Saturday, December 22, 2007

Comments from the TED Site

I had a lot of criticisms to make about Steven Pinker's talk on violence (on the TED site and embedded above). These comments were put up on the TED site--and naturally, lots of people disagreed. Part of the discussion is shown below (chronology moves from bottom to top):

Sandro Magi – December 18 2007
I'm glad we've converged. I don't think Pinker wanted to detract from the dangers of war, as we all know they can be quite devastating. Biological warfare stands to become particularly dangerous. I agree that state coercion is a serious problem, and I took Pinker's presentation as an appropriate counter-response to sensationalist media coverage and terrorist propaganda driving people to give governments enough rope to hang us with. Also, the less rope the government has, the more difficult it would be for them to unilaterally declare war and unleash nuclear horrors on the world. I think it's a worthy goal, and very much in line with your own ends. If anything, Pinker's presentation bolsters your own agenda for limiting state coercion, as any additional security or controls the state seeks are clearly unnecessary.

Edit | Delete john wallen – December 18 2007
For me, the modern state's surveillance of the individual and perpetual threat of violence against bodies is a subtle extension of violence itself. If Pinker only wants to make the point that I am less likely to die at the hands of another male than in tribal society, then no doubt that is fair enough. On the other hand, his model doesn't take into consideration the fact that any future world war--unlike past world wars--is likely to prove devastatingly destructive for the human race with nuclear arsenals released on both sides.

Flag this comment Sandro Magi – December 17 2007
wallen, I feel we are talking past each other. No one has ever questioned that in terms of absolute numbers the 20th century has probably been the bloodiest in history; that's a natural result of scaling the population up.

The entire point of this talk, is that the *relative* level of violence has decreased, ie. the violence per capita. To throw out numbers, where perhaps >30% of people in tribal societies died at the hands of another human, only 4.5% died in such a fashion in the 20th century.

The absolute and relative numbers are two very different quantitative measures, and while the the former is ideally the number we'd like to reduce to zero, the latter is an indicator that progress is being made. So I strongly disagree with your assertion that it's not of gripping importance, as everyone's quality of life has improved as a result of that very real progress.

Also, these type of facts are important to combat the environment of fear and suspicion that governments seek to engender in their populations in order to justify their power grabs, an end I would think you would support. Only by spreading these facts can we hope to counter the rhetoric of fear.

Edit | Delete john wallen – December 17 2007
As the world population has almost quadrupled in the last 100 years, I would imagine that murders and civil violence are at an all time high too. Really, for me, whether I am more or less likely to be killed at the hands of another male in this century, is not of gripping importance. Humans have always been capable of killing each other and still are. At a conservative estimate at least 150 million people have died in wars in the 20th century--and I repeat that is far, far more than in any other century in human history. Moreover, it has been nasty mechanized war. Therefore, I repeat that one could also make a model where the 20th century is viewed as the most violent in human history. Pinker interprets the figures in the way he wishes too--and others will do the same.

Flag this comment Sandro Magi – December 17 2007
wallen, your analytical approach suffers from selection bias: warfare is not the only cause of death, nor may it even be a predominant source of human-caused death. As such, it would not be a reliable measure of our likelihood of dying at the hands of another human. What about muggings? First, second and third degree murders?

The state of warfare today is clearly more dangerous than it has been in the past, and yet we can argue that there are fewer wars, and they are resolved more quickly and decisively. Where is the modern equivalent of the Hundred Year war? Where are the Crusades, or the invading armies of Genghis Khan, Alexander or Rome? Humans often suffer from selection bias, particularly in our memories, and as such, we can forget how blood thirsty our history has really been.

However, you may be right that more died in warfare than in the past. That's irrelevant though, as that is only part of the statistical probability that factors into my likelihood of death by another human. But if you truly believe the raw data supports your view, then perhaps you can point me to this data that I may inspect it myself. A quick search turned up this:

Which supports Pinker's assertion that the likelihood of me dying at the hand of another human this century is very low (4.5%); further, I find it very hard to believe that I have a smaller chance of dying at the hands of a human on the streets of 18th century London.

