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Q&A with Steven Pinker
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
Glad to be here to take your questions!
This Q&A took place between 5/20/15 and 5/31/15. Unanswered questions have been hidden
27 questions
You argue that society has become kinder and gentler over the centuries, and I wonder if you expect that to continue. What present practices do you suspect will be regarded as barbaric by future generations?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
I do expect it to continue, though unevenly across places and times, and with surprises in both directions (moral advances that happen surprisingly quickly, as we're seeing now with gay marriage, and disappointing stagnation or reversals, as we're seeing with the failure of democracy to take root in the Arab world, and the revival of militant nationalism and revanchism in Russia).

With all due humility about our ability to predict the future, I'd venture that many factory farming practices will be seen by our descendants as barbaric, even if we never see worldwide vegetarianism. The toleration of prison rape, and the criminalization of victimless activities, particularly drug use, are other relatively easy advances. Interstate war--nation-states bombing each other's cities from the air or sea, or pitting massive tank battalions against each other--is already on the way out, and could disappear, since there are only a couple of hundred players to sign on (civil wars, with countless potential insurgency and rebel groups, will hang on much longer).

It's entirely conceivable that nuclear weapons will some day be considered an idiotic and evil mistake of the 20th century, since they are militarily useless (other than deterring all-out invasion) and designed only to cause unthinkable destruction. The Global Zero movement gained some traction a few years ago (it was one of the reasons Obama got his Nobel Peace Prize) but has recently been mired by tensions with Russia and in the Middle East; we may have to wait a decade or more before it gets back on the global agenda, but it could very well succeed in the long run, just as chemical and biological weapons are now universally considered unacceptable.
Can you point to any books that altered the way you think about the world, and how they altered it?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
The most recent big-think book that influenced me is David Deutsch's "The Beginning of Infinity", which is about how combinatorial power of the human mind, once liberated by the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, was set on an ever-expanding quest to formulate explanations of life and the universe.

John Mueller's books "Retreat from Doomsday"; "Quiet Cataclysm"; "The Remnants of War" changed my understanding of war.

Norbert Elias's classic "The Civilizing Process" provided a narrative of Western cultural history over 500 years, and how the 1960s tried to undo it.

Donald Symons' "The Evolution of Human Sexuality" and Martin Daly & Margo Wilson's "Homicide" demonstrated to me the power of evolutionary psychological explanation.

Napoleon Chagnon's "Yanomamo" (published under various titles) offers a clear-eyed, irreverent, and respectful portrait of a foraging people.

Francis-Noel Thomas & Mark Turner's "Clear and Simple as the Truth" is my favorite book on writing style.

Judith Rich Harris's 'The Nurture Assumption" forever altered my understanding of socialization, child development, and behavioral genetics.

David Courtwright's "Violent Land" helped me understand much about the United States, particularly how its history of settlement gave rise to today's culture war.

David Marr's "Vision", Noam Chomsky's "Reflections on Language", Jerry Fodor's "Psychological Explanation", George Miller's "The Psychology of Communication", and Roger Brown's "Words and Things", and "Social Psychology", were early influences.

