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Steven Pinker and His New Book: 'Rationality'

An interview from The Eminents series looks at critical thinking and bias.

Key points

  • It's important to control our "myside bias."
  • Beware of "bias bias" or thinking that everyone is biased except you.
  • The tools of rationality should be an important part of the curriculum.
  • Universities need to be more transparent about students' prospects for employment.
 Rose Lincoln/Wikimedia, CC 3.0
Author Steven Pinker.
Source: Rose Lincoln/Wikimedia, CC 3.0

Steven Pinker has done a lot of thinking about thinking, which is the subject of his latest book, Rationality.

Pinker is the Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard. He is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Humanist of the Year, a recipient of nine honorary doctorates, and one of Foreign Policy’s World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals and TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the World Today.

Marty Nemko (MN): You wrote that training people on critical thinking has produced limited results. Beyond reading your book, do you have any suggestions for the average person who wants to be more rational?

Steven Pinker (SP): Be aware of overconfidence. Think twice about your biases, especially the powerful myside bias: the tendency to ratify your political sect’s wisdom. Avoid guilt by association. Look critically at your side’s sacred beliefs. Changing your mind can be a good thing. In short, don't be guilty of the bias bias: thinking that everyone is biased except you.

Expose yourself to the best sources on other sides, for example, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and be prepared to change your mind. Let the evidence free your well-guarded beliefs.

MN: You write that “it would be nice” if people could control their myside bias. That implies that it's difficult. Indeed, there are reasons to keep the bias: It’s comfortable, and it's often expedient to express clarity about one’s core beliefs. How might such people become more fair-minded?

SP: The tools of rationality need to become a larger part of our curriculum. Rationality should be the 4th R: reading, writing, arithmetic, and, critically, rationality. Tools like probability, logic, and critical thinking should be part of every curriculum. Of course, there are only so many hours in the school day, so what might those replace? Trigonometry comes to mind.

As adults, it’s important that people become part of communities that aspire to rationality. They implement checks and balances, including empirical testing, peer reviews, editing, and fact-checking.

MN: Peer review and editing can be an echo chamber. For example, in peer review, the reviewers need to be in the researchers’ microniche and so tend to support each other. Editors at publications to which an author submits tend to be ideological kinsmen, rejecting opposing thoughts.

SP: Don't I know it! We should improve those processes.

MN: You write, “Legislatures are largely populated by lawyers, whose professional goal is victory rather than truth.” How might you counter that?

SP: We would do well to get more scientists in Congress. At least, in theory, they are more committed to getting to the truth than to winning.

MN: Part of the problem is our electoral system, which requires a four-year press-the-flesh fundraising campaign followed by another one. That deters some of our best people from running. I believe we’d be better off if campaigns were briefer and 100 percent publicly funded.

Anyway, moving on, you assert that society’s mind-molding vehicles—the schools, colleges, and news sources—are often polemical, biased, rather than rational. What’s your advice on how the public can sift through that?

SP: The schools themselves should cultivate a reputation for open-mindedness and objectivity rather than pursuing moral crusades. Also, university administrators need to get pushback from organizations committed to liberalism and freedom of inquiry, so they don’t just cave in to wokest protesters that make life most miserable for them, organizations like Heterodox Academy and Academic Freedom Alliance.

MN: To a list of broad-thinking entitles, I’d add Debate2, which posts debates on key issues. Each side is represented by two world-class thinkers.

Onto another topic: You write, "In policy, medicine, policing, and other specialties, evidence-based evaluation should be a mainstream, not a niche, practice." But isn't there a place for professional judgment?

SP: There is, but we should be aware of the limitations of overriding a good algorithm. Psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman and Cass Sunstein among many others have found that in most competitions between human and actuarial formulas, the formula does better.

MN: You extol inference-drawing, for example, in describing the hunting practices of the San, a culture that has survived in the desert for millennia. But when police draw inferences about likely suspects to prevent crime, it’s called profiling. How should we address the tension between discernment and racism?

SP: Philip Tetlock describes this problem as forbidden base rates. If a person considers religion, race, etc. to make a judgment, s/he feels dirty and penitent. It isn’t unreasonable—we really shouldn’t use race and religion to prejudge people in contexts like the criminal justice system. Some decrease in the prediction of crime is an acceptable price in the service of other goals, for example, gaining the community's trust in the fairness of the system and not perpetuating historical injustices by self-fulfilling prophecies. And there’s the Blackstone Principle: that it's better that 10 guilty people go free than that one innocent get convicted.

MN: If a student hasn't demonstrated the potential to be a luminary like Steven Pinker, is it rational to pursue an academic career today? After all, there are few full-time, benefited tenure-track positions. Even in industry, a job opening often gets many Ph.D.-toting applicants.

SP: It's a big problem. Universities need to be more transparent about employment prospects. Part of the problem is that universities have a conflict of interest: They enjoy inexpensive graduate student assistants and, increasingly, postdoctoral fellows who do the lion’s share of the work in biology.

Students, armed with these data, should make their life choices wisely: Instead of just prolonging the pleasant life of a student by going to grad school, they should think seriously about where that track in life will take them. That said, people can play the odds and take a chance as I did during the academic job recession of the 70s, as long as the decision is informed.

MN: What’s next for Steven Pinker?

SP: I’m working on a book about common knowledge: knowing that everyone knows something, and how it explains civility, hypocrisy, and taboo.

I read this aloud on YouTube.


Previous installments in this series include another interview on rationality, this one with Nobel Prize winner Robert Schiller. Others include physicist Michio Kaku on the psychology of scientific advancement, on parenting with T. Berry Brazelton, on human behavioral genetics with Harvard's George Church, David Elkind on the hurried child. and on depression with Thomas Insel, Director of the National Institutes of Mental Health.

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