Steven Pinker is a critical thinker and it is critical to him that you think so. That’s because he has recently written a book titled ‘Rationality: What it is, Why it Seems Scarce, Why it Matters’, and he wants you to buy it. It is important therefore that you trust him to approach the subject matter in an authoritative, competent and, dare I say it, rational manner. As a Harvard psychologist he certainly ticks the first box and, one would hope, the second also. However, rationality is a lot more elusive than authority and competence, and I’m afraid that leaves open a lot of scope for even the finest amongst us to drop the ball. I hope Professor Pinker would not be too offended by my suggestion that there are parts of his book that beautifully exemplify his most important message: that there is no one amongst us who can avoid the omnipresence of irrationality. It’s just part of the human condition.

Don’t get me wrong. As a primer in the subject of irrationality and the various ways in which it fails us, his book does a fine job. It’s all there: logical fallacies, cognitive biases, probability theory, Bayesian reasoning, decision theory, game theory, causal analysis and a lot more. All subjects are covered lucidly and, as far as I can see, it’s all technically correct as far as it goes. I could complain that he doesn’t go far enough because he fails to properly grasp the nature of uncertainty and how it relates to risk, but that is not my main concern here (besides which, I have previously commented upon the average cognitive psychologist’s grasp of uncertainty analysis). The real problem is that you can’t adequately communicate a point without providing real world examples, and as soon as you do so you run the risk of revealing one’s own prejudices and how they have impacted upon one’s rationale. This problem was evident as early as page 42, where Pinker poses the following pair of rhetorical questions:

“Was the Holocaust just one of the many possible narratives? Is climate change a social construction?”

Yes, I’m afraid Professor Pinker is one of those who thinks climate change scepticism can be mentioned in the same breath as Holocaust denial. And he doesn’t let up. Throughout the book, whenever he wanted to illustrate a point by reference to the quintessentially cognitively impaired thinker, he invariably picked upon either the climate sceptic or those who were supposedly irrational enough to doubt that Covid-19 vaccines could be anything other than the perfectly safe and effective interventions that the vaccine producers claimed them to be. And, if there were to be any doubt that he was on safe ground, he was always able to point out that everyone’s paragon of irrationality, Donald Trump, fell into both categories. So no, we are not here to sip tea with the good professor whilst debating the finer points of extreme weather event attribution studies, or the epistemic validity of climate model ensembles; we are instead classroom examples of what can go wrong when people fail to appreciate the rationality of following the crowd. Why do I say that? Well, it’s because of this Pinkerian insight on page 305:

“[E]ven among the highly educated, scientific understanding is shallow. Few people can explain why the sky is blue or why the seasons change, let alone population genetics or viral immunology. Instead, educated people trust the university-based scientific establishment: its consensus is good enough for them.”

Well, maybe good enough for you Professor Pinker, but isn’t that a good example of the very sort of irrationality that you had warned your reader to avoid on pages 3, 4, 90 and 291, where you referred to it as ‘argument from authority’? The fact that belief in scientific consensus is a good heuristic does not make it infallible. In fact, most cognitive biases are good heuristics that can often go wrong. That is the basis for treating them as an irrationality.

The problem with arguing from authority is that it can lower the threshold for the committal of further violations of critical thinking, all seemingly okay because one takes as axiomatic the fact that the unauthorised view is itself the product of irrationality. So Pinker seems to see nothing wrong with assuming guilt through association (by constantly playing the Trump card), affirming the consequent (e.g. people who deny evidence can become climate change ‘deniers’. So if you are a climate change ‘denier’ you must be the sort who denies evidence), begging the question (climate change scepticism must be irrational because rational thinking leads to the acceptance of climate change), straw man arguments (climate change sceptics are just conspiracy theorists) and false comparisons (Holocaust denial and climate change scepticism are equally irrational).

Worse still, argument from authority can lead to some pretty dangerous proposals for combatting a presupposed growth in irrationality. Having disapprovingly observed that university campuses are becoming increasingly hostile to heterodox views, Pinker proclaims that:

“Like universities, news and opinion sites ought to be paragons of viewpoint diversity and critical thinking.”

Yes, yes, Steven, that is an excellent idea. What more do you have to add, Steven?

“To their credit, journalists have become more mindful of the way they can be played by disingenuous politicians and contribute to post-truth miasmas, and have begun to implement countermeasures like fact-checking, labelling false claims and not repeating them, stating facts affirmatively and not negatively, correcting errors openly and swiftly, and avoiding false balance between experts and cranks.”