Edit | Delete john wallen – December 17 2007
Sandro, personally I see someone interpreting statistics in a way that is suitable to him and then saying it's scientific. I can reasonably claim the exact opposite of Pinker on the basis of the raw data. I can set up a model that totals up the number of people killed in warfare throughout the centuries and say that as the 20th century saw far more people killed in warfare than any previous century, that century is, in fact, the most violent century of all. As for Foucault having his critics--don't we all? Even Pinker no doubt! All thinkers have their critics and it's easy to find pages and pages of criticism of just about everybody on the web. This is no doubt just ,as all thinkers make lots of errors. In fact, such close attention from those who disagree is usually a sign of relative success rather than failure!

Flag this comment Sandro Magi – December 17 2007
john wallen, indeed the statistics are not the same, as Pinker and others have already pointed out. But you are convinced of the contrary, so no need to dwell on this.

I will instead agree with you that the centralization of power can easily result in the abuse of power; this very lesson can be seen in communist states without "benevolent dictators", and even in the U.S. where the Constitution is being subverted as we speak. However, it does not follow that concentration of power is necessary and sufficient for its abuse. Systems of governance which appropriately distribute powers with checks and balances can eventually address any injustices, and the benefits of such governance on the whole outweigh the injustices. Capitalism is a good start in this regard, as it distributes control into many hands, rather than concentrating it in a few; it's only a partial solution however.

As for Foucault, many of his arguments are widely discredited elsewhere [1], though he was likely right about some things. Also, I do not believe that I proposed any interpretation of the data beyond what Pinker himself stated.

I don't understand your question regarding the economic base, but I will interpret it as a question about the economic differences between capitalist and tribal societies: econonmics is the study of resources. We now place far more strain on resources than we ever have in the past, and despite this additional resource contention, we have lower rates of violence per capita, when one would expect the contrary all else being equal. Thus, all else is not equal, and Pinker outlines 4 reasons he has heard for this trend. Neither he nor I can say whether any of those reasons are correct, but the facts stand regardless: people now experience greater stability and safety than they have in the past [2]. If you mean something else, please clarify.

Finally, science subsumes philosophy, and we should all endeavour to support our beliefs with facts, and abandon them should they fail the appropriate tests, despite how cherished they may be; progress is made only by scientific discovery, not by rhetoric.

[2] on average of course, which is the realm of statistical reasoning; specific locales and times will affect the likelihood of experiencing violence.

Edit | Delete john wallen – December 16 2007
Sandro I tend to accept Foucault's ideas on violence. Of course this is to sound a rather unusual note in this mostly self congratulatory forum for evolutionary psychology. Foucault believed that with the development of the modern state, people with power had greater possibilities than ever before to inflict violence on their own people (I wonder if Pinker included Stalin's estimated murder of 20 million of his own people in his figures?). Foucault particularly referred to the power of the "bio-state" that controls its citizens from the cradle to the grave (and kills them if necessary). Anyone interested can read his conclusions. I don't see why I should explain them to a clearly unsympathetic audience. Furthermore, I have a life to lead and have no time for posts of enormous length such as Sandro's admirable effort. In the end those who are already convinced will support Pinker. I will just say that Sandro's explanation/interpretation of the statistical data is really quite absurd. What about the economic base? Statistics for a hunter gatherer society are hardly likely to be the same as for a highly developed capitalist society.

Flag this comment Sandro Magi – December 16 2007
craig plescia, you'd be hard-pressed to argue that indirect violence is more prevalent nowadays, not just because of a lack of reliable data, but because such violence was very prevalent in the past as well. Re: apathy, as Pinker's presentation demonstrates, apathy over a stranger's suffering is at an all-time LOW in the history of humanity. Where 100 years ago people would think 'better him than me', people now actually openly protest against such acts.

Fred Feuerstein, conflict over resources are probably the oldest wars known to humanity. The increased use of open trade means we are more likely to resolve any shortage of resources peacefully than ever before.

