Steven PINKER: For most of human history, there are whole spheres where we just don’t really insist on knowing what’s true or what’s false. We want morally uplifting, dramatically compelling narratives. Given that our species has transformed the world and discovered the secrets of life and the universe, built amazing things — how do we do it, despite these cognitive infirmities? And how can we make ourselves smarter?
I first met Steve Pinker 15 years ago and I had one lunch with him and it was such a fabulous conversation that I’ve been thinking about that lunch ever since. He’s an amazing thinker. He is a Harvard psychologist. He’s the kind of person who can bring insight to any subject that comes up. And I’d say my favorite research is the work he’s done just documenting the amazing progress that humankind has created over the last 200 years. And I know it doesn’t feel like it right now — we’re in the middle of the Covid doldrums — but I think it’s important that we keep in mind that we are on a positive track, even though right now is not the best time.
Steven LEVITT: Wow. Such a pleasure to get to talk today with Steven Pinker, not only one of the most widely admired public intellectuals, but also a pathbreaking linguist and a brain scientist. So, I’ve met a lot of brilliant people, but what makes you seem really special to me is that it’s so rare in brilliant people to have any common sense. Would you agree with me that common sense is one of your best attributes?
PINKER: I’m probably not the person to judge. I know from my own field of psychology that we are all apt to overestimate our talents. If I were to say I had a lot of common sense, that would probably not be an exercise of common sense.
LEVITT: Here’s what I mean by common sense. So, you’ve had this academic career and you do super-complicated linguistic things. And yet, you’ve come to write these incredibly readable books that are loaded with really simple statistics and sensible logic that just — it’s really hard to disagree with your conclusions. So, let’s just take an example. Your latest book is Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Could you just give us the one-minute version of that book for people who haven’t read it?
PINKER: Yes. It argues that we ought to deal with our problems by increasing our knowledge, trying to figure out how the world works through the use of reason and what I consider to be simply the application of reason to the physical world, namely science, that we should do so with the goal of making as many people as well-off as possible, and that if we do that, we can succeed. Namely, progress is a fact. It comes about as the result of people applying their ingenuity to reduce human suffering and increase human flourishing — supported by data suggesting that progress actually has taken place. Our lives are longer and healthier and richer and better educated and happier than they were in the past.
LEVITT: So, I have to say, while I agree with literally every sentence in that book, I personally never would have written such a book because it seems so completely, totally, obviously true. I mean, any economist in the world would tell you that that’s true. But clearly, people don’t seem to know these facts and don’t seem to understand. I know you’ve had a lot of people disagree. And what do they even disagree with, do you think?
PINKER: It is interesting that economists, for all of the clichés about the dismal profession, do tend to have a more positive view because they are aware of one of the greatest facts in human history, namely that prosperity has skyrocketed since the Industrial Revolution. And the data-oriented mindset leads economists, like many data-oriented people, to have a different view of the world than you get from journalism.
And I think there’s a systematic reason why, and that is that journalism presents a systematically biased sample of world experience, namely by covering things that happen, especially things that happen suddenly. There’s a built-in bias to cover things that go wrong because things can fall apart very, very quickly.
Whereas improvement creeps up a few percentage points a year, which can then compound and transform our lives. But there’s never a Thursday in October in which it happened suddenly. So, you never read about it. But you do read about all the wars and the pandemics and the riots and the terrorist attacks. So, unless you are nerdy enough to get your view of the world from graphs and data, you can miss the spectacular improvements that have taken place.
LEVITT: So, I can understand how someone would disagree with you before they’ve read your book because they’re biased by the media. But what surprises me is that some people are still not convinced by your book, even after they read it. Because I know there’s a lot of noise around your book from both the left and the right, both find all sorts of things they don’t like about it. But reading it, I’m not sure what they complain about.
PINKER: Indeed, and of course, the left and the right both have grievances about modern institutions. The grievances differ. But for those on the hard left who believe that the modern neo-liberal establishment is fundamentally corrupt, to say that, well, things are better than they were 30 years ago or 100 years ago or 150 years ago is a kind of heresy.
