs do a pretty good job of stuffing into your head so that you’ve got the right foundation for doing research. And even the mechanism of doing the research, if you get paired with the right advisor, gets you inculcated into you in – in a reasonable way.

But the thing that I think I got really lucky, I – I had a Ph.D. advisor who cared a lot about writing. But I – I think the way that many scientists learned to write is by reading a bunch of scientific literature. And most scientific literature is, like, I won’t call it bad. Like, I think it does a job of – of conveying what it’s supposed to convey. But, like, stylistically, the point that you were making, like it’s – it’s not excellent writing. And so, if you’re just pattern matching against the literature, like I know – I think it’s very hard to learn how to be an excellent writer.

STEVEN PINKER: Well, I think that’s right, and I think it – it is pattern matching with a literature, which is how writers acquire their style. In fact, that’s how I start out The Sense of Style by confessing that I asked a bunch of good writers that I knew, beginning with Rebecca Goldstein, who I’m married to, the famous novelist and philosopher, so which style manuals did you read when you were perfecting your craft? The most common answer was, none. (Laughter.)

What they do is they read a lot. They read a lot of good prose and that kind of – that pattern matching, as you put it, serves as a – as a model, but also, through intensive reading, you just acquire lots of idioms, and metaphors, and tropes, and constructions and unusual, but perfectly apt vocabulary items, and you have them at your fingertips.

So part of the problem, you’re right, is that that process can then be hijacked if the inputs to that pattern matching system is academic prose, but it’s combined with, I think, as I mentioned, a different goal and communication, namely self-defense. And it’s hobbled by what I call the curse of knowledge, a term I borrowed from behavioral economics, referring to the difficulty that [TCR 00:34:00] we all have – excuse me, the difficulty that we all have in imagining what it’s like not to know something that we know.

Once you know something, it feels so obvious that you don’t feel any need to explain it. So, you use abstract terms and no one knows what they’re actually referring to in the world. If you’re a psychologist, you talk about, you know, stimuli and, you know, what’s a stimulus? Well, is it a Mickey Mouse puppet? Is it a flashing red light? And – and you don’t feel the need to explain why you’re talking about what you’re talking about or what the reader should be imagining.

So, those are some of the other – other pitfalls in writing that often, academics fall into.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, it’s one of the things that I tell my 13-year-old daughter, who is a voracious reader and who enjoys to write, is as she’s reading, [TCR 00:35:00] I tell her to pay attention not to just what is being said, but how it’s being said, and to get opinions on both of those things. And – and I think I just – as she’s more closely paid attention to the style of writing in the books that she most enjoys, she has become a better writer herself.

So, I think, you know, the thing that you’re saying about choosing what you know, what prose and what literature you’re – you’re reading and – and have modeling some of your style on that is, it seems to me, good advice.

STEVEN PINKER: Well, and – and when you come across a passage of prose that you are appreciating, like if you have the emotional reaction, wow, what a great sentence, what a great paragraph, what a great writer this is, to pause and savor the good prose and then try to reverse engineer it. Like, why is this – why am I having this reaction? Why I’m enjoying this sentence so much? What is the writer doing?

And I think good apprentice writers do that unconsciously, together with the pattern matching, just what in the – what the style manuals called the “writerly ear”. Of course, it’s not the ear, it’s the brain, but it is this accumulation of patterns. But I think it also has to be a more active process of thinking, what is the writer doing and why does this – why does this pattern resonate so well?

And I do remember many episodes of doing that when I (crosstalk/inaudible), wow, this writer, wow, she really knows what she’s doing and how did she get away with it? What is she doing, what’s the trick? (Laughter.)

KEVIN SCOTT: (Laughter.) Which – which is a good segue way into talking about your newest book, which I think is full of things – full of these quotes and passages where, you know, I will – I’ve got a dog-eared and Post-it Note annotated version of your book, where you said a bunch of things that I think were very concise, beautiful ways of expressing some of the things that I’ve felt for a long while.

So, let’s talk a little bit about – about this book. So, it’s titled Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. And I think everyone should go out right now and buy a copy of this book and read it very carefully, cover to cover. So, maybe we can start at the beginning where, you know, you talk a little bit about why does rationality matter at all.