Rebecca Goldstein's novels "The Mind-Body Problem", and "Thirty-Six Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction" have many numerous deep ideas on the philosophy of mathematics, morality, and religion coming out of the mouths of the narrator and characters.
Researcher @ Harvard | Parlio community manager
Professor Pinker, thank you so much for doing this. My question to you is, what makes some people wired to be so incredibly ambitious and addicted to success (to a fault!) while others are very content with their situation or even underachieving? It can't be simply a nature vs. nurture explanation, I hope?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
Nature has something to do with it -- the First Law of Behavioral Genetics is that all psychological traits are (partially) heritable. Families have less to do with it than you might think: the Second Law of Behavioral Genetics is that the effects of being brought up in a family are far smaller than the effects of the genes.
Chance has a huge role: The Third Law of Behavioral Genetics is that a huge chunk of variance in psychological traits is caused neither by genes nor by families. We don't know where this variation does come from, but I suspect it's due to stochastic events in neural development (which we have other reasons to believe exists) and random events in life.
A common stereotype is that birth order matters, with firstborns being ambitious and laterborns slackers, but the research does not bear that out. Peer environment certainly matters: people strive for status within their peer group, and if everyone else is starting a company or becoming an artist or making a pile of money on Wall St., so will you (on average). Finally, an enormous component is surely the fit between someone's inherent ambitions and the opportunities available in a given society at the time: people are more likely to invest in personal capital and take risks when they sense that these have a reasonable chance of being rewarded.
Dr. Pinker - thanks for answering our questions! I'm interested in your research on the evolution of language and its relationship with natural selection. Given how you've seen human language evolve up until this point, do you have predictions for how language will continue to evolve?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
There are really two questions here. One is about biological evolution: How the faculty of language (the neural circuitry that allows us, but not chimps, to acquire language) will change. For that to happen, genetic advantages in learning and using language would have to result in more surviving offspring. It's conceivable that as social success depend more on the written word, an enhancement of the connections between language and visual areas that enable reading could be selected for, but there are are many complications to this contingency, so it's truly hard to speculate.
Then there's cultural evolution of languages themselves -- English, Chinese, Arabic, Yoruba, and so on. Aside from some obvious trends, such as larger technical vocabulary, and more sharing of words across languages, it's unlikely that we'll see any consistent directional change. Once a language has reached a certain level of complexity, most subsequent change is a random walk -- some components of a language atrophy, others bulk up to compensate, still others churn through meaningless fashion cycles.
Steven, the historian William McNeill argued that the great engine of history is the "contact between strangers". You have written about the impact of the acceleration of ideas.