In parallel, there are big currents in the right that believe the Enlightenment was a terrible mistake. We were better off when we submitted to an authority higher than ourselves, mainly the church, but established social norms and institutions like the monarchy and the class system. So, there’s an ideologized pessimism on both sides.
LEVITT: So, you are an optimist and you focus on progress. And yet, you’re clearly very thoughtful about the fact that most people, most of the time, don’t make much sense and suffer from all sorts of psychological biases that people think about. So, I know you’re interested in rationality. What’s your global take on rationality?
PINKER: Yes, I just completed a general education course at Harvard on rationality, which covered the tools of rationality that I tend to think that all educated people should command. Any educated person should know what Bayesian reasoning is, or Statistical Decision Theory, namely making a decision under uncertainty in a way that trades off the harm of false alarms with the harm of misses. Or how to tell correlation from causation, how to avoid logical fallacies and critical thinking fallacies.
And so the question at the intersection of economics and psychology is: in what ways are people rational and in what ways are they not so rational? it poses an interesting scientific question of, given that our species has transformed the world and discovered the secrets of life and the universe, built amazing things, how do we do it despite all of these cognitive infirmities? And how can we make ourselves smarter?
LEVITT: So, that sounds great. The question I have is: why does someone have to go to Harvard to get that class? It seems like we should teach a class like that in public high schools. I mean, you’ve actually hit on one of my pet peeves, which is how silly the math we teach to teenagers is when there’s so much interesting, valuable knowledge about whether it’s Bayesian calculations or about the kind of simple data you use so effectively in your books.
PINKER: Yes. I couldn’t agree more. And I do believe that it should be part of the high-school curriculum. I don’t know if they still teach trigonometry. I loved trigonometry. But you can’t teach everything. There are only so many hours in the day. And if it’s a choice between trigonometry and say, Bayesian reasoning or conditional probability, it’s just obvious what kinds of mathematics have the greatest impact, both on our responsibilities as citizens and the decisions that we make in our everyday lives.
LEVITT: So, I suspect you have a prodigious memory. I’m going to give you a little quiz. Do you remember what I think is the only time we ever met?
PINKER: My memory is not what it used to be. I know that we have met. And you’re going to have to fill me in.
LEVITT: O.K. Yeah. We met once in 2005, and we had lunch.
PINKER: Oh, yes. So, that was at TED in— was it in England?
LEVITT: In Oxford, yeah. And I remember those days particularly vividly because it was one of the most traumatizing academic moments of my life. So, I had given a TED talk previously that had gone very, very well. And everybody loved and I thought I was such a great speaker. I was invited to do this second TED talk and I had five-year-old children at the time. So, I decided that the right way to give my TED talk would be as a fable.
So, I told a fable about car seats and I actually don’t think it was as terrible as it went. But what really set me up for the ultimate failure is that the speaker right before me was Richard Dawkins, and he gave the most amazing 18-minute talk about the entire universe, on his own home turf, to an audience that erupted with joy and applause.
And I sat in the audience and I said, “Wait, you actually expect me to go up directly onstage now after he did that and tell my little fable?” And I, honestly, wanted to sneak out of the room and never come back. But I dutifully got up onstage and to complete and utter silence for 18 minutes, I spoke, and I got off the stage and I’ve been trying to forget those 18 minutes ever since. It was really maybe the most awful speaking experience I’ve ever had.
PINKER: I have a similar experience at a different TED. I had to speak after Hans Rosling, who later became a hero of mine as one of the people documenting human progress with creative graphics. But not only did he present just eye-dazzling animated graphics on human progress, but he ended his talk by swallowing a sword. He really swallowed a sword. That, too, was a, as they say, a tough act to follow.
LEVITT: So, one of the areas you talk about is the environment and I think people are extremely pessimistic about the environment. And yet, I think you offer one of the most even-keeled, thoughtful discussions of our current climate situation that I’ve heard in a long time. Could you share that with us?