Rashad Samedzade, his point is that fewer people have been dying in conflicts since the 50s, and he outlined the reasons shortly after. For instance, consider how peaceful history would seem if no one actually reported the wars. Increased news coverage does not imply an increase in news; if anything, increased coverage of conflicts elsewhere is just a sign that there is no local news; no news is good news!

A good point was raised though: what if the reduction in violent death is due to improved medicine and technology. To that I say: we're still better off! Pinker also noted many instances of documented societal norms which demonstrate a marked decrease in our acceptance of cruelty, such as burning a cat alive for entertainment; those are very hard to dispel so easily.

Gregory Scott, I found his treatment of human naivete and "selective memory" to be appropriately light. I think he was making the point that we all fall prey to Bacon's "Idol of the Den" where we romanticize certain notions despite all evidence to the contrary.

Audrey Manning, Pinker never said that people have changed or have become less violent, one of his points was that we have changed the circumstances such that we are better able to minimize violence (centralizing authority to commit violence). In the constant nature/nurture debate, there is considerable room for changing attitudes towards appropriate conflict resolution, despite an inherent survival instinct. Nowadays people rarely resort to sword duels or knife fights for an insult.

George Alexander, the fact that such biblical acts are no longer WIDESPREAD is the convincing part of Pinker's argument. That they're still practiced "somewhere" is irrelevant.

Klavs Sedlenieks, the fact pre-horticultural "tribes" didn't have a village to invade because they weren't in the same location for very long contributed to the decreased incidence of violence. Also, the rise of horticulture increased the population and subsequently the pressure on scarce resources, so of course increased violence results. The only way to decrease pressure on resources is remove consumers or increase production. Both have happened frequently in our history.

Maxx Toler, absolute numbers are irrelevant when dispelling fears based on probability; do you care that hundreds of thousands die in car accidents when you get in your car? Probably not, as the likelihood of you dying in a crash are small. You are correct that circumstances matter though, and while we perhaps are not less violent biologically speaking, we have established ways to curb that violence.

Larry Ray, you have raised an excellent point. The increased centralization of power in authorities has resulted in increased dangers to the public as a whole.

maniza naqvi, the widespread viewing of such violent materials may in fact curb violent tendencies. If you need any further convincing that we live in a less violent time, then take a look at your average life expectancy. If you're older than 30 and you lived even a few hundred years ago, you would likely be dead right now.

Adam Hicks, the false reality addressed in this talk is the nostalgic view that the past was a relative utopia, and that society is falling into the crapper. In reality, the past is riddled with murder, maiming, cruelty, and domestic abuse, and these were ACCEPTED practices. Despite the fact these sometimes still occur, the key there is SOMETIMES. The very fact that most people are now actually horrified of these very concepts is proof of the thesis. Your comments on Western society identify you as one of the people Pinker was addressing with this talk: one who criticizes western ideals, while reaping its benefits. Western ideals are the absolute worst, except for all the others.

Stan Barton, I think it's pretty obvious that president's have significant clout on violent issues. If Clinton were still in office, would the U.S. be in Iraq right now? I'd say it's far less likely, as Clinton promoted more peaceful resolutions than Bush. As a Canadian, I'm only indirectly affected by the U.S.'s choice of president, but this point should be loud and clear. I agree with you that the rise of economics has curbed nations' tendencies to wage war. Economics shapes many aspects of our lives, as affluent cultures are less likely to kill each other, reproduce, and so on. Perhaps the bureaucracy of economics will one day stop all wars? "I'm sorry Mr. President, all our money is tied up in trade investments at the moment. Perhaps you'd like to file a protest and increase tariffs instead?"

Stewart Mayart, the very fact that we have fewer violent deaths per capita DESPITE our increased pressure on resources is the salient point to take from this talk.

Zac Albrecht-Heiks, one cannot morally judge a species or a race or a people, one can only judge individuals. Thus, if there is less violence, then fewer of us are violent, and more of us are good. I would certainly praise my son for going for choosing the non-lethal resolution if there was a choice.

Pradeep KallurViswanathaRao, that they are different is entirely the point. Our norms are less violent.