STEVEN PINKER: Yeah, it’s an eccentric question, because you can’t even think about it without having already answered it. (Laughter.) Namely, if [TCR 00:38:00] you’re considering that question or any question, if you’re seeking reasons, if you’re seeking answers, you’re already committed to rationality. It’s what’s – what you’re doing. It’s too late to debate it, in the sense that once we have shown up and we’re in the – we’re playing the game of persuading, convincing, inducing reasons, we – we signed onto rationality. As long as we’re not bribing people or threatening them or just having them mouth a catechism, we’re – we’ve already committed to rationality. It’s just a question of whether you – whether you’re doing it well or not.

Now, you can also kind of step outside that – that paradox of – I compare it to lifting yourself up by your bootstraps or flowing into your sails. There is something paradoxical about using reason to justify reason, because you can’t do something with nothing. But you can – then can ask practically, more pragmatically, well, what has the reason bought us?

And one of the things is people who are more rational, in the sense that they are less likely to fall prey to the various fallacies and biases that cognitive psychologists have identified, do on average have better outcomes. They’re healthier. They’re less likely to get into mishaps, and romantic spats, and to lose their jobs and make foolish decisions.

As a society, the subject of two of my other books, which we haven’t talked about, Enlightenment Now and The Better Angels of Our Nature, both of which try to document progress as a real historical phenomenon, a quantifiable set of trends, namely we live longer, our kids die less. We – we learn more, we have more leisure time, we fight fewer wars. There’s less violence against women, there’s less institutionalized bigotry. All of those things, how did we come to enjoy them?

Well, it isn’t that this universe contains some force called progress. That’s kind of mystical. In fact, if anything, the universe tries to grind us down. It’s constantly throwing pandemics at us, and – and natural disasters and entropy, things wearing down, and falling apart and rotting. To the extent that life gets better, it’s only because people have applied their ingenuity to try to make it better. We’ve invented antibiotics and vaccines, and intergovernmental organizations, and liberal democracies brain children that – that fight back against a pitiless cosmos, and allow us to increments of well-being.

So, ultimately, rationality matters for ascertaining the good things in life.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, and rationality is not a super hard argument to make to a computer scientist.

STEVEN PINKER: (Laughter.) Right. Well, it’s kind of mechanized. A computer is mechanized rationality, in a way.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. And one of the things that I’ve discussed with many other guests on this podcast is that if you don’t have rational processes for making, creating, developing or understanding complex things, you really do get stuck pretty quickly.

And, you know, so for instance, if the processes that you use to understand or construct things aren’t rational, then they tend not to compose, which means that you really do have to hold way too much stuff in your head, which then limits the scope of the problems you can solve. So, you have to be able to stack your abstractions. And – and it’s just hard to imagine how that happens without rationality. And, you know, also when things break or you encounter something that you don’t understand, if you don’t have rational processes to investigate what’s going on, you – you just have a hard time fixing them.

And so, you know, I think a lot of computer scientists, and scientists in general, sort of get this and almost take it for granted, but one of the things that we’re seeing right now is maybe we can’t take for granted that rationality is as important as it is.

STEVEN PINKER: Yeah, it’s – well, the – the – I mean, what you’ve just explained is, I think, it’s exactly right. Problems are inevitable and problems have solutions, but we will never arrive at them unless we try to – to solve them.

There is a different mindset, though, which is that problems are the result of the malevolent designs of evil people, and that progress comes from defeating them, from – from destroying them, and that human history is a battle of good – good versus evil. We’re on the good side and we should all try to demonize, marginalize, silence [TCR 00:43:00] defeat, annihilate the enemy.

So, yeah, that’s a different way of looking at problems, everything from violence to inequality to economic stagnation to climate change. And, you know, implicitly and explicitly, I do believe that looking at our problems from a mindset of problem solving is more effective than seeking monsters to destroy.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. You – you actually, and it may be a little bit related to what you said, you have this beautiful quote towards the end of the book, where you say, “Our powers of reason are guided by our motives and limited by our points of view.” And then you go on to say in the same paragraph, “Impartiality, the core of rationality, is a reconciliation of our biased and incomplete notions into an understanding of reality that transcends any one of us. Rationality then is not just a cognitive virtue, but a moral one.” And like, I think it’s – it’s such a beautiful way of describing one of the reasons why rationality is important.