PINKER: Yeah. So, it begins with acknowledging the scientific near-consensus that the climate is warming, that human activity is the cause, and that things could get not only worse, but much, much worse if we fail to mitigate ongoing climate change. The reason that climate change has occurred is that it’s an undesirable byproduct of something that is desirable, namely the capture of energy which allowed large parts of the world to become richer.
And the advantages that we enjoyed from burning fossil fuels, starting with the Industrial Revolution, the rest of the world is not going to forego, particularly China, India, Indonesia — big, populous countries that are getting their first taste of affluence and are just not going to go back to poverty. And the way out of poverty is the capture of energy.
So, given that reality, given our existential situation of capturing energy or being miserably impoverished, it looks to the development of carbon-free energy, which I argue should not be completely equated with renewables like solar and wind, because there is no energy economy that’s scalable that can rely on solar and wind alone. Although, that could change in the future if we have massive capacity for energy storage. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon.
It advocates nuclear power being in the mix because it is — contrary to many people’s impressions — it’s probably the safest source of energy, that despite the highly publicized disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima, those numbers pale in comparison to the number of people that are killed day in, day out by coal, by both accidents in mining and transport, and the disease burden from particulate matter that’s emitted when coal is burned.
And that the problem of storing nuclear waste is a problem, but it’s actually a much more tractable problem than the massive waste that comes from coal mining and burning, to say nothing of the fact that solar panels have a finite life, just like your iPhone. You have to replace it after a few years. We’re going to have massive quantities of rare earths and glass and silicon and metal to deal with.
LEVITT: It really is amazing that the world turned so forcibly against nuclear power exactly at the time when climate change was becoming such a force. Germany being a great example of a very green country that did away with nuclear in order to, in the short term, import dirty coal from the United States. It’s really puzzling, isn’t it?
PINKER: Well, to a psychologist it’s not, because all the things that distort our assessment of risk, such as highly salient, newsworthy examples, intuitions of contamination, the desire to completely eliminate one danger as opposed to reducing the aggregate danger from all risks combined, all of these are a perfect storm that turned the world away from nuclear, probably starting with Three Mile Island in 1979.
I know a celebrity who blames climate change on Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, and The Doobie Brothers for their excellent concert film, No Nukes, that turned the baby boomer generation against nuclear. And Joshua Goldstein and I argue that the Millennials and Generation Z should reject the baby boomer consensus and form their own climate policy that’s more in touch with the statistical reality.
But anyway, just to complete the thought, because you asked me about climate change. So, I think part of it has to be technological, not just the adoption of every energy technology that provides abundant, scalable energy without carbon emissions, but better still, the development of new technologies.
And the great thing about technological solutions to climate change is that they can’t be reversed by populist presidents. So, we can have a president that withdraws from the Paris Accord, but you can’t have a president that undoes a technological discovery. Moreover, if there’s a technology that makes clean energy cheaper than dirty energy, then no one has to be persuaded. It’s not politicized.
LEVITT: Absolutely. And the other side of the equation is: how do we take the carbon that’s there out of the air, or in other ways through engineering to figure out how to cool the earth? And I believe deeply in markets and I think they work well. But it seems to me there’s a complete failure of our market right now in that dimension.
So, there are, I don’t know, a dozen, 30 entrepreneurial scientists who are jealously guarding their intellectual capital and working independently to try to come up with a solution that will work out carbon capture. And they’ll be able to capture, themselves, all of the money that comes with solving that problem.
But in an existential crisis like climate change, it seems like a terrible model for science. It seems like something much more like the Manhattan Project, where we gather the top 300 scientists in the world together and encourage them, incentivize them, to work collectively would be a better model. What do you think of that proposal?
PINKER: I couldn’t agree more. It’s just in the nature of markets that they don’t work miracles. You can be a completely committed acknowledger of the benefits of markets and say, “Well, but there are certain things that only governments can do.” And I agree, this is one of them.
