The Blank Slate and Other Phantom Theories

I keep posting my 3QD columns increasingly late. My most recent one, about Pinker’s The Blank Slate and the inconsistencies between how it portrays the world and how the world actually is, was up only at 8:42 pm even though we’re supposed to have them up and running by midnight between Sunday and Monday.

The most important one liner from the entire post is in my opinion, “The truth is never oppressive” – or, in its fuller version, “the truth, or what a reasonable person would believe to be the truth, is never oppressive.” I then show that on the contrary, the views Pinker holds about gender and apologizes for about race fail any scientific reasonable-person standard.

The spine of the article is four paragraphs about a third of the way through, including that one liner.

The relationship between Pinker and Lewontin is an interesting one. Pinker notes that although Lewontin claims that he thinks the dominant force in evolution is the interaction between gene, organism, and environment, in terms of social implications he ignores everything but environment. On that Pinker is certainly right: Biology as Ideology is an anti-science polemic that distorts facts to fit Lewontin’s agenda (my take on Lewontin was subsequently debated in length here). However, Pinker commits the same transgression: he says he believes in the sensible moderate view that human behavior is determined by both inborn and environmental factors, and goes on to not only ignore the implications of the environmental part but also defend racists and sexists who have used pseudoscience as cover.

For instance, he starts by ridiculing people who called Richard Herrnstein a racist for a 1970 paper about intelligence and heredity. Although the paper as Pinker describes it is not racist per se, Herrnstein was indeed a racist. The screed he published with Charles Murray in 1994, The Bell Curve, is not only wrong, but also obviously wrong. Even in 1994, there were metastudies about race and intelligence that showed that the IQ gap disappears once one properly controls for environmental factors, for example by considering the IQ scores of children born to single mothers in Germany by American fathers in World War Two.

The truth, or what a reasonable person would believe to be the truth, is never oppressive. If there is indeed an innate component to the racial IQ gap, or to the gender math score gap, then it’s not racist or sexist to write about it. It remains so even if the innate component does not exist, but the researcher has solid grounds to believe it does.

However, Murray and Herrnstein had no such solid grounds. They could quote a few studies proving their point, but when researchers publish many studies about the same phenomenon, some studies are bound to detect statistically significant effects that do not exist. By selectively choosing one’s references, one can show that liberals are morally superior or morally inferior to conservatives, or that socialism is more successful or less successful than capitalism. At times there are seminal studies, which do not require any further metastudy. There weren’t any in 1994, while existing metastudies suggested that the racial IQ gap was entirely environmental. As I will describe below, the one seminal study [link added] done in 2003 moots not only Murray and Herrnstein’s entire argument but also much of Pinker’s.

As in my other scathing book reviews, there are some parts I would’ve liked to rebut but couldn’t without breaking the article’s flow. Things that would’ve made it into the post if I’d written it in bullet point format include,

1. Pinker’s scare campaign around Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. Hardly anyone cares for them anymore, especially for Dworkin. Even Brownmiller felt the need to compare Dworkin’s speeches to revival tents in a paragraph praising Dworkin’s passion.

2. The general use of abstract moral principles against social movements. Proponents of torture advise opponents of torture to speak only in moral terms and ignore the fact that torture is ineffective; sexists advise feminists to only attack obvious discrimination and ignore the fact that men and women are cognitively nearly identical.

3. The reemergence of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, largely due to the discovery of the Pirahã’s inability to master basic counting. Chomsky’s transformtional grammar is the only serious challenge to Lockean empiricism, which Pinker tars by associating it with the phantom theory that is the blank slate.

4. Relational models. Pinker quotes Alan Fiske’s theory of four relational models – market pricing, communal sharing, equality matching, and authority ranking – and claims that equality matching is the most common to support his claims. In fact there’s no criterion that can determine which is more common; for what it’s worth, equality matching is the weirdest of the four in some precise ways.

5. The Larry Summers controversy, in which Pinker defended the assertion that women are innately worse at math than men. There’s no obvious EP-derived hypothesis why it should be so, and even if there were, it would fail to conform to reality, since women can and often are as good at math as men. Feminist activism has changed a lot; Columbia’s progressed from having its first female Ph.D. student in math 20 years ago to having a 50-50 incoming class this year.

6. Education. I have no idea where Kim Gandy’s getting her numbers from when she says boys and girls are 99% identical in learning, but the basic point that the differences in cognition are small is right. Stentor has a link to the relevant research somewhere in his archives. I allude to this point in the post, but don’t explicitly mention this research.

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7 Responses to The Blank Slate and Other Phantom Theories

  1. Tyler DiPietro says:

    Interesting. I read TBS back when I was 16 and had a flare-up of interest in psychology. I didn’t have the knowledge that I have now about the matters he discussed in the book, but even back then his arguments seemed to be a bit weak. One of the more irritating portions of the book was his discussion of modularism and holism (or connectionism) in basic brain models. Almost no one these days argues that the brain isn’t compartmentalized to a large degree, so his arguments against completely holistic models seemed to be a gigantic strawman.

    (Incidentally, it would be fitting, since the whole thesis of the book seemed to be a strawman. Outside of Gould and a handful of others, I can’t think of anyone who literally suggests a “blank slate” at the root of the human condition.)

  2. Alon Levy says:

    Well, one of the points on which he compares negatively to Lewontin, a Marxist apologist extraordinaire, is that unlike Lewontin, he rants about a view that nobody actually holds. Lewontin at least attacks the idea that medical science can improve matters, which a non-negligible number of people believe.

    On another note, how old are you? I thought based on your picture that you were 30-35, which would make you 25-30 at the time the book was published.

  3. Tyler DiPietro says:

    I’m 20.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    Ah, okay… that makes more sense.

  5. SLC says:

    Re Herrnstein

    1. What is most interesting is that Herrnstein, along with William Shockley and Arthur Jensen based much of their earlier work on the alleged intellectual inferiority of black Americans on the studies of Cyril Burt. None of these scholars apologized or in any revised their claims when it was discovered that Burts’ studies on identical were fraudulent.

    2. If I recall correctly, Herrnstein also published papers in the periodical Mankind Quarterly which was an unabashed racist publication. Birds of a feather flock together.

  6. SLC says:

    Correction

    should read, “Burts’ studies on identical twins.”

  7. The style of writing is quite familiar . Have you written guest posts for other blogs?

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