No, no, Steven, that’s a terrible idea. How can you in one breath call for viewpoint diversity and in the very next hand over to journalists the role of deciding what is factual and true, based upon who they deem to be disingenuous or cranky? Have you not looked at some of these journalists? And I have to add, Steven, that you have some pretty naïve ideas regarding trusted sources:

“Wikipedia, in contrast, though not infallible, has become an astonishingly accurate resource despite being free and decentralised. That is because it implements intensive error correction and quality control, supported by ‘pillars’ that are designed to marginalise myside biases.”

Furthermore, why are you so pleased to be reporting the following initiative from those notoriously even-handed custodians of social media?

“The platforms have tuned their algorithms to stop rewarding dangerous falsehoods, inserted warning labels and fact-checking links, and damped down the runaway dynamics that can viralize toxic content and send people down extremist rabbit holes.”

So all is good then. No need to worry about abuse of power now that the IT magnates get to define what is toxic.

As I say, this must all seem very benign to Professor Pinker because, after all, we are dealing with unauthorised views that are therefore axiomatically irrational. And let us not forget:

“False beliefs about vaccines, public health measures and climate change threaten the well-being of billions.”

So there is an obvious moral imperative to the suppression of what Pinker sees as irrationality dressed up as an alternative perspective.

But despite all of this, there is one proposal that Pinker makes that I find very easy to agree with:

“In opinion journalism, pundits could be judged by the accuracy of their forecasts rather than their ability to sow fear and loathing or to fire up a faction.”

If by that he means stop sowing fear of an imminent existential threat from climate change, then I couldn’t agree more. If he means stop fomenting the loathing of those who have their doubts, then sign me up. And if he means stop firing up a faction that believes that the nobility of their cause justifies criminality and the endangerment of the public, then I say what is there not to like?

But somehow I don’t think he means any of the above. Pinker is a critical thinker, and it is critical to him that we think in step. Not to do so would be – well, uneducated, in his book.


  1. Nicely done, John. I wonder if Mr Pinker read the final proof before going to print? And, if so, did he simply not recognise that he has arguably failed his own test?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Dr. Pinker apparently climbs the tree high enugh to reveal himself as a shallow, derivative reactionay aparatchik.


  3. It’s very disappointing to read this part John:

    This problem was evident as early as page 42, where Pinker poses the following pair of rhetorical questions:

    “Was the Holocaust just one of the many possible narratives? Is climate change a social construction?”

    Yes, I’m afraid Professor Pinker is one of those who thinks climate change scepticism can be mentioned in the same breath as Holocaust denial. And he doesn’t let up.

    Back in October 2021 I pointed to a video discussion between Jordan Peterson, Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt where I thought Pinker contributed admirably. As it happens I’ve just in the last 24 hours finished watching Peterson’s recent podcast with Judith Curry. What he says about the ‘rhetorical move’ of the climate denier trope is well worth a replay:

    That should jump right there, adverts allowing.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I think Professor Pinker is guilty of a logical fallacy by treating climate change as some kind of binary belief system. Like God, either you believe in climate change or not. While there may well be a consensus around the effects of carbon dioxide emissions on the average temperature of the planet, there is no apparent consensus on climate catastrophe and the coming apocalypse. Unlike Holocaust denial, climate scepticism is a nuanced and complex subject which, surprisingly, Professor Pinker appears to choose to ignore.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. “[E]ven among the highly educated, scientific understanding is shallow. Few people can explain why the sky is blue or why the seasons change, let alone population genetics or viral immunology.

    Not good on viral immunology, but the others are not too much of an issue for me, and most people who know me will admit it. Including that the sky isn’t blue, btw, it just looks blue in most conditions.

    However if I make a non-mainstream opinion on climate change, suddenly I know nothing. Despite making it very clear that I have even read the IPCC documents, which they have not.

    No, I’m not sure how that works either.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Mark,

    I feel sure that Pinker is perfectly happy with what he has written. The quality of his writing seems to suggest that it was the result of very careful thinking. However, there is a theme that I have been complaining about for some time now, and Pinker’s book illustrates it quite nicely. Cognitive psychologists of all stripes, from the Steven Pinkers of this world right down to the John Cooks, have been jumping onto the climate denier bashing bandwagon because it gives them the perfect excuse to flaunt what they now about how people reason. The problem is, however, that they seem strangely preoccupied with the supposed cognitive failings of the sceptic and not in the least bit interested in exploring how the same insights could be applied to the development of climate change belief – or at least the belief in imminent disaster that can only be averted by a mad dash to net zero. This is an example of Bias Bias (or Bias Blind Spot), i.e. an ability to see cognitive bias in the reasoning of others whilst failing to recognise how it also applies to the group to which one affiliates. They will even tell you about Bias Bias (page 291 in Pinker’s book) whilst committing it. That I find fascinating.


    Pinker is what you call a celebrity intellectual . Say no more.


