Overrated/Underrated with Steven Pinker | Conversations with Tyler

Overrated/Underrated with Steven Pinker | Conversations with Tyler


COWEN: In the middle of all of these dialogues,
we have a section called “Underrated, Overrated.” I’m going to name some things, some people,
and ask you if you think they’re overrated or underrated. Feel free to pass on any one of them. Let’s start with rap music. PINKER: Oh. [laughter]
PINKER: I never got rap music. I don’t want to say it’s overrated. It may be that I’m overrated, or at least
I overrate myself. I was probably born too soon.COWEN: There’s
a much younger Steven Pinker on YouTube debating with William F. Buckley. Steven Pinker of that time is defending black
English and telling William F. Buckley he basically doesn’t understand what’s special
about it. Indeed, Buckley doesn’t. Is rap music in a sense not just a musical
extension of the black English you once defended on Firing Line? PINKER: It is in the sense that I would not
make the argument. The fact that I don’t have any rap music
on my iPod is not an argument for the objective merit of rap music compared to any other kind
of music. There I’m a relativist. Likewise, the grammatical structure of African
American English vernacular, as linguists call it, black English, Ebonics, there’s
really nothing inherently to choose between the rules in black English vernacular and
any other English vernacular. There I’m also a relativist. On the other hand when it comes to what dialect
we should use in formal essays, in the academic literature, and in the New York Times, it’s
good to have a standard. The standard could have been black English
if history had run differently. It doesn’t happen to be. It’s good that we all settle on a standard
to maximize communication and efficiency and certain aesthetic judgments. The standardization is a good thing, but that
doesn’t necessarily mean that one standard is objectively better than another. COWEN: Aerobic exercise: underrated or overrated? PINKER: [laughs] Underrated. I like it. COWEN: You like it? PINKER: Yeah. I do it. COWEN: You think it’s good for you? PINKER: I hope so. I like to think that I’m also accomplishing
something when I go jogging or cycling. COWEN: Behavioral economics. Economists playing at psychology. Obviously you have a stronger background in
psychology than the economists. What do you think of behavioral econ? PINKER: I’m for it. COWEN: What’s it missing? PINKER: I’m completely out of my depth here,
but I do think it is too quick to dismiss classical economics. Is this maybe another false dichotomy? COWEN: In the middle of all of these dialogues,
we have a section called “Underrated, Overrated.” I’m going to name some things, some people,
and ask you if you think they’re overrated or underrated. Feel free to pass on any one
of them. Let’s start with rap music. PINKER: Oh.
[laughter] PINKER: I never got rap music. I don’t want
to say it’s overrated. It may be that I’m overrated, or at least I overrate myself.
I was probably born too soon.COWEN: There’s a much younger Steven Pinker on YouTube debating
with William F. Buckley. Steven Pinker of that time is defending black English and telling
William F. Buckley he basically doesn’t understand what’s special about it. Indeed,
Buckley doesn’t. Is rap music in a sense not just a musical extension of the black
English you once defended on Firing Line? PINKER: It is in the sense that I would not
make the argument. The fact that I don’t have any rap music on my iPod is not an argument
for the objective merit of rap music compared to any other kind of music. There I’m a
relativist. Likewise, the grammatical structure of African
American English vernacular, as linguists call it, black English, Ebonics, there’s
really nothing inherently to choose between the rules in black English vernacular and
any other English vernacular. There I’m also a relativist.
On the other hand when it comes to what dialect we should use in formal essays, in the academic
literature, and in the New York Times, it’s good to have a standard. The standard could
have been black English if history had run differently. It doesn’t happen to be. It’s
good that we all settle on a standard to maximize communication and efficiency and certain aesthetic
judgments. The standardization is a good thing, but that
doesn’t necessarily mean that one standard is objectively better than another.
COWEN: Aerobic exercise: underrated or overrated? PINKER: [laughs] Underrated. I like it.
COWEN: You like it? PINKER: Yeah. I do it.
COWEN: You think it’s good for you? PINKER: I hope so. I like to think that I’m
also accomplishing something when I go jogging or cycling.
COWEN: Behavioral economics. Economists playing at psychology. Obviously you have a stronger
background in psychology than the economists. What do you think of behavioral econ?
PINKER: I’m for it. COWEN: What’s it missing? PINKER: I’m completely out of my depth here,