LEVITT: Yeah, or not even governments. I’ve kind of given up on the U.S. government right now, but I’ve pitched three or four of the richest people in the United States on this idea, and every one of them was intrigued. But not one of them was willing to pull the trigger. They have the kind of resources where they can determine how to solve public-goods problems. That seemed to me the path of least resistance.
PINKER: That’s very interesting. But I agree, even though there’s a huge backlash now against billionaire philanthropists — there are a number of bestsellers saying, “Well, government should do it,” — but the problem with a democracy is that when it works, the people get what they want. And the people don’t always want what’s best for the planet, at least not all at the same time, not all right now. And a democratically responsive government may not have the freedom to experiment, to take chances, to develop not-so-popular options.
LEVITT: So, let’s change gears. One thing I hadn’t expected from you reading your books was how funny you can be when you turn your attention to being funny. I think a great example comes from another one of your books called The Better Angels of Our Nature, which argues that violence has greatly decreased over time. And that doesn’t strike me as being a very funny topic. But your synopsis of the Old Testament in that book made me laugh so hard that I could barely breathe.
PINKER: Yeah, not everyone found that passage so funny. But, yeah, what I simply did was I went through the major stories of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and I just described them pretty factually. I had intended this as kind of a sanity check because I’m making the argument that violence has declined over the course of history, I just wanted to remind people of how violent earlier times were. And the Hebrew Bible is a fine example.
So, I told the story of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, pretty much sticking to the King James translation. “Cain talked with Abel, his brother, and it came to pass when they were in the field that Cain rose up against Abel and slew him.” With the world population of exactly four, that works out to a homicide rate of 25 percent, which is about a thousand times higher than the equivalent rates in Western countries today. I then talked about the first of many genocides in the Bible, the Noachian flood, the binding of Isaac, the selling of Dinah, Jacob’s daughter in marriage after —
LEVITT: Can you tell the Dinah story? I love the Dinah story.
PINKER: Yes. Isaac’s son, Jacob, has a daughter, Dinah. Dinah is kidnaped and raped, apparently a customary form of courtship at the time since the rapist’s family then offers to purchase her from her own family as a wife for the rapist. Dinah’s brothers explain that an important moral principle stands in the way of this transaction. The rapist is uncircumcised. So, they make a counteroffer. If all the men in the rapist’s hometown cut off their foreskins, Dinah will be theirs.
While the men are incapacitated with bleeding penises, the brothers invade the city, plunder, and destroy it, massacre the men, and carry off the women and children. When Jacob worries that neighboring tribes may attack them in revenge, his sons explain that it was worth the risk. “Should our sister be treated like a whore?” Soon afterward, they reiterate their commitment to family values by selling their brother Joseph into slavery.
I mean, funny or not funny. And I grew up with the idea that historically the Hebrew Bible was what first introduced morality to the world. When I read some of the passages as an adult, it’s horrifying. And that’s what’s in the Old Testament. It made me realize that for all of the pageantry, the community, the beauty of religious observance, it’s a big mistake to think of the Bible as the source of our moral values.
LEVITT: It’s really interesting. I had never read the Bible. I was raised completely non-religiously, until maybe three months ago, the first time I ever opened up the Old Testament. And I was shocked. I mean, I didn’t see it even as clearly as you lay it out here. But it was really surprising to me the role of vengeance and how often humans fail. It was really surprising, and it jibed so well with what you just described as your interpretation and your caveats.
PINKER: Yes. I mean, the God of the Old Testament basically works by the moral code of the Corleones, namely, you do something that insults me and I’ll murder you and your family. Blood revenge was the highest moral value. Now, I mean, this is not to cast aspersions on Jews and Christians today. Quite the opposite. The point is that we have progressed, but we view it, fortunately, through modern eyes. There’s a kind of benign hypocrisy where we say we believe it but thank goodness we don’t.
And this actually connects to a theme that I’ve been pondering more recently. We as humans have two modes of believing things. There’s the things that impinge on our everyday lives, a world of fact and falsehood where we really do have a commitment to truth. We really do want to know exactly what’s happened. But for most of human history and still today, there are whole spheres where we just don’t really insist on knowing what’s true or what’s false. We want morally uplifting narratives and dramatically compelling narratives.