In today's hyper-connected world we are seeing "contact between strangers" on steroids. Do you think this will be a source of greater stability, reform and innovation or conflict and rancor?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
Another great question. Over the long run I do think it will be a source of greater harmony overall. We're apt to think that neighboring ethnic groups inevitably fight, but that's because we know so much about the ones that do. When you step back and think about the thousands of pairs of neighboring ethnic groups that could kill each other but don't (and hence don't make the news), you realize that intergroup strife is far from inevitable. Familiarity, on average, breeds comity, not contempt; an easy-to-study nearby example is acceptance of gay rights in this country: people who know gay people quickly lose their homophobia, a process that feeds off itself as declining homophobia encourages more and more gay people to come out.
The overwhelming factor that pushes against the positive effects of familiarity is ideology. If a charismatic idea entrepreneur successfully spreads the belief that the problems of one group are caused by the greed or perfidy of another, all of this can break down, which is why pogroms and genocides can suddenly break out among groups that have lived side by side for generations (Nazi Germany, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia).
So on top of encouraging person-to-person contact, a mechanical and easy-to-track phenomenon, we must be mindful of toxic ideologies: moralistic belief systems that call for the punishment or elimination of groups stigmatized as demonic or subhuman, which can easily wipe out the effects of neighborly comity.
Hi Professor Pinker - Thrilled to have you engage on Parlio! Here's my question for you: "Has today's academic silos prevented meaningful intellectual breakthroughs by segmenting progress down already defined paths?" and if you're familiar with the Yale-NUS "experiment," I'm curious if you think it might offer a means of breaking these silos to help the world move forward? Best, Vikram
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
Unquestionably -- together with political correctness, siloism is the greatest pathology of academic life today. The departmental structure, which ought to be a mere administrative convenience, militates against creative scholarship that applies the most appropriate set of conceptual tools to understanding a given phenomenon. A brilliant young scholar arises, whose work cuts across traditional disciplines, and each of the possible host departments says "Why should we give up a slot to benefit the other department?" Only strong Deans and Provosts, who reserve a certain number of appointments for beyond-category scholars, can bring the walls down.
Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with Yale-NUS.
Physicist, Data Scientist, Entreprenuer
There have been many huge advances in recent years in the area of natural language processing (NLP). However, even the most advanced NLP system is still far inferior to most humans and their language capabilities. Do you believe it would be possible to develop an advanced NLP system without achieving the "strong AI" first?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
I assume by "strong AI' you mean a complete duplication of the human intelligent performance (the term "strong AI" as John Searle introduced it referred to a different and more philosophical issue--whether the AI system, no matter how competent, could be said to "really" think and understand, or was in some sense just faking or simulating what humans do).
As I mentioned in another reply, I think that current language systems are underpowered because of their neglect of syntax and semantics and over reliance on statistical analyses of big samples of text. But even the most powerful syntactic and semantic engines will have to to resolve ambiguities, connect the dots, read between the lines, catch the speaker's drift, and so on.
One possibility is that statistical patterns will come to the rescue here, and that a hybrid of a rule-cruncher and statistical-guesser will achieve satisfactory performance. Another is that a true leap in performance will require a vast knowledge base of common-sense cognitive and social understanding. I can't say how feasible that will be in the medium- to long-term future. But since no two *humans* have the same background knowledge, and we humans often deal with misunderstandings, faux pas, over literal interpretations, missed irony, remarks that fly over our heads, dog-whistle allusions, and so on, the gap can be narrowed and the difference may be a matter of degree-- particularly if the system is allowed to go back to the speaker and ask clarification questions ("By 'x' did you mean A, B, or C?").
Physicist, Data Scientist, Entreprenuer
Thank you for your answer. Yes, by "strong AI" I did mean human-level AI (both qualitatively and quantitatively). I was impressed with IBM Watson's ability to decipher many puns and allusions, so perhaps inclusion of that technology into the NLP systems could help with their next performance leap.
Dr. Pinker - do you think the decline in violence makes us as a public less engaged on / more complacent about strategic questions such as nuclear disarmament, and therefore less conscious of the risks of possessing nuclear weapons (i.e. not just the potential for nuclear war, but also for nuclear incident or accident, as Eric Schlosser explored in Command and Control)?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
I tend to think it goes in the opposite direction. If you are a fatalist who thinks that war is in the genes, that genies can't be put back in bottles, that efforts at human improvement are Promethean, utopian, romantic, futile, then you're apt to be complacent or cynical about further moves to improve our lot. But if you see that the needle can indeed budge, that the graph lines are going in the right direction, that can embolden you to figure out what has worked in the past and do more of it in the future. I don't know of research that has shown this (I'd love for someone to do it) but I know that it was certainly the case in my own autobiography -- I am far more engaged in peace and development movements now that I am aware of how successful they can be.
Professor Pinker, thank you for taking our questions! Humans are spending more and more time online now, particularly since we can stay connected through our smartphones. How do you see this constant connectivity changing how we think, work, learn and relax? How can we integrate social media, mobile devices and access to growing stores of data about our health and other activities in the healthiest way for our minds, bodies and spirits?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
I'm going to refer you to the other S. Pinker on this one: my sister Susan and her new book "The Village Effect".
Professor Pinker, what's the one thing you believe is true that you wish everyone would know/understand? And what's the one misconception/falsehood you wish everyone would stop believing?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
That the human condition is improving. It's not just violence, but every other measure of human well-being that is on the rise: longevity, literacy, health, affluence, education.
What do you think you are most likely to be wrong about? In other words, of all the arguments you make on substantive questions, which one are you the shakiest about, and have most doubts on even though you think you are likely correct but maybe, just maybe...? (Or do you never make public arguments unless you have very high levels of confidence).
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
In Better Angels I was cautiously optimistic about a contemporary Islamic enlightenment, based on Gallup polling, the first few weeks of the Arab Spring, and other hopeful signs. I thought that the global trend toward humanism and away from tribalism and religious violence could not leave the Islamic world untouched for long. I still believe that as a long-term trend, but it will be longer term than I thought. In an article with Andrew Mack in Slate called "The World is Not Falling Apart," we updated the stats on Western and global violence. Most of the trends in fact have continued in a good direction, with one partial exception: civil wars and war deaths showed an uptick, wiping out about a dozen years of progress (though not taking us back to the awful numbers of the 1960s-1990s), and the bad numbers were largely made up of wars with a militant Islamic group on one side.
The analysis of war in Better Angels really comprised three partly confounded correlations: wars decrease over time, wars decrease with a shift from parochial values (nationalism, tribalism, religious sectarianism, class conflict) to universal humanistic ones, and universal humanistic values have been increasing over time. But the first may be true only to the extent that the third one is true, and in parts of the world that have not yet signed on to universal humanism, there's no reason to expect armed conflict to decrease.
Still, I tend to believe that over the long term there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come, and universal human flourishing is an idea whose time has come.
Silicon Valley techies are divided about whether to be fearful or dismissive of the idea of new super intelligent AI. The fearful say that AI sentience is inevitable & dangerous. The dismissive say we know so little about how we think ourselves that it’s crazy to say that sentience is inevitable, let alone dangerous.

