GAZETTE: Can you apply that directly to the opposition to vaccines and masks? Doctors and scientists would say that those beliefs are pretty irrational, but millions of people share them, despite scientific studies that prove they save lives.
PINKER: Opposition to vaccination goes back to the origin of vaccination itself, because it’s intuitively unnatural, indeed repugnant, to inject a disease organism into your body. The people who do resist that intuition are those who trust the scientific establishment: “Whatever the people in white coats say is good enough for me.” But people who are alienated from the political and scientific mainstream have no reason to doubt their intuitions.
Another contributor is the Myside bias, probably the most powerful of all the cognitive biases, namely, if something becomes an article of faith within your own coalition, and if promoting it earns you status, that is what you believe. It’s somewhat arbitrary which positions get attached to which coalitions, but with Trumpian populism, opposition to vaccines became a rallying point of the political right. It wasn’t always this way. It used to be the tree-hugging Mr. and Ms. Naturals who were suspicious of vaccines — a romantic opposition to science and tech made vaccine resistance a leftish cause. But now it’s more attached to the right. In either case, people are more adamant about protecting the sacred beliefs of their political tribe than looking at the best evidence.
GAZETTE: Do you think that people are more or less prone to rational or rational or irrational beliefs and actions today than in the past?
PINKER: I’m always suspicious of the leap from “Things are bad today” to “Things were better yesterday.” That’s been a theme of my books “The Better Angels of our Nature” and “Enlightenment Now,” where I explain how people mistakenly think, for example, that war and poverty have increased, when the data show otherwise. As Franklin Pierce Adams said, “The best explanation for the good old days is a bad memory.” In the case of irrationality, conspiracy theorizing is probably as old as language. In past centuries, for example, we had the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Illuminati. One longitudinal study of letters to the editor found no change in the prevalence of conspiratorial ideas in more than a century.
Likewise with belief in the paranormal: Many religions are based on miracles and other paranormal phenomena, and the scriptures reporting them were the original fake news. Before we had social media, we had supermarket tabloids, with sightings of Elvis and babies born talking, and we had urban legends, like the hippie babysitter and alligators in the sewers. Whether there’s been an uptick in recent years with the rise of social media is harder to tell.
There certainly has been an increase in rationality inequality. At the top end, we’ve never been more rational, with developments like effective altruism, evidence-based medicine, data-driven policing, Moneyball in sports. But at the bottom end, there has been a proliferation of nonsense, easily transmitted through social media.
GAZETTE: I am curious about social media, which have been the source of misinformation, as have certain news outlets. How can we use technology to instead help us think or act more rationally?
PINKER: We don’t yet know the answer because social media are so new. It’s too easy to blame social media for certain developments, like the rise of know-nothing populism, that might be more attributable to cable news and AM talk radio. And some features of social media like fake news don’t seem to be major factors in our politics: The studies suggest that it titillates partisans rather than persuading the undecided.
Some developments, to be sure, are almost certainly attributable to social media. Hyperpolarization in politics may be one. Another may be the intimidation of debate and the rise of cancel culture in academia, thanks to the ease of instant demonization and of amassing a shaming mob, as opposed to the slower and more deliberative mechanisms that push back against our irrationality, such as peer review, fact checking, editing, and a reputation for accuracy rather than shareable snark. The friction and slowness in proliferating ideas in the past meant that there were filters and ways of vetting claims for their accuracy rather than proliferating them instantaneously.
GAZETTE: So how can we balance the emotional with the rational in our lives?
PINKER: Emotional reactions like love, rewarding relationships, and an appreciation of beauty are not in opposition to rationality, because rationality is always in pursuit of a goal, and those are clearly worthy goals. When we speak of a tension between rationality and emotion, often what we are referring to is a contrast between immediate and longer-term well-being, like surrendering to impulse or doing what feels good now but knowing it will make you worse off in the long term. There are just goals in different time frames, what economists call discounting the future. Another real tension comes from conflicts between the goals of different people: What’s good for me may not be good for the people I work and deal and live with. There too, we ought to apply our rational faculties to reconcile conflicts among people. That’s what we mean by ethics and politics.
GAZETTE: You dedicated the book to your mother. Why?
PINKER: A lot of academics use “my mother” as a condescending term for “unsophisticated reader” when aiming to attract a broad audience. They’ll say, “Make it simple enough that your mother can understand it.” In my case, my 87-year-old mother, Roslyn Pinker, is not an unsophisticated reader; she’s rational and literate and intellectually sophisticated; she’s just not an academic. I showed her a draft and got her feedback. Making sure she could follow my arguments and understand the explanations was a test of whether my writing was clear and coherent.
There’s also a personal circumstance. When the pandemic began and she was confined to her home, as we all were, it intensified our long-distance interactions, and I think we grew closer while I was working on the book.