LEVITT: And the Enlightenment, I think you’d argue, was the point where truth became important, even if it wasn’t the truth about whether your crop is going to grow or not, but a broader truth. Would you agree that it’s essentially one of the most important features of the Enlightenment?
PINKER: Absolutely, that’s right, and before it, the scientific revolution, that it’s not just how to grow crops, how to keep kids out of danger, but it’s also: what’s happening halfway around the world? What happened thousands of years ago? What’s going to happen thousands of years from now? Where the same attitude that we take to our everyday lives, we should apply to everything.
But one can understand why that’s such a recent and exotic mindset. For most of human history, we had no way of knowing what happened. You could believe anything you want. An educated person before the scientific revolution could very well believe that there are unicorns and werewolves, that comets and eclipses are portents of the future, that a dead man will bleed in the presence of a murder weapon or a murderer, beliefs that now we think of as primitive, superstitious, magical, but they were the conventional understanding of the day.
But once there is science, once there is journalism, once there is scholarship, once there is history, then you can expand the domain of the real into realms where common sense didn’t have a place for it.
LEVITT: It’s a great reminder about how difficult it is for individuals to learn the truth. So, we benefit enormously, of course, from the brilliant scholars who came before us.
PINKER: Yeah, indeed. And that revelation, that our everyday experience is not a reliable guide to the ultimate nature of reality, is a major transition in thought.
LEVITT: So, you’ve exhibited a lot of intellectual bravery over your career. You’ve been willing to stand up for the things you believe to be true and you’ve been willing to do it in situations where there seems honestly, to an outsider, to be very little for you to gain.
I think that the one that comes to mind to me is when Larry Summers had made comments about women in math and whether those were true or false, looking at the situation, it would seem to make a lot of sense to keep your mouth shut because it was only going to get you in trouble, but you were willing to talk. Can you tell me a little bit about your logic in that setting and why you came forward?
PINKER: I think sometimes to my own retroactive surprise, I seem to have a taste for controversy because I’m not a confrontational person. I’m a polite Canadian. I like to get along. But in my professional career, I’ve often jumped into controversies, not necessarily political ones, but ones within my own field. I was involved in the imagery debate of the 70s and 80s — that is: are mental images more like pictures or more like sentences? The debate over what is or isn’t innate in language that allows kids to acquire their mother tongue, involving Noam Chomsky and his critics.
So, I do have a taste for the areas that are still under dispute where I like to think that I have a contribution to make in clarifying things, sometimes by taking positions that are not the consensus. But I manage my controversy portfolio carefully. Lots of people say, “Will you blurb my book with this outrageous opinion or that hot button?” And no, I don’t just sign onto any old controversy.
And in the case of Larry Summers, part of it was that he based some of his arguments on a chapter in one of my books, a chapter called “Gender” in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. So, I felt I already had a dog in that fight. Also, it offended me the way in which Summers was distorted by highly intelligent people. He made a statistical argument that the variance among male abilities was greater than the variance among female abilities in spatial cognition so that you had a higher percentage of men at the high end and at the low end, even if the means were the same, and even if there were at any given level of ability, you obviously have both men and women.
That was turned into “women can’t do math” by some professors of science who clearly had no particular interest in accurate citation but wanted to get people riled up. It does not mean that every man is better at spatial ability than every woman. There are lots and lots of women who are better than the average man. And conversely, women are on average better at verbal fluency and arithmetic calculation than men.
Still, that doesn’t mean that every woman is better than every man. There are many men who are better than the average woman. It’s symmetrical. Just that — it did offend me that that basic way of just thinking about exceptions versus central tendencies was expunged from this debate in the service of moral outrage.
LEVITT: Do you care whether people are convinced by the arguments you make?