STEVEN PINKER: Yeah, and it’s – it was a kind of epiphany that I had while – while writing the book, that if you delve into moral philosophy, into what actually – what do we mean when we say something is moral or immoral, right or wrong, it often – at least some moral philosophers would say that it ultimately is a matter of impartiality, as long – that in the sense that if you want something for yourself, then you can’t very well deny it to others, at least not if you want them to take you seriously.

And we all have to persuade one another to do what we want and not – to help us, not hurt us. Well, as long as you’ve opened up that dialogue, you can’t very well say, what’s good for me counts. What’s good for you, we can blow off because I’m me and you’re not. I mean, that just – that just doesn’t fly.

You’ve got to say that what’s – you know, what’s sauce for the goose, you’ve got to endorse the golden rule, the categorical imperative, the choosing your position from behind a veil of ignorance. All of these conceptions of morality ultimately hinge on impartiality or objectivity, namely you – you can’t rig the game to favor yourself. You’ve got – everyone’s got a go. All lives are equal. Everyone’s interests count.

Well, that’s very close to the heart of morality. Maybe that is the heart – maybe that is morality, but of course, it’s also the heart of rationality, namely the what’s true is true. What’s real is real. We are flawed primates. We have bigger brains than other – other apes, but we’re still saddled with lots of limitations because of our hardware and our evolutionary history.

What we often do when we try to become more rational is to climb out of our – our self-serving biases, our various myopia and shortsightedness, and to come to an understanding of truth as it really is, not as we want it to be.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, and so, I – yeah, maybe – maybe related to that is you, in the book, spend a considerable amount of time talking about things like commons and public goods. You know, so at one point, you talk about this – these potentially poor judgments that we make because we set things like our social discount rate too high, you know, so we’re, you know, we’re being overly optimistic about the – about now, at the cost of the future. And you – you sort of go into the, you know, sort of psychology and logic of that – that flavor of bias.

But, you know, you also talk about things that I had never heard about before. So, you know, mechanisms for dealing with these – these sorts of potential bad tradeoffs that we might be making, you – (laughter) – it’s sort of a funny, funny phrase or name for something, but this idea of libertarian paternalism, which is, yeah, to paraphrase you, using policy to sort of strap ourselves to the mass like Odysseus so that we don’t succumb to the sirens of the now. And – but yet, you know, while you make it costly to unstrap yourselves, you still give people the freedom to unstrap themselves for the mass. So, can you – you talk a little bit about that idea?

STEVEN PINKER: Yes, it’s a cheeky phrase, because it sounds like [TCR 00:48:00] an oxymoron. Libertarian paternalism, coined, I think by Cass Sunstein, my colleague at Harvard and who’s coauthored books with Richard Thaler and Daniel Kahneman and – and others, often summarized by the single word, nudge. And this is the idea that governments can do a lot of good by changing the environment so that what people do out of inertia, laziness, defaults, falling back on their instincts also happens to be good for them.

And – but that it is not a matter of, you know, totalitarian, Maoist coercion, like we will decide what’s good for you and you will – you will do it and you will enjoy it. You will like it. But rather, you can always opt out by just doing what comes naturally, it will work out for you in the long run.

The classic example is opting out versus opting in for a defined contribution retirement plan. So, do you – you know, each of us could, at the end of the month, write a check or go to a website, put aside part of our paycheck toward our retirement, so, a wise thing to do because it compounds exponentially, so a little bit now means you could be – have a comfortable retirement. But, you know, every month, it’s always more tempting to buy the bauble or the vacation or the – the indulgence.