    I too have been impressed by Steven Pinker’s work and I have a number of his books. It is always worthwhile listening to him. However, whilst I enjoyed his latest effort, it did grate on me that he was basically covering the same stuff that John Cook has been peddling. The other thing is this: there was very little in his book that I didn’t already know from reading elsewhere, and yet I am still what he would call a climate change denier. Go figure.


    You are absolutely right. It is the False Dichotomy fallacy, as covered on page 100 of Pinker’s book. As such, I should have added it to my list of fallacies committed by Pinker whilst he writes about them.


    On page 56 Pinker talks about ‘rational ignorance’. Maybe that is what he is applying when he trusts the scientific consensus. And maybe he thinks you are guilty of irrational erudition.


    Yes, Pinker finds himself in a very safe place. No one but the accused will complain, and those complaints will fall on deaf ears.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. John:

    I too have been impressed by Steven Pinker’s work and I have a number of his books. It is always worthwhile listening to him.

    You are a number of Pinker books ahead of me then. I was thinking as I read your review that I will almost certainly never read this book, or others by him, before I pop my clogs. My thought bubble wasn’t really completed in what I wrote in haste last night. It seemed to me that there was manifest respect shown by Pinker towards Peterson in that interaction in 2021 – and in other places towards Thomas Sowell for that matter (but that’s another story I don’t have time for this morning). Yet Peterson has been taking a far different trajectory from Pinker and the pseudo-thinker John Cook. He is, for me, a brilliant example of clear thinking and courage in this crucial area of climate/energy power-seeking and dogma. And Elon Musk’s fervent agreement with Peterson on climate at the start of the year was a big part of why I coined the phrase ‘Good Cheer’. Well, I ever so slightly simplify. But thank you for reading and reviewing here with a clear head and an eye for human fallibility.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Richard,

    Ironically, I would recommend his book to someone such as yourself much more readily than I would to the man in the street. You would probably appreciate reading a competently presented summary of the technicalities of rationality, whilst being able to withstand his climate change prejudice. On that issue I would worry that the average person would be too susceptible to accepting the views of a well-read and articulate intellectual. In fact, I suspect it would be Pinker’s atheism that you would find most problematic, rather than his glib approach to the subject of climate change scepticism.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I haven’t found Pinker’s atheism a problem so far John 😉 Whatever our beliefs there are things in the world that are not as they should be.

    I pray for that family. I only read those tweets today and they moved me. And I would recommend Pete Greig’s prayer on “happy-crappy” Valentine’s Day yesterday. The world is not as it should be.


  10. In the title of his book, Pinker suggested that rationality is in short supply in the word right now. Well he got that right. Here is a couple of news items that recently received equal (side-by-side) billing on the BBC news website:

    The first reports upon a dangerous escalation in the Ukraine war. The second reports on how a group of dancers were thrown off balance because a routine they had rehearsed on a clockwise rotating platform was performed on the night with the platform accidentally rotating anti-clockwise.

    An important aspect of rationality is a consistency in the level of concern expressed, given the importance of getting something wrong. It’s a basic of decision theory and all the evidence seems to suggest that, as a species, we have seriously lost the plot.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Great critical review, John. I haven’t read much Pinker, but what I have read has never inspired me. A bit like Shermer, he doesn’t seem (in my admittedly small sampling) to have any fundamental insights of his own, his views seem more like a distilled or compressed (like audio compression) version of received knowledge, of what is currently ‘accepted’. All seemingly very reasonable, but revealing nothing new, and as you note containing basic errors imported by dint of simply not questioning enough what is currently accepted. I used to follow his regular spats with David Sloane Wilson; I don’t by any means agree with DSW on everything (for instance, his promotion of ‘pro-social’ groups as universally good when they clearly have major downsides), but I rooted for him every time, because he had deep insight of his own and was nowhere near so prone to merely accepting stuff; he questioned more, and so his arguments were much less propped up by authority or other bias.

    As you note, psychologists of all stripes have jumped on the bandwagon. The whole field appears to have taken a wrong turn, with huge import far beyond the climate domain. With the partial exception of Kahan, they are studiously avoiding proper investigation of major commonalities that likely reveal what drives mass public attitudes on a whole range of social conflicts. Commonalities that are so very obvious (and in the climate case, easily measurable too) that the ordinary person on the street both knows and says that XR or extreme trans rights groups are cults. To a first approximation, they are right. But the psychologists appear to be frightened of disturbing the status quo, or raising questions which even hint that deniers of all stripes may have been wrongly placed on the naughty step. We even have, to paraphrase, “yes that’s a bit cultish, but it’s on the right side so that’s okay, and in the circumstances forgivable”; they actively avoid pulling on the thread to see that this then fishes up a cable which then fishes up a hawser, clearly showing that some bulk mainstream opinion is cultural too, and so very much not on a ‘right’ side (all strong cultural narratives are necessarily wrong).