PINKER: I do in the sense that I think it is part of intellectual responsibility. We all want to find the truth. The only route to knowledge is to propose hypotheses and see if they withstand attempts to falsify them. That’s the way science works. That’s the way knowledge works. It’s good to be controversial in the sense of proposing a hypothesis that people can evaluate, that if it’s true, it lends insight. No guarantee as to which ones are going to be true.
And I make an argument, because I think that it’s, to the best of my judgment, true and explanatory. That is, it gives us insight. It allows us to think clearly about something. And of course, I know I might be wrong. But if I don’t persuade people, there’s a sense in which I haven’t done my job, even though I know I won’t persuade people.
LEVITT: My old mentor, Gary Becker, thinking back to a situation where I was caught in the crosshairs of moral outrage — I think it had to do with climate change. But I can’t even remember the particular details. And he pulled me into his office, and he said, “I’m so jealous of you.” And I said, “Why are you jealous?” He said, “All these people are so mad at you. Everyone’s furious at you. You’re getting all this attention. The only thing I hate — I hate to be ignored. Being ignored is the worst.”
PINKER: My literary agent said something similar to me. Now, of course, you don’t just want to rile people up. You really want to make a case for something where you think the evidence points.
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LEVITT: So, I’ve read a few of your academic linguistics papers. And let me just say I found them pretty inscrutable. I would not have predicted 20 years later you would be writing a stream of best-selling books. And I know that’s part of linguistics. It’s not your fault. But I’m curious: why are languages so complicated? Do languages have to be as complicated as they are?
PINKER: So, language does have a lot of complexity because it’s the way we express complex thoughts. And that’s what it evolved and historically developed to do, that’s what you and I are doing right now. I mean, these are complicated thoughts, and you and I are just going, “Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah.” We’re making noise with our mouths. And if we succeed, people are thinking those thoughts, too. That’s amazing.
LEVITT: Absolutely. O.K., I’ll give you that. Let me talk about a different level of complexity, though. So, for instance, you’ve studied irregular verbs. Why are there irregular verbs? What is the point of a verb being irregular? Or take a language like German, where you have genders going with nouns that have nothing to do with anything. Do you have an understanding of why that complexity exists in language?
PINKER: It’s a profound question. Here’s my best stab at it. There are really two components to language, just as there are two components to computation. One of them is memory. There are just a lot of things that you just commit to rote. And that includes our vocabulary. We know on the order of tens of thousands of words and each one of them is as arbitrary as a phone number. There’s just no way you could know that dog means dog as opposed to a zebra other than the fact that you memorized it as a child.
But then there’s also algorithms. There are rules for combining words so that we can express new combinations of ideas, things that have never occurred to anyone. And that’s what gives language its power. We don’t have to just regurgitate the same ideas over and over again. We can share new discoveries, new insights, new stories.
And here’s the third part of the explanation, which is that a language has to be shared for it to be useful. If I spoke a beautifully expressive language and I was the only person who spoke it, I may as well not know it at all, it would be useless. So, we’ve got to share the code within the community so that what one person says, another person can understand. And it’s not like a computer programming language, where someone sets down the rules. It’s a Wiki that develops historically, that’s picked up by exposure, always with some probability that something will be forgotten in a given generation, that it would be misunderstood, misanalysed.
So, those are the three ingredients. You’ve got memory, you’ve got rules, and you’ve got community sharing and historical transmission. You put them together and things that start off nice and tidy and neat and rule-governed can then, people distort them, as they play broken telephone, things can get complicated and exceptions pile up and you memorize the exceptions.
LEVITT: So, you think that languages go from simple to complicated. I had the impression the opposite was true.
PINKER: Both happen, which would resolve the paradox. And I think you’re correct in noting that — that if it was just simple to complex, then it would just get more and more and more and more complicated. And parts of languages do and then they sometimes collapse into simplicity. And then in other parts of the language, the exceptions accumulate. The conditions proliferate often until that reaches a breaking point. So, it’s a random walk.