Now, a lot of employers, when you sign up, they say, well, how would you like it if we set aside, you know, five percent or 10 percent of your paycheck and put it in an account for you? You just – you never see it, and you don’t have to do it. Better still, instead of giving people that option, they just say, if you don’t do anything, if you click through all these pages, if you throw out the paperwork, you’re in. If you do the work [TCR 00:50:00] of checking the box or I’m clicking the – the tab, then you can opt out. But it’s an eensy-weensy bit more cognitive work to do that. And so, people do tend to opt for the, I think, the withdrawal at the end of the month.

Likewise, for organ donation, if when you renew your driver’s license, you have to tick a box so that if you die in an accident and your – your brain is destroyed, but your body is okay, your organs can then save the lives of other people. Or you can – it happens if you don’t do anything and you’ve got to tick a box so that your organs are – are not eligible for donation. And a lot more people become organ donors when they don’t have to do that onerous labor of ticking a box.

And there are other examples, and it’s a widespread – part of a widespread movement in government, sometimes called behavioral insights, or – or again nudge, to try to figure out ways of changing bureaucratic procedures, the way laws are stated, the way they’re publicized, just the interface between government and the people, so that the things that everyone wants, like fewer accidents, better health, come naturally to people.

KEVIN SCOTT: And so you also talk about this notion of public goods games, which are prisoner’s dilemmas with more than two players, and, you know, make what I think is a pretty convincing argument about how these might help us make better decisions when we’re thinking about balancing these, you know, balancing communal goods versus individual interests. Can you say a little bit more about that?

STEVEN PINKER: Yeah, it’s an example of one of the conceptual tools that I think every educated person should master. And the biggest motivation for writing Rationality is that I thought that there are a number of fairly straightforward mathematical, logical, philosophical computational tools that, like reading and writing, should just be at the fingertips of every thoughtful person, so that when they come across an example, they – they recognize it.

And one of the chapters in the book is on game theory, which is one of those families of tools. And one of the scenarios in game theory, as you – as you explained, is called the prisoner’s dilemma when it involves two players, or the public goods game when it involves more than two.

And the idea is that, well, I’ll just simplify it in the case of the public goods games and the way it’s actually studied in the laboratory. Imagine that everyone is given an endowment. The experimenter gives you, you know, 10 bucks. You can contribute as much as you want to a common pot or keep it for yourself. If you – whatever you put into the common pot gets doubled by the experimenter and distributed evenly among all the players.

Now, the best thing for everyone to do would be to contribute the max. You put in 10 bucks, you will walk away with 20. It seems like a no-brainer. Except that since it’s divided evenly among everyone, if you were to hang onto your ten and everyone else contributed their 10 and then it was doubled and then divided, you know, say nine ways, then you’d do even better because you’d selfishly keep your own endowment, you’d be a free rider, plus you’d get the investment returns from everyone else.

Now, everyone thinks that. Everyone thinks, well, I’m not going to be the sucker and give up all my money, if any of the other guys could just hang on to theirs and get paid anyway. So I’m going to do the logical thing and keep it for myself.

Well, what seems to be the logical thing turns out to be the illogical thing when you consider everyone together, because then no one contributes and no one gets anything, so you end up with the worst outcome.

So that’s a public goods game and that is what happens in the lab, that all things being equal, as people play multiple times and catch on to the benefits of free riding, everyone becomes a free rider and the contributions to the pot dwindle to zero.

Now, it’s kind of a model for a lot of social dilemmas, like should I consume fossil fuels? I get to be, you know, cozy in the winter and cool during the summer and go in a nice, air-conditioned car to work instead of sweating at a bus stop. It’s like public goods such as, you know, a lighthouse or security cameras or a pedestrian overpass, I would benefit if everyone else pays for it, and I shirk on my taxes. But then if everyone had that freedom, the overpass would never be built or the lighthouse would never be built.

So it occurs over and over again. The most famous example or at least most famous parable might be the tragedy of the Commons, where every shepherd brings his sheep to graze on the town commons because he – he ends up better off with a fatter sheep. But if everyone does it, they could denude the Commons faster than the grass could grow back and then everyone’s sheep starves.