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Andy,

    >We even have, to paraphrase, “yes that’s a bit cultish, but it’s on the right side so that’s okay, and in the circumstances forgivable”

    I’m afraid that seems to be the view generally held by the educated middle-class. For example, take this dewy-eyed magistrate’s judgement – the latest in a long line of what is now obligatory court apologies:

    He called the accused protesters “good people with the right motivation”. One can imagine that, if only the law could be changed in their favour, he would have been with them glued to any available infrastructure.

    As for Pinker, I think what you say regarding lack of originality is certainly true of his latest effort. The concluding chapters were particularly disappointing. No fascinating and original slant taken; rather just a lame regurgitation of the establishment view.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. John, yep. You’d think the fact that the judge found their explanations ‘deeply emotive’, might be a clue to the fact that rationality had been squeezed out of said explanations. And he cites mainstream / IPCC science as supporting a ‘climate crisis’, when however wrong or right it may be, it nevertheless does no such thing.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. from that BBC judge link at the end –
    “The Judicial Office said Just Stop Oil had issued a misleading account of what the judge had said and shared the full wording of his sentencing remarks with the BBC.”

    not that it makes much difference, but he ends with this –
    “”In simple terms you are good people with admirable aims. However, if good people with the right motivation do the wrong thing it can never make that wrong thing right, it can only ever act as substantial mitigation.”

    Liked by 3 people

  15. John:

    An important aspect of rationality is a consistency in the level of concern expressed, given the importance of getting something wrong. It’s a basic of decision theory and all the evidence seems to suggest that, as a species, we have seriously lost the plot.

    Sorry for not commenting sooner on this (though it did get an immediate like) but it is so important. And it does go straight back to Pinker plonking climate scepticism right next to questioning the Holocaust. What’s the bad effect of the latter? We’re not so on the ball in preventing the next genocide. What’s the impact of getting some detail of the climate/energy nexus wrong according to the esteemed authorities? A trifling change in global GDP in 100 years, of which we probably don’t even know the sign. They’re completely incommensurate.


  16. One thing I noticed about the “skeptic” community, was how deeply unsceptical they are. They take no positions which would trouble a moderately educated Westerner.

    They are deeply proud about how they see through the rubes with medical woo, aliens and ghosts, but never once step outside the box themselves. It was a profoundly depressing experience reading their forums once I realised that.

    Pinker would appear to be the same. He fights a good fight against the blank slate — which should be obvious to anyone not ideologically committed to the opposite — but appears to have no energy for anything else.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Richard,

    My apologies for not replying earlier.

    A major problem with determining whether the popular level of concern regarding climate change is rational (in comparison, say, to the level of concern regarding the threat of nuclear war) is that the political impetus for an accelerated transition to net zero is being determined by parties who are quite open in advocating the ‘social amplification of risk’. As a result, there is a great deal of rational concern shown by people who are quite unaware of the deliberative irrationality that their advisors have employed. Cognitive scientists are playing a critical role in this by framing scepticism as a failure of critical thinking whilst making no effort to balance the debate. For example, the availability heuristic is an irrationality that sceptics are supposed to be guilty of, and yet it can be a useful tool when it comes to encouraging adherence to climate change policies.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. John, while NZ is indeed pushed as you say, we can nevertheless measure that bulk attitudes on climate change among publics across the globe are clearly irrational, both in support of or in resistance to climate catastrophist narratives (which essentially squeeze out all other info).

    This is exactly because, long before NZ even, the main message has been pushed irrationally for decades. Those who hang out around climate blogs or other sources of knowledge, and who at least have a chance of being rational based on what they learn there, are not only a minority but likely a pretty small one. The rest of publics essentially know nothing, except an emotive narrative of catastrophe that has been fed to them for decades, which they either emotively support, or emotively reject, or in fact both together but under different circumstances, and all depending on their prior values.

    In fact, it is even the case that trying to feed the public more (genuine) knowledge would not work to fix this situation anymore, because publics across the globe now mainly view climate change knowledge itself – whatever it contains – as cultural. This isn’t a conscious view, but it comes out in their answers to whether they feel they need more CC info or not. Those who treat it as cultural and positive want more info (which at the moment is indeed more cultural info, because any mainstream supplier of same supports catastrophe), and those who treat it as cultural and negative, say they don’t need any more info (they probably feel they’ve been saturated in it already). If you plot both these answers on a purely cultural axis (national religiosity), you get strongly polarizing trends, which could not be the case if the answers were based upon rationality. The trends confirm cultural (allied) belief (black), and rejection (innate scepticism – grey).

    Liked by 2 people

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