How would you approach this issue? How do you think about it?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
Sentience is a red herring here -- stupid and simple creatures can be sentient, and super intelligent ones could be zombies; we have no way to tell. So let's concentrate on intelligence. I think it's a fallacy to conflate the ability to reason and solve problems with the desire to dominate and destroy, which sci-fi dystopias and robots-run-amok plots inevitably do. It's a projection of evolved alpha-male psychology onto the concept of intelligence. A huge proportion of the population--they're called women--exercise high intelligence without applying it to mass murder or world domination.
Of course an evil genius could use AI to design killer bots, but the number who do so is the product of two small numbers: the number of geniuses and the number of homicidal maniacs. The latter number is obviously greater than zero, but the fact that we don't have Tsarnaev-like attacks every hour in every American city, when the technology to carry them out is already available at any Walmart, shows that they're not hugely plentiful either. And if a genocidal technologist did arise, he'd have to overcome the countermeasures of the worldwide community of anti-genocidal technologists.
So I don't think that malevolent robotics is one of the world's pressing problems. - Nassim Taleb claims your book is "junk science". I presume you've read this paper. Do you see falsehood in it? If so, where?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
The paper by Taleb that I saw was a mess: sloppy, inaccurate, and incoherent. I replied to it here:

Something other than intellectual disagreement is going on here, since the conclusions of Better Angels are in wide agreement with Taleb's major themes, such as the dangers of being fooled by randomness and the unpredictability inherent in fat-tailed distributions. When I tried to clarify the differences with him in correspondence I just got back semi-coherent abuse, and a complaint that I had been unfair to Malcolm Gladwell (who had written a fawning piece on Taleb).
Associate Dean, Columbia U- Graduate School of Journalism
Dr. Pinker,

Thank your so much for taking the time to answer questions on Parlio!

Back in the 90s when “whole language” teaching methods were all the rage, you were on the record refuting claims (Goodman et al) that your (or Chomsky’s) work on the hardwired nature of primary language acquisition could be applied to the teaching of reading and other subjects. In the ensuing years, the validity of your stand has been born out by the failure of these methods to produce positive results.

What I am wondering is if your work has revealed elements of human nature that could be better harnessed for better educational outcomes? Working on your premise that we are not blank slates and have many innate traits, is there something other than Skinner's positive reinforcement that educators would do well to employ?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
One potential insight is that educators begin not with blank slates but with minds that are adapted to think and reason in ways that may be at cross-purposes with the goals of education in a modern society. The conscious portion of language consists of words and meanings, but the portion that connects most directly to print consists of phonemes, which ordinarily are below the level of consciousness. We intuitively understand living species as having essences, but the theory of evolution requires us to rethink them as populations of variable individuals. We naturally assess probability by dredging up examples from memory, whereas real probability takes into account the number of occurrences and the number of opportunities. We are apt to think that people who disagree with us are stupid and stubborn, while we are overconfident and self-deluded about our own competence and honesty.
But human nature also gives educators the resources that allows students to overcome these infirmities. We can learn complex ideas so well that they become single cognitive chunks which then may be inserted as units inside increasingly complex assemblies. We can use analogies so that a familiar domain may be used as a model for an unfamiliar one. Communities can implement norms so that a willingness to consider opposing viewpoints, to submit one's ideas to empirical testing, and to change one's mind when the evidence warrants it, are perceived as virtues rather than weaknesses.
Director of Research & Strategy, Liberty in North Korea
Professor Pinker, thank you for making yourself available for discussion here, and for your scholarship.