So it’s a whole – and, you know, everyone has an incentive to pull out the maximum number of fish. But if all the fishers do it, then the fishery collapses, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

So it’s a general dilemma of social life, maybe it’s the dilemma of social life, and we’re facing it now, above all in carbon emissions, both among individuals within a society, but even more acutely among countries on the planet where each country would be best off if it kept its economic growth going with the easily captured energy and fossil fuels and let all the other countries conserve and – and grow more slowly. But then, of course, the whole planet ends up worse off, and that’s what we’re hearing this very week at COP26 in Glasgow.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I mean, so I think that, and you know, this next thing to me feel like the two most urgent reasons why we need to figure out how to get people to embrace more rationality. So like there are these public goods things, and then there’s this like really interesting section you have in the book where you sort of describe these two modes of being, so reality versus mythology.

And like, I’m going to paraphrase a little bit, and you can correct me if I’ve got this wrong, but you know, the – it strikes me that the difference between living and reality is about direct connection, first-person observability, proximity. You know, and if you have those things, like you are, you’re in this reality mode where you tend to make more rational decisions that have more rational interactions.

And then if you have distance and indirect connection and lack of consequences and whatnot, like, you can very easily get into this mode where you’re living in mythology, where, you know, you tend to have more irrationality influencing, both the decision you’re making, but the – you know, the mood that you’re in even. And so I wonder if you could say a little bit more about that.

STEVEN PINKER: Well, this speaks to one of the most salient aspects of rationality in our public discussions today, which is why do so many people believe such malarkey. Like, jet contrails are really mind-dispersing, mind-altering drugs dispersed in a secret government program.

Now, the people who believe these things are not, you know, lunatics in every aspect of their lives. Presumably they, you know, they hold a job, they – they keep the gas in the car, and they get the kids clothed and fed and off to school on time. So, you know, where’s the rationality? Where’s the irrationality?

And that attitude, you can’t find out, no one knows, so let’s believe what expresses our moral values, our deepest convictions, the glory of our tribe, the evil of the opposing tribe.

That’s how a lot of people form beliefs, at least beliefs that don’t directly impinge on their day-to-day lives. Now they can impinge on their day-to-day lives. There can be crossover as when someone refuses a vaccine out of the belief that it’s a way for Bill Gates to implant microchips in people’s bodies. So someone who refuses a vaccine for that reason certainly departed from what I call the mythology zone and their – their beliefs are infecting their reality zone. But I think a lot of them, people do keep them separate, and that’s how they can get away with these outlandish beliefs.

The beliefs aren’t things that they feel have to be true or false, or at least they don’t have to be verified as true or false. You spread them because they state something that’s more important than literal truth or falsity; namely, some moral conviction.

KEVIN SCOTT: And what do you think we can do to get people to operate more in that reality zone? And like, I guess as a technologist, one of the things that I worry about is whether or not technology is allowing people to operate more in this mythology zone than the reality zone, than they otherwise would if there were no technology.

STEVEN PINKER: Yeah, and technology as a user experience is a kind of a form of magic, more and more so. The – yeah, it’s a vital question. It’s not an easy one to – to answer because it does go against the grain of the part of human nature that has beliefs as identity expressions rather than – than verifiable factual claims.

It’s really the scientific revolution in the Enlightenment that instilled in us this rather unnatural conviction that all of our beliefs should be held because they are – they’re – they’re true or false – I mean, because they’re true. That’s not a natural way of thinking, but mainly because until the scientific revolution, and you couldn’t find out. I mean, who knows – who – who could possibly have an informed opinion as to how the universe began or what was the cause of fortune and misfortune, or what really goes on in palaces and halls of power behind closed doors before there were, say, recordings and archives and historians, before there was science and cosmology and government records.

There, because you literally couldn’t find out for most of our evolutionary – our recorded history, then belief that just affirmed your identity was the best belief you could have anyway, the only belief you could have, anyway.

So now we have the benefit of science, of government recordkeeping, of historical research, of sourced journalism, and the challenge is how to get people to realize that that’s really a better way of holding beliefs than – than what makes you feel good about your side.