Darrell Kern, I fail to see what GG&S contributes to this. Every person here, including yourself, who has judged Pinker for his presentation, as nervous, shifty, or outright evil as you have, is guilty of the very attitudes that result in violence: demonizing. Pinker himself covered this in his talk, where people "looked after their own", and the rest were demonized as subhuman to justify their cruel treatment. Your false dichotomy of "us vs. them" serves only to increase tensions and demonize "the enemy" as justification for pending cruelty. Your use of the very tactics which you criticize Pinker marks your entire comment as the epitome of ironic hypocrisy.

James Mikkelsen, when dealing with probabilities, absolute numbers are meaningless. If the birth rate sky rocketed, the death rate should similarly sky rocket all else being equal. The fact that it didn't is evidence that all else is not equal, and what changed to produce this reduction in violence is the very subject of the talk.

Benjamin Funar and Darrell Plank, I whole-heartedly agree. Idolizing the past is a sure sign of our biases and selective memory.

john wallen, as I stated earlier, population growth has nothing to do with statistics (except when performing the initial analysis of course); the trends that hold for 1,000 people hold for 1,000,000,000 people, all else being equal; if 50% died violently in the past, then 50% should be dying violently now. That they aren't is the historical improvement of which Pinker speaks. Further, your implication that coercion and threat are somehow "new" to this century is completely ludicrous; most mammals use the threat of violence to maintain their alpha status in the pack. Institutionalizing force is nothing new either; go talk to the Catholic Church and their Inquisitors in particular, as they have almost 2,000 years of history to teach you. If you meant something else, please clarify.

Edit | Delete john wallen – December 16 2007
I don't believe the relevant question is the one you pose at all. Perhaps this is the relevant question for you: it certainly isn't for me. For me, the relevant question is: have we evolved to a point where violence or the threat of violence is less important than it was in the past?-and the answer, quite obviously, is "no". If all Pinker wants to say is that because the population keeps increasing, then as a percentage of the population less men will die in wars, then that is rather a non-point! No doubt if this process continues, we will suffer the violence of civil strife as people battle for scarce resources. At heart, Pinker is a Utopian who believes that everything is always getting better.

Flag this comment Chris Anderson – December 16 2007
John, it makes no sense to focus on gross numbers. The 20th century may have seen a lot of people die in war, but it also saw vastly more people live long, happy lives than ever before.... both factors driven by the explosion in population. The relevant question is what are the chances that any ONE human life will be cut short by violence. And you get to that answer by looking at PERCENTAGE of a given population killed by wars or violence. So Pinker is correct to focus on that measure, and the fact that it has plummeted over the past few thousand years is indeed counter-intuitive. That is what makes this talk important.

Edit | Delete john wallen – December 15 2007
Jose, it's clear that man is not becoming less violent. The 20th Century has been the most violent in history. This is not merely a scientific question, but a social question too. Pinker says: "Our ancestors were far more violent than we are". I totally reject this and deny that there is anything scientific about such a statement. Pinker uses warped statistics (as pointed out in the blog you mention). Population has quadrupled in the 20th century, so his statistics are way out of kilter. If he'd made a graph of the NUMBERS of people killed in warfare throughout history then the 20th century would easily have come out on top with over 100 million deaths. Furthermore, Pinker totally ignores work by thinkers such as Foucault in this area, which has demonstrated that in modern societies violence has become institutionalized with the THREAT of violence often becoming more important than violence itself. Pinker wants to imply that evolution (of man and society) is making man less violent: a conclusion that is qualitatively and quantitatively untrue. Only the methods of coercion change.

Flag this comment José Tavares – December 15 2007

Here's an excerpt of the blog you've linked:

"(...) Now, Steven Pinker was not happy with such vagueness and developed the idea that children's innate grasp of grammar is a product of natural selection rather than mind per se. Natural selection developed the neural networks conducive to language acquisition when it became necessary for people to speak. On the basis of this flimsy distinction, Pinker came up with the idea that language is an "instinct"."

That's not a scientific blog nor does it contain any scientific references.