What is your response to those who might argue against your theories in 'Better Angels' from an 'Asian Values' (eg. Lee Kuan Yew) standpoint? Would you say that with time, these cultures will also change and develop in a more liberal, individualistic direction?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
I tend to think so, yes. I doubt that "Asian values" is a coherent concept. Even putting aside the fantastic diversity within "Asia" (what exactly to Japan, India, China, Indonesia, etc. have in common, other than that they like to eat rice?), there have been radical shifts *within* individual Asian countries over just a few decades. Taiwan, South Korea, and to some extent Philippines and Indonesia have transitioned from dictatorships to democracies; China went from Maoism to authoritarian capitalism. Not so long ago the "Asian model" in Japan was going to dominate the world (Rising Sun and all that), but they sank into decades of stagnation.
Do you think human beings are unique from one another? Why do we strive to be unique? Finally why do we look up to people who are considered unique?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
Each of us is unique in having a unique genome, a unique neurodevelopmental history, and a unique biography, while each of us is also a recognizable specimen of Homo sapiens and as such inherit the inventory of motives and cognitive powers called human nature. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, in their analysis of the everyday social equivalent of "the banker's paradox" (the bank will lend you exactly as much money as you can prove you don't need) propose that people naturally emphasize their individuality in an effort to make themselves irreplaceable--to broadcast their unique portfolio of talents, knowledge, skill, and social networks so as to make them worth rescuing should they ever fall on such hard times that they might not be able to repay the favor. And of course we do value people who are unique (at least in desirable ways -- someone who is uniquely ugly, lazy, or nasty may not command such admiration) almost by definition -- to value something is to devote care or attention to it over the alternatives, and a uniquely talented or connected or skilled individual is the one whose repayment of such kissing up is likely to be most valuable.
Thanks for the answer. Clarified the issue for me
Professor Pinker, thank you for your amazing work and for this opportunity. My work is around understanding what oppression does to people, and what they can do to it. My question: Would it be fair to say, given your work on human nature, that efforts to install ideals like peace, equality ...etc should be seen as technical tasks like curing disease, controlling the weather and so forth, rather than ideological/ethical choices? If this is the case, how would you see us in the future using such knowledge of human nature to create more humane individuals, in the same manner public health for example became embedded in school curriculums?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
Yes, that's exactly what I believe (though I think that the effort to increase peace, health, and other dimensions of well-being is *itself* an ethical choice -- it's moral, though not moralistic).
I'd like to see more coverage of the history, and ongoing progress, of measures of human well-being, and evidence-based analyses of what works and what doesn't. Nerdy idealism; idealistic wonkery.
Program Officer, Carnegie Corporation of New York
Dr Pinker, What are your thoughts on the recent literature calling into question the strength of the nuclear taboo? A recent article in APSR by Scott Sagan, Daryl Press, and Ben Valentino used a survey experiment and concluded that "the public has only a weak aversion to using nuclear weapons and that this aversion has few characteristics of an 'unthinkable' behavior or taboo. Instead, public attitudes about whether to use nuclear weapons are driven largely by consequentialist considerations of military utility." If the nuclear taboo turned out not to be strong or durable, would that change your views on the trajectory of human conflict?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
The results of public opinions polls are often hair-raising: just after World War II, 15% of Americans, when asked about the appropriate policy to deal with the Japanese, chose extermination. And very often significant policy advances are pushed by elites over the objections of significant portions of the electorate, as in the elimination of capital punishment in Europe. The significance of the nuclear taboo is how strongly it is held by decision-makers, who can't just toss off an opinion to a stranger over the phone but have to think through and live with the consequences of their actions. Even there one has to distinguish public pronouncements from private live options: no leader can say outright that he would never use nuclear weapons under any circumstances, because that would undermine their deterrent value (which is their only value).
What would happen if the taboo was broken (say, if a tactical ("battlefield") nuke was used in combat is disconcertingly hard to predict. It could lead the taboo to unravel and open the gates of hell, as happened with chemical weapons in World War I. On the other hand some taboos can withstand transient or one-off violations. Poison gas had virtually no role on the battlefields of World War II, despite a couple of accidental uses that might have caused the taboo to evaporate, and the recent use in Syria was quickly re-stigmatized and contained. It's terrifying to think about even a one-time breach in the nuclear taboo, and terrifying to think that we don't know whether it would survive or succumb to the breach.
Google Software Engineer, Amateur Philosopher, Metaphysician
David Bentley Hart published a review of you book "The Better Angels of our Nature" asserting that much of your statistical analysis equating a decrease in violence fails to take into account the fact of decreased infant mortality and longer life expectancy. Whereas it may have been necessary in the past for whole populations to mobilize against invading forces (or be part of those forces), the affluent amongst us can blog on our laptops how horrible violence is while we outsource this to a smaller percentage of our population, we lament our ancestors usage of slavery while using electronics made under arguably worse conditions. Among other accusations (and some characteristic snark of his) his full review is below. Have you ever responded to any part of his critique? And if not, how would you?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
No, but if your summary is accurate, it sounds utterly innumerate. By any standard of human well-being it's obtuse to equate the African slave trade with Chinese factories. And if a few thousand soldiers in volunteer armies get killed in war rather than tens of millions of conscriptees, that's progress. Nor is it clear what infant mortality has to do with any of this -- the effects of having versus not having a world war will not be affected by infant mortality statistics.
Google Software Engineer, Amateur Philosopher, Metaphysician
I must admit I haven't read your book. But from your brief statement here I suspect Hart is onto something in saying you cherry pick what suits your argument in favor of modern society and paint the past in broad negative strokes. Classifying modern warfare as "a few thousand soldiers in volunteer armies get killed" whereas the other side (whatever that is) is "tens of millions of conscriptees" is a bit myopic no? I suggest you read the review, if you haven't. Hart is someone with a decent following. Even if you disagree with it, it may help you avoid similar detractors in the future. The 20th century was ripe with genocides and wars all over the world, killing hundreds of millions of people. We can take pride in the fact that such a large number of deaths is a smaller percentage of the population, or maybe we can have a little more humility in comparing ourselves to our ancestors. This is what Hart is getting at when he says (I'm quoting below):