And partly, it’s that these – each one of these institutions has to constantly reestablish its own credibility by showing its methods, showing its work, confessing to mistakes, making it clear that journalism, at least when it’s done right, is not just, you know, a bunch of guys saying something, but they – they have to surrender to the demands of editors and fact checkers, and they have to have sources for what they write. And when they make an error, they correct it and it humiliates the writer who wrote it. But they – they do it anyway because they’re (inaudible) preserving the reputation for credibility of the institution, namely the newspaper. And the same with science and with government agencies.

Now, that often doesn’t happen, partly because institutions tend to get captured by political tribes of their own. So universities have drifted, and indeed almost captured as a branch of left wing politics, to the detriment to the credibility of science in universities.

And to maintain a reputation for objectivity and accuracy, and for – to the extent that they can - to explain the methods like why are we recommending masks or vaccines or fasten your seatbelt or installing a smoke detector, I think there should be more of an effort on the part of various officials, whether it’s corporations or governments or academia or journalism, to explain the basis behind their – their pronouncements.

I myself, in writing Enlightenment Now was rather stunned to see graphs showing deaths from car crashes, deaths from fires, deaths from drownings all going down by a lot over the decades, occupational deaths. And the part of me that always bristled at safety-ism and all these annoying rules and regulations and safety interlocks, well, I’ve kind of had second thoughts like, hey, these really save lives, they’re not just government bureaucrats, but no one is aware of these data that you literally are much safer against getting killed in a car crash or getting electrocuted or drowning or dying in a fire than – than you were 30, 50, 100 years ago, thanks to all of these safety innovations. Now, if we’ve known that they actually work, I think we’d be less resistant, and so on for a number of other regulations and impositions in our lives.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, one of the fascinating things to me with Enlightenment Now, which is another fantastic book that everyone should go read, is that some of the criticism levied against it felt like there were a cohort of extremely well-meaning people who would like some of these processes that you are describing, like the vehicle-related mortality they ultimately wanted to be zero and that they maybe were feeling a little bit threatened by the amount of progress that we have made so far, that if we acknowledge the progress, then we will suddenly not have urgency to continue making progress. And I see some of that. I see that a lot, actually. And so I wonder if you know, like you’ve – you perceive some of the criticism in the same way and, you know, like how you’ve thought about addressing it.

STEVEN PINKER: Yeah, it is a kind of pushback that I get all the time. Not so much with, you know, say, car safety or swimming pool drownings, but when it comes to war, extreme poverty, racism, violence against women, all of which have shown progress, which strangely enough, progressives feel threatened by.

It has to be that that the world has never been worse than it is now, often because of the fear that if you say that things have gotten better, people will be complacent. Oh, the problem’s solved, it’s perfect. Let’s – let’s not worry about it anymore.

Now, I think it’s the exact opposite. For one thing, we shouldn’t make the blunder in arithmetic of confusing the claim that something has declined to something – to the claim that it’s zero, and I get that all the time. You know, it’s not – it’s not like higher mathematics that if fewer people get killed in war now than they did 10 years ago, that’s not the same thing as saying that no one gets killed in war, but people do that kind of autocorrect.

And the - far from lulling us into complacency, for me, it’s – it’s the ultimate proof that activism and problem-solving and reform work, namely they’re not just feel-good, bleeding heart causes. They actually succeed. We got the – the happiness, the health, the income of African-Americans really has gotten better since the early ‘60s. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t still gaps that we ought to rectify. But the – trying to alleviate the problems can actually work. The fact that poverty, when it’s measured after government transfers and taxes has gone down, that is an argument for more policies that – that try to nibble away at poverty. Likewise for air pollution. Likewise for war and crime and so [TCR 01:08:00] on.

I think it’s ironic that it’s often progressives who seem to hate the idea that progress has happened. For me, it’s the ultimate vindication of a true progressive ideology; namely, we don’t have to settle for what we have because our ancestors didn’t and things got better. So let – let’s try for more.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I tend to agree with you. I often describe myself to folks as a short-term pessimist, long-term optimist. And, you know, I know many engineers have this mindset because you – you wake up every morning and you – you’ve chosen a career where your job is to go solve problems.