While I do agree that 'violence' is not decreasing on a per-individual basis, that's precisely because, just like 'the mind' & the 'language ability', it's a product of evolution.
Probably, Pinker wants to stress that, still in accordance with evolution, the interplay between our modern cortexes & the 'reptilian complex' allows us to have more control on our instincts/emotions/feelings, as 'aggressiveness' is somewhat less necessary to survival. Actually, it hasn't been proven that our 'r-complex' has receded or in any other way been modified but through this interplay with the upper cortexes. This can lead to a less determinat role of 'aggressiveness'.

Pinker is a cognitive psychologist, much on the same trend as Daniel Denett.
Behavioural neurobiologists (like Damasio & others), have a different perspective on what concerns the mechanisms which drive the evolutionary brain and its emergent manifestations.

I can only state that, if the harwired potential for language is based on the brainstem, like any instincts, language itself must have come from the interplay of this primitive brain with the more recent 'brain', the Lymbic System and the Neo-Cortex. And, this interplay would become hardwired, as well.


Edit | Delete john wallen – December 15 2007
For more information on why Pinker is so wrong, see:

Edit | Delete john wallen – December 15 2007
Those "inconvenient facts" are fairly meaningless. For example, they clearly don't take into consideration huge population growth in the last hundred years. Furthermore, Pinker's "subliminal" message is that we are improving and becoming less violent. This is clearly untrue; we have merely made violence more subtle: coercion or the threat of coercion still underpins everything we do. It's a bit like the MAD period between the U.S. and the Soviet Union: actual violence might not take place, but that is only because the THREAT of destruction hangs over us all.


Blogger ely said...

è un bel video e composizione

3:42 AM  
Anonymous nakedape said...

Pinker's point is...what? Violence is on the decline? That would be a dangerous conclusion. Human activity has been, is and always will be based on violence.

Open your eyes Pinker!

7:47 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

You say that Pinker's model doesn't "take into consideration the fact that any future world war--unlike past world wars--is likely to prove devastatingly destructive for the human race with nuclear arsenals released on both sides." I don't see how it could be expected to, since it isn't a predictive or even explanatory model, but a descriptive one. As such it can only include events that have already taken place. Furthermore you seem fixated on war, even though that is not precisely the issue he is addressing. When measuring how violent a society is, one must take into account more than just the raw total. AS I said in the other thread, claiming that modern humans are more violent than their ancestors on such a basis is like claiming that the vastly greater number of American births than Canadian births shows that Americans are more fertile. There can be no comparison. Rather than considering how likely you are to die by another man's hand, try comparing the likelihood of you taking a life. In the more violent society, any individual should be more likely to commit acts of violence, correct?

2:57 AM  
Blogger John Wallen said...

So if there is a nuclear war the model will be proved wrong? Or will supporters still say that Pinker was right because people are not being killed directly by other men?

The parameters of Pinker's argument are far too narrow to have much real meaning.

1:54 AM  
Anonymous Darrell Kern said...

Darrell Kern, I fail to see what GG&S contributes to this. Every person here, including yourself, who has judged Pinker for his presentation, as nervous, shifty, or outright evil as you have, is guilty of the very attitudes that result in violence: demonizing. Pinker himself covered this in his talk, where people "looked after their own", and the rest were demonized as subhuman to justify their cruel treatment. Your false dichotomy of "us vs. them" serves only to increase tensions and demonize "the enemy" as justification for pending cruelty. Your use of the very tactics which you criticize Pinker marks your entire comment as the epitome of ironic hypocrisy.

This was the very point I was trying to make- in my own way. I watched Pinker's video on ted- and that was my reaction to the materials- I found it to be the epitome of ironic hypocrisy!

What better way to express the truth is there than to respond to what is being presented? While I agree that I am no statesman nor will ever be a diplomat- it is obvious that the above response to my statement was accurately communicated by a third party.

You really should read what I wrote about Bill Clinton winning the TED prize! That will certainly spin your noodle!

Nice blog, btw.

5:49 PM  
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4:25 AM  

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