In the end, what Pinker calls a “decline of violence” in modernity actually has been, in real body counts, a continual and extravagant increase in violence that has been outstripped by an even more exorbitant demographic explosion. Well, not to put too fine a point on it: So what? What on earth can he truly imagine that tells us about “progress” or “Enlightenment”or about the past, the present, or the future?
Google Software Engineer, Amateur Philosopher, Metaphysician
Having read your response to Talib, I think I understand what you are getting at. You think a World War is not likely anymore between developed nations. I agree with that, although the crisis in the Ukraine could have gotten ugly. The stakes are too high, and the destruction would be too massive. But what has happened is war has become largely asymmetric. Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, Cambodia, Algeria, Afghanistan, the bombing by Clinton of a pharmaceutical facility in Sudan etc. Populations are also more docile since the state has a "monopoly on violence." We now are so disturbed by violence as a result, in proportion to how much tv we watch and how strong the state is. None of this I think has to do with any moral superiority, but rather with changed conditioning. I would say its not so much the angels of our nature being brought out, but rather us becoming like caged birds who no longer have to fend for themselves. Does the pet bird have moral superiority over an eagle that kills for its food?
Google Software Engineer, Amateur Philosopher, Metaphysician
Wanted to thank you for replying to my thread and for taking the time to post here in general. Despite my disagreements with you, It's nice to interact with someone who is so well-known and whose ideas are so widespread. If you are unable to respond to my post, I will take it as a sign that this is exhausting and overwhelming, not as any sign that you have no response :)
Syracuse University Student Body President
Professor Pinker, thank you for taking the time out of day to participate in this Q&A!

In my first writing class in college, I was told that everything I had learned about writing an essay (introduction, three body paragraphs, and conclusion) in school was wrong.

In your book, The Sense of Style, you argue that today's writing is difficult for readers to actually understand. What methods do you suppose are being taught in the classroom today that are perpetuating this trend? How do we fix it?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
Students are getting too much encouragement to write spontaneous memoirs and personal reflections, and not enough to read widely and deeply (so as to master a large number of idioms, words, constructions, tropes, and conventions of the printed page, and to take inspiration from examples of good writing. Also, not enough attention is given to coherence: structuring an argument, showing how one statement is logically or conversationally related to the previous one.
Dr Pinker, Why do you think so much violence is expressed online via social media/comment spaces? Is there something about being behind a screen that either brings out the worst in people, or brings out people's more honest feelings?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
Plato wrote of "The Ring of Gyges" - a magical device that would make the wearer invisible - and speculated on how moral a person would be if there were no consequences for his reputation. So Plato pretty much anticipated the problem of obnoxious behavior in digital social media that allow anonymity (as he anticipated so many of our moral and epistemological problems: see my other half Rebecca Goldstein's "Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away"). And virtually every analysis of the evolution of altruism gives an important role to reputation management -- take that away, and altruism (and for that matter the inhibition of costless aggression) shrivels.