And when you’re in the middle of solving a complicated problem, it can seem overwhelming. It’s like, oh, this is, you know, too intractable, I’m – I’m not going to be able to solve it. Like, you know, why isn’t this already better?

But the long-term optimist piece of me is – is all about rationality, because for me, that maybe the most important thing about rationality isn’t so much knowing a bunch of things or having a solved problem, but I’ve got a process by which I can asymptotically get closer to objective truth or a solved problem or whatnot.

And you sort of said it, you know, like, really beautifully, and I think this is a thing that we all need to have more of, which is this, you know, another quote from your book. So, the secular equivalent to this monotheistic belief is there is objective truth. I don’t know it, and neither do you. But like, thank goodness we have a process to – yeah, which is painful that it’s trial and error and we don’t always get everything right and we have to go back and revisit and refine, but like that is the – yeah, that is the engine of progress, so to speak. Like maybe our own morality and that mechanism are the thing – are the two reasons why things have gotten better over time.

STEVEN PINKER: Indeed, and the idea of objective truth is an aspiration because no one knows when they have it and no one ever will. But we can do – do our best to get as close as possible to it. And by criticizing one another’s hypotheses, keeping the ones that seem to withstand the criticism, learn from our mistakes, we still might be totally wrong, but the fact that we have decimated extreme poverty, the fact that we’ve reduced deaths from war, deaths from drownings and burnings and child mortality and infectious disease, suggests we’re probably not wrong about everything, because if we were, how did we make this progress?

So, and we still ought to be prepared to be surprised. A lot of our beliefs now no doubt will turn out to be false. So, we should be open to that, but also open to the possibility that if we follow the right rules, that over time, our understanding can come into greater correspondence with reality.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. And – and you know, we’re – we’re almost out of time here. There’s so much good stuff in this book. And again, I just encourage everyone to go buy themselves a copy right now and read it. But like maybe the last thing that we can talk about in the time that we have it, which I think is, you know, the – the kernel of some good practical advice.

So, you know, later in the book, you say that when people evaluate an idea in small groups with the right chemistry, you know, which I think implied emphasis on the right chemistry, which is that they don’t agree on everything, but have a common interest in finding the truth. They catch on to each other’s fallacies and blind spots, and usually the truth wins.

And I really do very strongly agree with that assertion that you made in the book, and I don’t know if you have thoughts on how we can do more of that versus wasting so much of our energy not being in small groups with the right chemistry and like this idea that like, you know, it’s worth it to have this painful interaction with one another to try to find truth.

STEVEN PINKER: Yeah, we have to be aware of our biases, like the my-side bias, the bias to steer the truth toward or steer assertions toward the truth that makes your side look noble and wise and the other side look foolish and evil, and our own confirmation bias, our own other self-serving biases, our motivated reasoning.

So that’s the first – it’s kind of the first step of a 12-step program to overcome – help trying to overcome the bias, and the other is to be – to submit to communities that have a higher interest in getting to the truth, like science with its peer review, journalism with its fact-checking and editing, Wikipedia with its community of editors that sign on to the pillars of Wikipedia, which is to objectivity and truth and sourcing. It’s bigger than any of us. None of us is objective or rational or wise enough to accomplish rationality on our own.

KEVIN SCOTT: But it does seem that that – that that objectivity and the dogged, sometimes painful and uncomfortable pursuit of some kind of objective truth is really the linchpin for rationality, and if you sort of lose your desire to – to seek objective truth, and like this is one of the things I do worry a little bit about that I’ve – I’ve seen more of than I’m comfortable with over the past years. Like, we have blatant disregard of good science, but we also have the mythologizing of bad science, and both are sort of equally – equally bad. And I think we have to have a high degree of commitment to these truth-seeking processes and just acknowledge that they’re messy.

STEVEN PINKER: Yes, they are messy, but as you say, even if you’re a pessimist over the short term when looking at their messiness, you can be an optimist over the long term and seeing which claims do survive the rough and tumble of debate and falsification.

KEVIN SCOTT: Awesome. Well, Professor Pinker, thank you so, so much for taking time to talk about your career and your books, and – and especially this very important new book with us today. It’s been a real pleasure talking with you.

