For the World Humanist Day, which is celebrated on 21st June, ENORB is hosting Steven Pinker, experimental psychologist, and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. Pinker in interested in all aspects of language and mind, and his research particularly focuses on common knowledge, language acquisition, emotion, the moral sense, rationality, and trends in violence. In his latest book Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters Pinker attempts to unravel the paradox that, while science has made considerable progress, scepticism towards it is still widespread, leading, for example, to the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories. Please register HERE
Who is he?
Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist – particularly interested in language and mind – and a Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. His research area is wide, as it comprehends common knowledge, language acquisition, emotion, the moral sense, rationality, and trends in violence. He has won many prizes for his works. His best-known and award-winning books are The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Better Angels of Our Nature, The Sense of Style, and Enlightenment Now. Time included Pinker in the “100 Most Influential People in the World Today”, and the magazine Foreign Policy in the “World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals”. He is also an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Humanist of the Year, and a recipient of nine honorary doctorates. He was Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and, among others, he writes for the New York Times, the Guardian, and The Atlantic. His last book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, was published in September 2021.
What are his works about and why is he relevant for ENORB?
In his latest book, as the title suggests, Pinker explores the subject of rationality and argues that it is necessary to learn the tools of rationality, including logic, critical thinking, and probability. Indeed, rationality can be applied to most of the dilemmas that surround us, and it can help us make wiser and more informed choices.
Since rationality can be defined as the knowledge to pursue a goal, Pinker asks us to review what our values and goals are. This is even more important regarding phenomena such as the no-vax movement, climate change denial, and conspiracy theories. In these cases, the arguments put forward may be logical, but they are certainly not rational, because the aim is to spread untrue information. How should we approach discourses that are based on false assumptions? Pinker’s advice is to find a common ground with our interlocutors, to question the veracity of the sources they mention, and how they have arrived at those conclusions.
To tell the truth, according to the psychologist, this dialectical exercise is always useful because it is also through debate that society becomes more rational as long as the debate is not framed like a sport, where there must be a winner and a loser.
Pinker’s passage on journalism is also essential. He describes recent journalism as ‘events-driven’. Journalism, in fact, according to the psychologist miseducates people because it competes to give the latest events without, however, putting them in a context. Pinker’s advice is instead to accompany events with data, graphs, trends. Rationality and the tools that derive from it are nowadays of fundamental importance. As Pinker teaches, some phenomena – such as conspiracy theories, fake news, the no-vax movement – have not experienced an increase but have always existed. It is up to us, however, to put these phenomena into context and use the tools that rationality offers us to combat them.