In English, we have a very primitive gender and even more primitive case. We only have the distinction between, say, he and him and I and me in the case system. Other languages, you’ve got to memorize a dozen cases and a lot of them have exceptions. On the other hand, English has a pretty complicated set of rules for asking a question. We make things really complicated in one part of the language, even as we simplify another part.
LEVITT: English is becoming the world language. Is it well-suited for that task or would other languages do better?
PINKER: Yeah, I think one of the misconceptions about languages is that some languages are inherently more suited for being a lingua franca in some domain than others, and that’s why they become influential. German was originally the language of science and French the language of diplomacy.
And the major factor is history and politics. English is the world’s dominant language because originally the sun never set on the British Empire. And then the United States after World War II just became the powerhouse of culture and technology and business. And whatever language the dominant empire speaks, everyone learns.
LEVITT: So English is winning in some sense, but is there a consensus among linguists about the language that if it could be the lingua franca would be the best language to be a global language? I mean, is it Esperanto?
PINKER: No, it isn’t Esperanto, although it might be, partly because in the design of any language, there are tradeoffs. And one of the reasons that you can’t have a perfect language is that there’s no single criterion of perfection. An obvious example is the tradeoff between speakers and hearers. So, from the point of view of a hearer, every syllable should be perfectly articulated so that there’s no chance of misunderstanding. On the other hand, from the point of the speaker, you wanna get your words out as quickly as possible and not have your tongue do too many gymnastics. They’re in conflict. They can’t both be happy all the time.
And a lot of the history of language, the reason that we don’t sound like Shakespeare and Shakespeare didn’t sound like Chaucer, is that people are always slurring some parts of language and then sometimes it goes viral and that distinction gets lost as everyone slurs it in the same way. That’s one of the reasons why we have so many silent letters in English. They weren’t always silent. Nightingale used to be “nig-ha-tin-gah-leh.” That’s why we have the G-H. That’s why we have the E at the end. But it became too much of a tongue twister and lazy speakers won the day. Spelling didn’t keep up. We’ve got all this crazy English spelling.
On the other hand, if you just become a nation of mumblers, then no one will understand what you’re saying. And so some distinctions get exaggerated and embroidered. But since no one is in charge, no one’s deciding what is the perfect tradeoff, then you’ve got this constant churning, this constant motion. So, no language can be perfect from the point of view of both speakers and hearers.
LEVITT: That’s really interesting. I never thought about that. Here’s a different kind of question, and I don’t know if you know the answer to it or not. So, there is a point in child development where I think kids can think and I think they understand much of what they see around them. But my sense is they have very limited language capabilities. And I’m interested to know what the state of thought is about the ability to think in the absence of words, if that makes any sense.
PINKER: Oh, absolutely makes sense — an utterly profound observation and it’s one of the biggest, most important refutations of the idea that all thought consists of language. For one thing, we know from experiments that pre-linguistic infants do have often a sophisticated understanding of cause and effect, of personal agency, of persistence of objects. Because when you think about it, how could a child acquire a language if they couldn’t think until they had the language?
And I have long maintained that the way that language learning works in kids is that they’re not just cryptographers. It’s not just that they’re hearing a stream of sound and they look for statistical patterns, but they’re always correlating the sounds with content, with meaning — that is, they’re shrewd enough to have a reasonable guess as to what the speaker meant when they said something. And they correlate their interpretation of the speaker’s intent with the stream of sound coming out of their mouths. And that’s how they crack the code.
LEVITT: Let me end by asking for your advice on learning a language as an adult. Is there anything in your background or research that could help someone like me who say, tried to learn German because my wife is German, do it better?
PINKER: Yeah. You’re right in pointing to adulthood as an impediment. A couple of years ago, I published the most massive study yet with Josh Hartshorne and Josh Tenenbaum, where we capitalized on a language quiz that Josh Hartshorne put online that got two-thirds of a million respondents. And because the demographics of the questionnaire included, “At what age did you begin to speak English and for how long have you been at it?” We were able to dive into the data to answer the question that many people were curious about, is — namely, do kids really have an advantage and how long does it last?