Before we conclude the worst about human nature, though, we should also keep in mind that the trolls and griefers can be few in number while attracting a lot of attention -- indeed, part of the appeal of trolling may be that it allows a pathetic inconsequential meathead zhlub to do something that actually affects the world (much like the appeal of suicide terrorism and rampage shootings). I would be curious to know the proportion of users of a given digital forum who engage in vicious griefing.
Dr. Pinker, your analysis of decreasing violence omits one of the most commonly cited causes: poverty / economic inequality. Is that because the evidence doesn't support a clear linkage?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
Or course, inequality and poverty aren't the same thing -- you can have people who are relatively well off by historical and comparative world standards, but who live in a country with a lot of gazillionaires.
The answer is different for different aspects of violence -- homicide, war, institutionalized violence such as slavery and capital punishment, child abuse, spousal abuse, and so on.
For civil war, rock-bottom poverty is definitely a risk factor, but once a society reaches a minimum level of affluence (around $1500 GDP / capita) the relation slackens off and becomes much less predictable.
With international war, the relationship may have reversed -- it used to be the richest countries that were constantly at each others' throats, but since 1946 no two of the world's 40 richest countries have gone to war with each other.
With violent crime, there is a correlation across countries and states between inequality and violence, but no correlation across time. In recent decades in most Western countries inequality has risen but crime has fallen. It's possible that the cross-sectional correlation comes from a third factor, such as whether poor neighborhoods get competent police protection.
For human rights as opposed to institutionalized oppression, again history does not support the idea that inequality or poverty are major factors. The cascade of reforms making up the Humanitarian Revolution were concentrated in the 2nd half of the 18th century, but affluence did not rise until the 19th century.
So the answer is yes, the evidence does not support a clear linkage. Ideas and institutions matter more than simple structural variables like poverty and inequality.
Thank your for the answer and yes, I should have said "two of the most commonly cited causes" since you are right to point out that poverty and inequality are different.

Interesting that you point out the fact that none of the world's 40 richest countries have gone to war since 1946. One of the most compelling explanations of that phenomenon is that most of the 40 countries are also democracies, hence the democratic peace thesis: that generally democracies do not go to war with one another. Further evidence for your argument that ideas and institutions matter more than structural variables as sources of violence and its absence.
Most of the discussion today about artificial intelligence is centered on the question of whether an AI will exist, when and what will the impact of that AI be on our species.

The externalization of this debate fascinates me. As we discuss this external AI event we are integrating computing into ourselves and most aspects of our way of living.

How do you see the evolution of biological species vs. integrated, technologically dependent ones?