STEVEN PINKER: Thanks for having me on. I’ve enjoyed the conversation.



CHRISTINA WARREN: Well, that was Kevin’s conversation with Steven Pinker. I have to say my brain is kind of going on overdrive thinking about what you were mentioning towards the end of your conversation about what the role the tech has in maybe either reinforcing some of these more negative things or potentially helping improve things, if that would be possible as well.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I do think that we have a bunch of roles in helping create a more rational world. And I think one of the things that tech folks tend to do is you just take rationality for granted because it’s very hard to write software and do computer science and all of the things that we do unless you use rational processes for doing your work.


KEVIN SCOTT: But we probably are, and I think you can definitely see it over the past handful of years, we’ve taken for granted how much rationality exists in the broader world.

And so I think we have a role to play in explaining complicated things, the complicated things that we do, better to a wider audience so that they can have more agency and you know, ability to fully understand how to integrate these things into their lives and make smart decisions about how to use the tools that we have.

And then like, we also have to think, I think, in balance about whether the technologies that we are creating are leading to more rational thought versus less and like, that’s a big, big deal at the moment.

CHRISTINA WARREN: No, it really is. I mean, and it’s interesting, that’s kind of what I was thinking about as the two of you were talking was, how do we ensure that the things that we’re creating are creating more rationality and not less?

Because, you know, earlier the two of you were talking about pattern matching when it comes to, you know, literature and language, but pattern matching is obviously a thing that we do with tech a lot too. And oftentimes, you know, we pattern match for things like engagement and for reactions. And sometimes those patterns will match to behaviors and, you know, inputs and stimuli that are not rational.

So I think it does bring up a lot of questions about what role tech can play in, as you said, both encouraging people to be more aware and maybe have more of an understanding about what the tech does, but I think it’s also something that technologists need to think about in terms of what is their role in – in creating these systems and what is it reinforcing.

KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. And then there still is this very important thing that is individual responsibility in a world that has a lot of technology and a lot of information flow and a lot of connectivity between people where ideas –


KEVIN SCOTT: – move around super-fast because, you know, one of the things he does early in the book is he – he talks about this difference between System 1 and System 2 thinking.

So System 1 thinking is fast and intuitive, and it’s what we use almost all of the time, and System 2 thinking is sort of slow and deliberative, and it’s where you sort of look at a thing and you engage all of your rational faculties to try to get to objective truth.

And we are so, so, so conditioned to be in that System 1 thinking. Like, he got me in the book in one of the traps. So he tells you what he’s doing. He’s like, hey, like here’s the System 1 and System 2 thinking and like, you know, the pitfalls. And then he ask us, I think, three chapters later as readers to think about these three questions and they’re tricks. And like he’s told you, he’s hinted heavily to you that they’re trick questions that he’s about to ask. I read the first one and I’m tricked.

And, you know, I’ve spent years trying to build up my rationality toolkit. Yeah, like, for god sakes, I have a – I have graduate degrees in computer science and mathematics. Like I’ve spent years trying to – and still, I’m tricked.

And so it is unsurprising that as innate as that System 1 intuitive system is, that like we’re having a hard time with, you know, with propagation of misinformation, for instance.

And, you know, like the thing that we all, I think, have to commit ourselves to doing is just slow it down a little bit and thinking just a little bit more deeply. It’s like you read a thing. Like, why do I believe that this thing is true.


KEVIN SCOTT: Like why – what is the evidence here that this is a thing that I should trust?

CHRISTINA WARREN: No, I think – I think you’re exactly right, and I think that that’s something we can all take from this, slow it down, start to think about things.

And I’m definitely excited to read this book. The conversation was great. Once again, Steven’s book is called Rationality, what it is, why it’s scarce, why it matters. So definitely check that out.

That does it for our show today. Thank you again to Steven Pinker for his insights and optimism.

And next time on the podcast, we are going to do our 2021 Year in Review. And once again, what a year it’s been, right?

If you have anything that you would like to share with us, email us at [email protected]. Thanks for listening.

KEVIN SCOTT: See you next time!