And the answer is they do, but it lasts surprisingly long. With some mathematical modeling, we estimated that the change in the underlying ability to soak up the grammar of a new language only takes place around 17. Now, if you start at 12, you’re at a disadvantage because it takes more than five years to master all the ins and outs of the language. So, you’re only doing it at top capacity for five of the necessary years. But to our own surprise, the window is longer than people think.
Now, what about if you’re older than 17? Well, the window doesn’t shut. There’s a decline. So, it’s still possible. I would say that to make up for the fact that presumably the underlying circuitry isn’t as plastic as it used to be when we were kids, that a number of strategies have to be used. And one of them, of course, is using the language in context, in a conversational situation.
Because this is one of the things I have to confess, that I’m not much of a polyglot myself. I have some French, some Spanish, some Hebrew, but I’m often paralyzed because a lot of my learning was book learning. And then when I’m plunked in a situation and there’s all this social stuff going on, I don’t want to look like an idiot. I don’t want to insult people. I don’t want to condescend.
Lubricating the path to exploring the whole language often depends on these little social rituals that get you going. So, that’s an essential part of it, but also, combined with making up for the decline in underlying fluency and facility by applying intellect, by remembering the irregularities, and by reading and developing conscious rules to help make up for the fact that it doesn’t come as naturally as when we were kids.
LEVITT: Yeah, with German — I’ve tried quite hard on German and I’ve become a pretty good reader. I read at maybe the eighth-grade level in German, but I speak like a three-year-old, which is really embarrassing when I’m in public settings.
PINKER: As Mark Twain said, there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it. I don’t know if you’ve read Twain’s essay, “The Horrors of the German Language,” but if you haven’t, it will make you laugh out loud.
LEVITT: Yeah, I have not but I will. German has actually been quite a pleasure for me compared to trying to learn Mandarin. When I adopted two daughters from China, I thought that I should try to learn Mandarin for my trip to China. And again, I worked, for me, pretty hard. I probably spent half an hour a day for six to nine months trying to learn Mandarin. And I went to China and I literally did not understand a word that someone said. And it literally was not understood a single word that I said after that investment.
So I waited three or four years until adopting my next daughter. And I, literally, did not think about Mandarin one second in between until I got on the airplane. And I spent maybe three or four hours and I memorized and practiced three sentences. And I made sure I could say them really, really well. And every single conversation I had in China for the next two weeks, I started by saying the first sentence. And no matter what someone said back to me, I said the second sentence. And no matter what they said back to me, I said the third sentence. And it was the most amazing success in the world.
My sentences were like, “I’m from the United States. This is my daughter. I’m adopting her and bringing her back over.” Those were the gist of my three sentences. And it turned out that people were very happy. I don’t know what they had said to me, but they smiled, and the funniest thing of all was that the Americans who were with me and watched this.
Maybe a week into it, one of them said to me, “God, it’s unbelievable how fluent you are in Chinese. Every time you talk to someone, you can answer their questions and they just understand what you’re saying.” And I never shared with that person that I had literally said the same three sentences in every conversation that I’d had over the two weeks.
PINKER: Oh, that’s a fantastic story. And it does underscore the fact that language is used in a social context and to break the ice, you just have to be able to begin a conversation and act like a competent human. This is above and beyond knowing the rules and the irregularities and so on.
LEVITT: All right, last question. It seems to me you’ve lived a really good life. Do you have advice about living a good life?
PINKER: One is that you’ve got to live a life of a certain amount of benign hypocrisy where you paper over some differences for the sake of peace and harmony. We’ll never get to the ground truth where everyone agrees on everything. Human conflict is inevitable. That is a lesson from evolutionary biology. We don’t all want the same things and that that itself is something to be managed.
Perhaps one other thing is to be grateful for what’s gone right. There’ll always be things that go wrong and to appreciate when things are going right and not always focus on the remaining problems. And to treat problems as things to be solved, never perfectly. But we’ve solved problems in the past collectively, and we ought to apply that to our lives.