but I do think it is too quick to dismiss classical economics. Is this maybe another
false dichotomy? The idea that the rational actor and models
derived from it are obsolete because humans make certain irrational choices, have certain
rules of thumb that can’t be normatively defended — those aren’t necessarily
incompatible, because even though every individual human brain might have its quirks and be irrational,
it is possible for a collective enterprise that works by certain rules to have a kind
of rationality that none of the individual minds has.
Also it’s possible because we’re corrigible, because the mind is many parts. We can override
some of our biases and instincts either though confrontations with reality, through education,
through debate. We do know even that people who are experienced
in market transactions, for example, don’t fall for the kinds of fallacies that behavioral
economists are so fond of pointing out. You really can’t turn a person into a money
pump, even though in the lab I can set up a demo that shows people can be intransitive
in their preferences. You actually put a person in a situation where
there’s real money at stake, and all of a sudden they’re not so irrational.
COWEN: They walk away. The passive voice in writing.
PINKER: Underrated. COWEN: Underrated?
PINKER: Yeah, underrated. In the following sense. You open up any style manual and one
of the first bits of advice is don’t use the passive. That’s too crude. Academics
overuse the passive, or maybe I should say the passive voice is overused by academics.
COWEN: That’s better. [laughter]
COWEN: It is thought as such by many people. PINKER: So it is thought. The case is overdrawn
because no construction could have survived in the language for more than 1,500 years
if it didn’t serve some purpose. There are circumstances in which the passive is the
better choice. In particular when the topic of a conversation, the entity that’s already
in the spotlight, is the done-to or acted-upon. Another rule of style, aside from avoiding
the passive, is start the sentence with the given information, the topic. End the sentence
with the new information, the focus. If you’re already talking about something that is done
to, then that’s the logical way to begin the next sentence, and the passive voice makes
that possible. If I’m saying, “Look at that mime in the
park. He’s being pelted with zucchini,” then since I’ve already called your attention
to the mime, now I want to add information about him. If he happens to be the brunt of
an action then the passive voice is the way to begin the next sentence with him, as opposed
to saying “some people are throwing zucchini at him,” where he gets put at the focus
of the sentence, which is the best place to introduce new information.
In fact, as I point out in The Sense of Style, the two most famous style guides in the English
language, namely Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” and Strunk and White’s
The Elements of Style, both accidentally use the passive in the very sentence in which
they say “don’t use the passive.” [laughter]
COWEN: William Shatner. [laughter]
COWEN: You’re connected to him in several ways.
PINKER: Oh, fellow Montreal Jew. [laughter]
PINKER: I have to say underrated. Although maybe not his singing. www.stevepinker.com
COWEN: You’re well known for your photography. Here’s Susan Sontag writing on photography.
I quote: “Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention.” She also wrote,
“It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.” Yes or no?
PINKER: Overrated. COWEN: Overrated?
PINKER: Yeah. COWEN: Photography is, or Susan Sontag?
PINKER: [laughs] Maybe just that passage. Like any art form, photography is many things.
First and foremost, it’s a simulacrum of perceptual experience. It’s possible because
visual perception doesn’t consist of knowing the external world directly, but rather making
hypotheses about it via a two‑dimensional array of light that’s reflected from it.
You duplicate that two‑dimensional array of light with pigment or LEDs and you can
fool the perceiver into thinking that he’s seeing the actual thing.
That is then in tension with the fact that the photograph itself is a splash of geometric
and colored patches. The challenge of photography is to both convey a sense of something out
there, but also for that two‑dimensional patch to itself be an aesthetically pleasing
object. As a photographer, I’m always cognizant of what will that two‑dimensional patchwork
of color look like and what is it a photograph of.
COWEN: If you think of all the different things you’ve written in various areas, what do
you think has been your biggest mistake? PINKER: Oh, where do I begin?
[laughter] PINKER: Where to begin? Biggest mistake. I’m
going to punt on that. COWEN: OK. That’s fine.
PINKER: Why don’t I just say that, so as not to convey the impression that I’ve never
made mistakes, there’s so many where do I begin?

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