Thank you for your time and attention.
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
"An AI" is too coarse a category -- different machines will get smarter in different ways and to different extents. It's impossible to predict what the symbiosis and division of labor between humans and machines will be. Most predictions will almost certainly be wrong. Some sci-fi tech predictions of the past never happened and probably never will (domed cities, jet-pack commuting); some technological trajectories hit a ceiling and remain stagnant, usually for boring economic and practical reasons (supersonic passenger air transport; manned planetary explanation); some world-changing developments came as almost complete surprises (the Web; social media).
No doubt the same will be true of AI. I suspect that direct computer-brain interfaces (other than to make up for disabilities such as paralysis or amputations) will never happen. Others may coexist with human capabilities that exceed potential AI replacements for complicated combinations of economic, practical, and moral, and aesthetic reasons. Look around you: you'll probably see and feel many natural products that have, and perhaps always will, resist artificial replacements: cotton clothing, sheets, and towels; wood furniture, trim, and framing; food ingredients that originated in farms rather than being synthesized out of chemicals, and so on. In some cases, natural can trump artificial indefinitely.
Guessing it's too late to ask questions, but: have you any thoughts on the heritability of intellectual honesty and its correlation with intelligence?
Yes, you missed the boat. You snooze you lose.
Professor Pinker - Thanks for answering our questions. It wasn't long ago that I was a High School student and I remember something that always bothered me. Most of the classes I enrolled in were honors and advanced placement classes, some even earning me college credits. I was excited by the material and it helped that many of my teachers were passionate about the lessons. However, the majority of my schoolmates weren't very interested in learning anything or taking advanced classes and mostly enrolled in standard classes with teachers who were not as passionate. Why aren't America's youth interested in learning? And, how can teachers and student work to make school more exciting and engaging for everyone?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
People like us who are passionate about ideas often find ourselves mystified that there are people out there who are not. But we need to keep in mind that half the population is below average in intelligence (funny how that tautology sounds so politically incorrect), and that a good proportion of the rest are congenitally low in personality traits like openness to experience, need for cognition, and intellectance -- the interest in ideas for their own sake, as opposed to tangible and practical concerns.
That having been said, I agree that the world will be a better place if we nurture a concern with ideas, and particularly the ability to evaluate them critically. For that to happen, educators and writers need to explain their beauty and power and to show why they matter--why, to paraphrase Keynes, even the most practical people are, without realizing it, the slaves of theoreticians they have never heard of.
And above all, writers and educators need to learn how to communicate effectively, avoiding turgid academese, being sensitive to background knowledge that they have that others do not (overcoming "the curse of knowledge"), illustrating abstract points with concrete examples rather than airy-fairy generalizations, and so on -- which is why I wrote "The Sense of Style".
There’s this flabbergasting conclusion that we will never understand our human brain because if it is that simple to understand, we would be too dumb to grasp it and if it is that complex, it would be too hard for us to understand.
I’m wondering what you think about this. And taking this a step further: Do you think our progress in AI will also help us in understanding our human brain and mind?
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
The argument is faulty because we don't try to understand the human mind using a single human mind: that is, one person trying to figure the whole thing out himself or herself by thinking really hard. Psychology and cognitive science are collective enterprises by thousands of people pooling their ideas and discoveries through scientific institutions, and using conceptual and methodological tools such as mathematics and computer models.
As for the second question: Yes, I think that AI research in indispensable in illuminating the mind, since you can't understand how the brain solves a problem until you understand the nature of the problem and what kinds of mechanisms could, even in principle, solve it. Unfortunately AI and cognitive science have grown apart since I was a grad student in the heyday of big AI thinkers such as Minsky, Papert, Simon, Newell, Winograd, Marr, Marcus, Dennett, Hofstadter, and others. Open-access research labs (AT&T, Xerox PARC, BBN) have given way to proprietary shops; deep thinking about commonalities and differences between artificial and natural intelligence has given way to product-oriented problem solving; big-data-enabled kluges have taken the pressure off the need to understand problems and complex systems. But this could reverse.
President, Emily Carr University of Art + Design
Professor Pinker, I am really interested in your research on language and cognition. I am quite skeptical, but respectful of the work in the neurosciences that is using fMRI to examine brain patterns and different locations in the brain for different activities. However, I am of the opinion that as a distributed network (if that is the right word) the brain does not lend itself to the ease of mapping being suggested by many researchers. I am wondering how you feel about this type of research.
Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
The techniques have become far more powerful: multivoxel pattern analysis, for example, which looks at complicated patterns of activity rather than entire blobs lighting up, is beginning to unmask subtle forms of information processing that in the past could only be analyzed phrenologically. But I agree that brain mapping can take us only so far -- we also have to analyze cognitive and emotional responses at the level of the algorithms they implement, the evolutionary problems they were designed to solve, and how they develop. In other words, psychological processes, like other complex phenomena, must be analyzed at multiple levels of analysis -- a point that has been made in different ways by (among others) David Marr, Noam Chomsky, and most famously Niko Tinbergen.
President, Emily Carr University of Art + Design
Thanks Prof. Pinker, while I have enormous respect for the research in Optogenetics for example, I cannot divorce the operations of the brain from our bodies. The complex interaction of emotions, the nervous system, and more means that we may end up looking at patterns of depression (as an example) without a more complete and integrated sense of how our bodies as a whole may influence thought processes in the brain. Even the notion that the brain is involved in information processing may move us towards an overly mechanical interpretation of complex forms of neuronal activity. How is the nervous system linked to high speed interactions among an untold number of neurons and their parts? When Tinbergen says that Broca's area is central to linguistic capability, how do we distinguish between the part and the whole?